VISION AND VOICE
It all started thirty years ago. Dr Yunus had just received his PhD in Economics from the US and was teaching his elegant theories of economics at the University of Bangladesh in Dacca. The country was in a state of famiine. A walk outside the classroom used to reveal, all around, the skeleton of people waiting to die. Dr Yunus felt whatever he had learned and was teaching was all make-believe with no meaning for peoples lives. So he started to find out how people lived in the village next door to the university campus. He wanted to find out whether there was anything he could do as a human being to stop the death of even one single person. He abandoned the birds-eye view that lets one see everything from above, from the sky. He assumed a worms-eye view, trying to find whatever comes right in front of him that he can smell and touch, and see if he can do something about it.
One particular incident took him in a new direction. He met a woman who was making bamboo stools. After a long discussion, he found that she made only 2 US pennies a day. He could not believe anyone could work so hard and make such beautiful bamboo stools, and yet make such a tiny amount of profit. She explained to him that because she did not have money to buy the bamboo to make the stools, she had to borrow from the trader – and the trader imposed the condition that she had to sell the product to him alone, at a price he decided.
And that explains the two pennies – she was virtually in bonded labor to this person. And how much did the bamboo cost? She said, Oh, about twenty cents, and twenty-five for a very good one. He thought, People suffer for twenty cents and there is nothing anyone can do about it? He debated whether he should give her twenty cents, but then he came up with another idea – let me make a list of people who need that kind of money. He took a student of his and they went around the village for several days and came up with a list of forty-two such people. When he added up the total amount they needed, he got the biggest shock of his life – it added up to twenty-seven dollars! He felt ashamed of himself for being part of a society which could not provide twenty-seven dollars to forty-two hard-working skilled human beings.
To escape that shame, he took the money out of his pocket and gave it to his student. He said, You take this money and give it to those forty-two people that we met and tell them this is a loan, but they can pay me back whenever they are able to. In the meanwhile they can sell their products wherever they can get a good price.
After receiving the money, they were very excited. Seeing that excitement made him think, What do I do now? He thought of the bank branch which was located on the campus of the university, and he went to the manager and suggested he lend money to the poor people that he had met in the village. He fell from the sky! He said, You are crazy. It is impossible. How could we lend money to poor people? They are not creditworthy. He pleaded with him and said, At least give it a try, find out – it is only a small amount of money. The Manager said, No. Our rules do not permit it. They cannot offer collateral, and such a tiny amount is not worth lending. He suggested that Dr Yunus see the high officials in the banking hierarchy in Bangladesh.
He took this advice and went to the people who matter in the banking section. Everybody told him the same thing. Finally, after several days of running around, Dr Yunus offered himself as a guarantor. I will guarantee the loan, I will sign whatever they want me to sign, and they can give me the money and I will give it to the people I want to give it to.
So that was the beginning. They warned him repeatedly that the poor people who were receive the money will never pay it back. Dr Yuhus said, I will take a chance. And the surprising thing was, they repaid him every penny. He got very excited and came to the Manager and said, Look, they pay back, there is no problem. But the Manager said, Oh no, they are just fooling you. Soon they will take more money and never pay you back. So Dr Yunus gave them more money, and they paid him back. He told this to the Manager, but the Manager said, Well, may be you can do it in one village, but if you do it in two villages, it will not work. And Dr Yunus hurriedly did it in two villages – and it worked.
So it became a kind of struggle between Dr Yunus and the Bank Manager and his colleagues in the highest positions. They kept saying that a larger number, five villages probably, will show it. So he did it in five villages, and it only showed that everybody paid back. Still they did not give up. They said, Ten villages. Fifty villages. One hundred villages. So it became a kind of contest between them and Dr Yunus. Dr Yunus came up with the results they could not deny because it was their money he was giving, but they would not accept it because they are trained to believe that poor people are not reliable. Luckily, Dr Yunus was not trained that way so he could believe whatever he was seeing, as it revealed itself. But the bankers minds and eyes were blinded by the knowledge they had.
Finally, Dr Yunus had a thought, Why am I trying to convince them? I am totally convinced that poor people can take money and pay it back. Why dont we set up a separate bank? That excited him, and he wrote down the proposal and went to the government to get permission to set up a bank. It took him two years to convince the government.
On December 22, 1980, Dr Yunus started an independent bank with a name, Grameen (meaning rural) Bank. Now it works in more than 46, 000 villages in Bangladesh through 1267 branches and over 12,000 staff members. They have lent more than $4.5 billion in loans of twelve to fifteen dollars. They even lend to beggars to help them come out of begging and start selling. A housing loan is $300. These are small numbers to those in business. But think in terms of the individual impact. To lend $500 million annually required 3.7 million people, 96% of whom are women, to make a decision that they could and would take steps to change their lives and the lives of their families; 3.7 million people had to decide that they were capable of creating change; 3.7 million people survived the sleepless nights to show up trembling but committed at the Grameen office the next morning. At the heart of this empowerment lies individual women who chose individually and in synergistic norm-producing groups to become self-reliant, independent entrepreneurs producing goods out of their own homes or neighborhoods or backyards to become economically viable and successful. They found their voices.
Dr Yunus is an example of a man who sensed human need and responded to conscience by applying his talent and passion to meet the need – first personally, then in building trust and searching for creative solutions to problems, and finally by institutionalizing the capacity to fill the needs of society through an organization.
This is one of the great legends of modern society, similar to Gandhis simple but courageous march to Dandi to protest the Raj-imposed tax on salt, a basic commodity that ordinary people needed, which formed the first small step in the great battle for Indias Independence against British colonial rule, and the peoples deep desire for self-government and nationhood.
It shows us how entrenched and limiting are conventional ways of thinking by which the upper echelons of society seek to entrench their privileges and dominant position in society by denigrating the potential of poor people to act as agents of change and improvement in their own lives, simply because they dont have the normal accoutrements of power, such as higher education, wealth and class position.
Bal Thanedar is teaching us all a lesson in humility, so that we can recognize and actively promote the potential to actively improve their lives of even people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and women who suffer deep and insidious gender discrimination – the very people who in the normal course of life are ignored and disparaged by society.
What Dr Yunus provided to improve the lives of the poor rural women of Bangladesh – which was infinitely more important for their ultimate success than the tiny amounts of capital he was dispensing – was precisely those intangible qualities which made the real difference: his belief in their potential; his trust in their abilities; his faith in their significance as equally deserving and capable human beings. It is these intangible qualities that the staid and blinkered bankers failed to acknowledge. What the bourgeois bankers lacked was Dr Yunus vision, and his fundamental trust in and respect for even the poorest of the poor, and their capacity to aspire to the same goals as the rich and privileged.
It is intangibles like respect, love and appreciation for the dignity and self-worth of all peoples and classes that we need to cultivate to make our fellow humans prosper, for their suffering is ultimately our suffering. For this we need the vision to see, as Dr Yunus did, that we are all joined together in one common humanity, and what unites us is far more important than what divides us.