Published on Sunday, December 10, 2006 by the Agence France Presse
Nobel Peace Laureate Dares to Imagine a World without Poverty
by Bill Schiller
In receiving the Nobel Peace prize, micro-credit pioneer Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh will no doubt hammer home the message he has been preaching for 30 years: a world blighted by poverty is a world without peace.
The one-time economics professor stumbled almost by accident onto the formula that has lifted tens of millions out of penury, but the result of his labors has been so extraordinary that today he dares all who will listen to imagine a world without poverty.
And he fully intends to use the Nobel limelight to further his cause.
"The Nobel Peace Prize has made me and Grameen Bank very visible," Yunus told journalists on Saturday, referring to the borrower-owned lending institution he founded that has issued nearly six billion dollars in loans averaging less than 100 dollars each, mostly to women.
"Before, my voice didn't go very far. Today, when I whisper the whole world hears loud and clear."
Shocked into action by a terrible famine while teaching in Bangladesh in 1976, the US-educated Yunus abandoned his textbooks and went into a village near his university to see how he could help.
What he found were resourceful and hard-working villagers victimized by usurious money lenders and trapped into lives of endless drudgery, modern-day serfs held captive by destitution. He was astounded to discover how little was needed for them to break out of this vicious cycle: a measly 27 dollars for 42 people.
When Yunus could not find a bank with enough imagination to launch a lending program for people so poor that they had nothing to offer as collateral, he reached into his pocket and lent the money himself.
Every penny was returned. Indeed, the audited repayment rate over the course of Grameen Bank's history has been 98 percent.
There are, Yunus often points out, more than a billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day, and many of them, he says, could change their lives and their prospects with a little bit of seed capital.
Yunus' concept of tiny, collateral-free loans has already caught on all over the world. Grameen Bank itself is present in dozens of countries, and has been copied by hundreds of other micro-credit lending institutions.
But the concept can still be vastly expanded, and Yunus hopes that the Nobel prize will compel traditional banks to take a closer look at lending methods that turn conventional practices on their head.
"Banks can create special branches -- we have done it, they can do it much better, they are professionals," Yunus said.
But micro-credit is only part of a broader vision in which Yunus sees the development of a kind of socially-conscious capitalism driven by what he calls "social business enterprises," companies that reinvest profits rather than paying out dividends.
He has already pioneered several, which he hopes will motivate established corporations and young entrepreneurs to follow suit.
A partnership with French food giant Danone, for example, produces highly nutritious yogurt at near break-even costs in Bangladesh, while another venture -- with US companies Cisco Systems and Quadcomm -- focuses on providing affordable access to mobile telephony and the Internet.
Indeed, Yunus argues that modern communications technology -- mobile, borderless -- is one of the most powerful tools available for eradicating poverty.
One of Grameen's most successful lending programs has targeted rural women who borrow money to purchase a mobile phone, and then sell telephone services in their village.
There are today over 300,000 of these so-called "telephone ladies" throughout Bangladesh, including four on the 13-member board of directors of the bank. All of them came to Oslo this weekend to share in the glory of their collective achievement.
And so it is that Yunus has a dream -- as did another Nobel Laureate, Martin Luther King -- that no longer seems quite so naive or out of reach.
"One day," he told journalists on Saturday, "the only place we will see poverty is in a poverty museum."
Copyright © 2006 AFP