It’s January of this year, and I’m sitting in a dim room in Dhaka, waiting to meet Muhammad Yunus, the rock star of microfinance. Yunus is the founder of the Grameen Bank, the Bangladeshi development success-story that gives small loans to poor women. In recognition of their impact on poverty, Professor Yunus and the bank won the Nobel Prize — for peace not for economics — in 2006. I have been sitting on the eighth floor of the Grameen Tower in Mirpur sipping tea and chatting with other pilgrims — trainee American philanthropists, Indian students and an Austrian lawyer — for three hours.
I’m in Dhaka after recently returning from 10 days in the village of Parila Paba in Rajshahi, in the north west of Bangladesh, where I took the Grameen basic training course.
During that time I met hundreds of Grameen borrowers and learnt what they did with their "little loans" — borrowers like Shagorica whose family has a fish farm, Asya who runs a grocery store, and Malika who looks after a small herd of goats. The Grameen staff taught me everything — from how they calculate interest to how to run a bank without contracts or cards. There are nearly 25,000 staff, all locals who work in the villages day in, day out. The bank now has 8 million borrowers and reports good profits, but despite its phenomenal growth, Grameen remains a manual operation: everyone still has a passbook. After my stint in the villages, seeing how it all worked close up, I went off to see the wizard, Muhammad Yunus.
Among my companions in the waiting room are true believers and naysayers but as the evening haze falls on Dhaka we’re all prepared to wait for the man whose board meeting is now running seriously over time. We get an uncertain update: the professor will see us "soon". Over yet another cup of tea, the Austrian lawyer tells me that the men still hold all the power in villages like Parila Paba. The women, she argues, aren’t really the borrowers. I don’t entirely agree but there’s some truth to this. Bangladeshi villages remain traditional Muslim communities and, as I discovered to my surprise, the women need the permission of their husbands to join the bank!
The borrowers I met were less "entrepreneurs" than money managers and co-workers within the family unit. These women still look after the children, the home, the kitchen garden, and now, the family money. They also seemed to rely on income from their husbands’ jobs to help repay the loans. Shagorica’s husband earned well as a truck driver and Asya’s husband was the village "ear cleaner", of all things, while Malika had been destitute for years after her husband’s death. A woman tailor or artisan here or there are the exceptions. The stories I read on the Grameen website about feisty individual women who build their own businesses and pull themselves and their families out of poverty with only a small loan to help them are more the aspiration than the reality.
Yet the women have come a long way. Every week the borrowers gather in the "centre house" — typically a tin shed in the middle of a village — in groups of 50 to make loan repayments, deposit savings, top up pensions and propose new loans. I suggest to my Austrian friend that having women meet like that in a public place is a huge achievement. After all, this is a world where men still tend to do the shopping because a woman’s place is in the home. Even if the Grameen borrowers are not the entrepreneurs we idealise them to be, they are very different from their mothers, who lived in purdah, were not seen in public and never touched money, let alone borrowed it from a bank.
We’ve been waiting for Muhammad Yunus for four hours now.
My mind drifts back to Rajshahi. There, you are ambushed by abundance: coconut, mango and papaya, potato, rice and eggplant. It is hard not to romanticise especially when compared to conditions here in Dhaka. In the capital, I’m shocked by the mundane forms of extreme poverty: the crush of beggars, the bodies sleeping under tarpaulins, the slums wobbling on bamboo stilts above filthy waterways. In Parila Paba, the houses are basic and vulnerable to floods but most residents have moved from grass and palm huts to mud, tin or even brick. And the schools are full of students. Borrowers’ daughters can be seen walking off to college with their textbooks. Yet, the drift to Dhaka continues as people are drawn in by the promise of jobs and money. Grameen cannot solve all the problems of Bangladesh or anywhere else but it does offer development on a human scale.
The word finally comes: "He’s ready!" Bangladesh is famous for several things, including poverty, corruption, climate refugees, population density and Professor Yunus who’s waiting for us downstairs right now. The man who started a bank not long after the disastrous Bangladeshi War of Independence — which the Bangladeshis say killed 3 million — and in the wake of the cyclones and famines that followed. He’s waiting downstairs. For us!
We hop out of the lift and are ushered into another room. Where is he? Still busy. And so we wait for another half hour on the fourth floor. We’re right outside the office where the decisions are made for the bank whose total assets are now over US$1billion. Most agree that the bank has made a big difference. Its membership has more than doubled since 2003 and the model has been replicated in more than 12 countries, including China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Kosovo, Turkey, Zambia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Haiti. Grameen has also started in America and has a new project planned in Scotland. Even if some say the repayment rates are overstated and the impact of subsidies is understated, it’s a staggering achievement.
Then the door opens to reveal a compact 70-year-old man, tiny, really, with a vast smile. I once brushed James Brown in the beer garden of the Coogee Bay Hotel and felt that tangible charge of the truly charismatic. Well, the Professor trumps the Godfather of Soul — he has the energy of a small planet. Behind all the PR, the 8 million borrowers and 25,000 staff is an organic power cell in a single man.
Yunus knows the photo-op routine. There’s a blur of camera flashes and rushed questions. We’re being squeezed in between meetings. I suggest that we should set something up in Australia and feel like I’m asking Mick Jagger to come over for a jam. "We’ll have to work on that. Let’s do it!" Yunus tells me.
And then it’s over. The door closes on the banker to the poor, the lender to Shagorica, Asya, Malika and millions of others. He started the Grameen Bank by trying to solve a problem and he’s still going strong.
Professor Yunus is in Sydney and Melbourne this week. If you get the chance, meet him.
Muhammad Yunus will be speaking at "The Power of Small" business lunches in Sydney and Melbourne today and tomorrow, and also at a public talk in Sydney this afternoon, and at another in Melbourne tomorrow afternoon.
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