The emaciated villagers of the 1974 Bangladesh famine gnawed at the conscience of a young professor of economics, Muhammad Yunus, recently returned home from the United States. In Tennessee on a Fulbright scholarship, he had earned a PhD at Vanderbilt University and taught economics at Middle Tennessee State University until civil war brought him back to Bangladesh. There the impoverished people he passed daily en route to rural Chittagong University made a mockery of the lofty economics theories he was teaching his students. "Whatever I had learned, whatever I was teaching," he wrote, "was all make-believe; it had no meaning for people's lives." As the famine worsened, he "began to dread the sound of his own lectures." When he realized that a poor woman toiling all day to make beautiful bamboo stools earned the equivalent of only two cents, he was moved to take action.
Yunus remained a professor of economics, but began, with the help of his students, a totally different approach to the poor. He saw that a mere $27.00 could improve the lives of 42 destitute human beings, so he pulled the money from his own pocket and gave birth to the Grameen movement. Yunus's plan was to give microcredit, small loans, to village women so they could earn their living and feed their children. All loans were to be paid back promptly; individual borrowers organized into groups of five for psychological and financial support.
Despite endless difficulties (at first women would not talk to him or allow him into their humble shelters; clerics labeled him an agent of the West, out to subvert Islam; bankers dismissed his unorthodox ideas), the Grameen movement grew gradually and steadily, and in 1976 the Grameen Bank was created. As of February 2006 the bank had 1,861 branches in 62,089 villages in Bangladesh with a staff of 17,336. Since its beginning, the total of loans has reached $5.34 billion with a loan recovery rate of 99 percent. So far this year the number of borrowers has reached almost six million, 96 percent of whom are women. In its entire history, the bank failed to make a profit in only three years: in the 1983 start-up year, and in 1991 and 1992, when borrowers were reeling under the catastrophic effects of the massive cyclone of April 1991. Over the years the Grameen movement has spread to both rich and poor countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, South Africa, and the United States, where the bank makes loans to native Americans and the poor of Chicago and maintains a foundation office in Washington, DC. As the system was developed and refined, micro- borrowers and micro-savers moved into bigger enterprises: fisheries, textiles, and cell phones in Bangladesh. Social and financial services followed with the Grameen Health Program, Grameen Securities Management, and programs for education, retirement, and the elderly-and, for the poorest of the poor-beggars. In establishing the Grameen Bank (Grameen comes from the Bengali word, gram, meaning "rural"), Yunus opposed traditional banking practice and international aid agency programs at every turn, rejecting loans from the World Bank (because the organization would not respect his methodology) and refusing international aid agency training programs (because of his belief that all human beings have an innate skill, and that instead of wasting time teaching the poor new skills, aid-givers should "make maximum use of their existing skills").
Yunus believes firmly in the "integrity, honesty, and creativity of the poor." Attending Grameen meetings all over the world, he realized "how resilient and creative human beings can be when given the chance." To earn the confidence and respect of the poor, Yunus insists that all staffers stay close to the borrowers, one on one, in the very heart of the villages. Grameen workers are immersed in "the Grameen culture and the culture of the poor"; they are taught to appreciate "the unexplored potential of the destitute." Staffers walk or ride bicycles in order not to intimidate the rural borrowers. For Yunus, banks and international agencies are too distant; their "high salaries and cushy benefits tend to dull one's compassion for the poor." The Grameen culture nurtures an atmosphere of "tolerance, diversity, and curiosity," emphasizing problem-solving and political and social awareness.
Muhammad Yunus, more than once recommended for the Nobel Prize for peace or economics, is sometimes criticized for unrealistic idealism. He wants people, especially economists, to change their preconceived notions of the poor: "When the policy makers finally realize that the poor are their partners, rather than bystanders or enemies, we will progress much faster than we do today." Credit, he believes, "should be accepted as a human right"; economists fail to "recognize the powerful socioeconomic implications of credit."
Such views have led Yunus to envision a totally new world order. "Grameen," he writes, "is committed to social objectives: eliminating poverty; providing education, healthcare, and employment opportunities to the poor; achieving gender equality through empowerment of women, ensuring the wellbeing of the elderly. Grameen dreams about a poverty-free, welfare-free world. . .[Yunus] wants to promote social consciousness-driven enterprises to compete with greed-based enterprises." Such a move can promote "a challenging field for all good people who want to pilot the world in the right direction."
Grameen's success has prompted a global microcredit movement. The United Nations declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. Many organizations which in the early years dismissed Professor Yunus's plan as impractically visionary now sponsor microcredit programs of their own. Microcredit has been described as a formidable weapon against poverty, rivaling education, free trade, public health services, and the growth in women's rights in lifting people above the poverty level. Recently the Grameen Foundation opened a regional office in Beirut for the management of all its microfinancing programs in the Middle East and North Africa. For his role in giving microcredit legitimacy, Professor Yunus has received countless prizes from at least 20 different countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. He was awarded Bangladesh's prestigious President's Award in 1978, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his design for the Grameen Bank's Housing Program in 1989; Vanderbilt University's Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1996, and in 2004 several awards for his contributions to social and economic change: the Economist Award for Social and Economic Innovation, the World Affairs Council Award for Extraordinary Contributions to Social Change, and the Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. The Grameen movement has spawned a number of books, and Muhammad Yunus's own autobiography and history of the Grameen Bank, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty (1999, 2003), has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Gujarati, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish.
"Poverty, Yunus wrote, "is the denial of human rights. I see no reason why anyone in the world should be poor."