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Up Close and Personal with Muhammad Yunus

AT times, it is the people who do not intend to engrave their names on stone tablets or in history books that win a meaningful mark in history - not through flamboyance nor notoriety but through the pure intention of improving society.

Prof Muhammad Yunus is one of these characters - humble, charismatic and devoted to an altruistic vision.

Yunus' gift to humanity was to raise those stricken by poverty to a higher social status through microcredit and microfinance - lending money in favour of those who do not have the means to apply for loans under the traditional banking system.

The debtors, by and large village women, used the loans for to run small businesses to feed their families.

The former university professor's first loan was US$27 given out of his own pocket to 42 villagers in 1976, at which point he did not realise how much reaction he would garner from the village.

“When I went back, the people at the village were looking at me as though I've done some miracle. I felt a bit awkward,” he remembers.

Life championing an ideal has not been easy, Yunus admits delving into unprecedented waters and building the path as he went along. He did not comply nor agree with the rules and regulations of the banking system and tried to work around it.

When he proposed the idea of loaning to the poor, the banks scoffed, saying that they already have enough problems with the rich people.

He tried to persuade various banks for months on end to lend him money to then lend out to them. When that did not work, Yunus applied for the loan as a guarantor for the villagers. “The banks thought it was an easy way to get rid of me, so they agreed,” he says.

But as Yunus' efforts began to bear results - the villagers were repaying their loans on time - the banks began to impose more restrictions. Yunus was done with the system by then.

“Why don't I start my own bank? Who are they (The banks) to decide the fate of the people?” he says.

Thus, Grameen Bank, the first microfinance bank in the world came into existence in 1983.

“I would say I specialise in two things: I do little things and I do things which I know nothing about,” he quips, “I don't care whether I know how to do it or not but I jump into it.”

He says working on a blank canvas gave him an advantage. “Because when you don't know anything about it, you can be as daring as you want without being ashamed if it doesn't work.”

In his younger years, Yunus studied at Chittagong College before enrolling in the Department of Economics at Dhaka University in 1953.

While working on his doctorate degree in the United States, he taught economics in the Middle Tennessee University from 1969 to 1972.

Yunus returned to Bangladesh after the country gained independence and joined the University of Chittagong as economics department head where he tested different projects designed to fight poverty.

Making poverty obsolete

Yunus' vehement stance on poverty eradication was ingrained from where he grew up.

He describes the situation back home in those days as dire for the poor and microfinance had been a way out for many. “Loan sharks were making a killing in the village next to the university campus I was teaching at. So I asked, why go to them when you can come to me?”

Yunus sees in his community a problem to be solved, “instead of shedding tears over or writing research papers on”

“I am surrounded by (poverty) and I see there is no reason it should be there. It is not the fault of the people, something went wrong in the system and I'm trying to clean it up so that the people can come out of it.”

He sees poverty as a phenomenon imposed on to the poor, not created by them and has made his mission in life to identify the cause of poverty and assist the poor to be able to afford a living so that they don't have the chance to live in it anymore.

In short, Yunus would like to see poverty become a thing so obsolete it only has a place in museums.

“Then we can create poverty museums, and put poverty there,” he says.

Despite the criticisms and naysayers, Yunus' spirit is not dampened by those who do not share his views. In spearheading a revolutionary vision, he accepts that the old ideas will always clash with the new ones.

Though working against the tidal wave of conventions, he says this is nothing to be worried about because he is certain of his vision.

“If your idea is strong enough, it will overcome those that are weak.” He believes that ideas that are not beneficial or truthful will fade into history naturally.

“If you can continuously prove, on the ground, that you are saying the right thing then the other speculative things cannot survive,” he said, in response to critics' doubt and lack of faith in microfinance.

“They're not on the ground, but are still saying this will work, this will not work. (Microfinancing) is working, so what do you say of that?”

As communities beyond Bangladesh become more receptive of micro-crediting, Yunus has proven that hard work, persistence and a clear conscience will prevail.

“I'm a firm believer in the human being's capacity in overcoming all odds.”

“I don't think all the problems we see around us should be able to survive because of man's creative power - that they can address a problem and solve it if they put their minds to it,” he says of societal, health and environmental issues.

Changing society

Grameen Bank, like the traditional banks, has to find its funds to lend money out. “Just because you are a bank for the poor, doesn't mean you can go into the red.”

He explains that money is generated internally from the deposits and that the individual branches are profitable and self-sufficient in terms of supporting continuous loan-giving. He says that the scenario has changed, with most of the money now belonging to the borrowers and not the bank.

“It's a bank owned by the poor people as about a quarter of the total 2,565 branches have more savings than loans given out. Whatever profit is made goes back to the people.”

Yunus says that the total savings balance of Grameen Bank is now almost US$1bil. “Of the US$1.5bil loans, nearly US$1bil is their own money,” he says, adding that the villagers now keep the money at the bank as a way to manage their funds.

With Grameen Bank proven to be successful, Yunus' effort in creating more opportunities for the poor has also extended to the children of the illiterate villagers who have been with Grameen Bank.

“Here is our opportunity to break the history of illiteracy in these families. We want to make sure the children of these families do not repeat that history. Children need to go to school and we as the bank say, as long as they are with Grameen Bank, they cannot not drop out,” he says.

Yunus says Grameen Bank had encouraged women who loaned from the bank to send their children to school and that has resulted in all of the children from Grameen families being educated.

Although Grameen Bank had initially thought of encouraging children through primary school, many went the distance and completed school. Upon entering tertiary education, Grameen Bank had devised education loans for them to continue studying so nobody could blame poverty as an obstacle.

“There are nearly 1000 students in medical, engineering and other professional courses now but the problem is there are no jobs for them,” Yunus admits that Bangladeshi's youth usually need to bribe or rely on their parents' connections to land a job.

Yunus says the solution to that problem was changing the mindset of the graduates, asking them to pledge that they would not be job seekers but job providers. He believes that, like their parents who have benefited from Grameen Bank's loans, they should also take a leaf out of that chapter of their elders' lives.

“Forget about the job, you are special, privileged kind of children because your mother owns a bank,” he says, reminding the children of their mother's leap of faith when she took on a loan to start a life.

Yunus opines that if illiterate mothers could take a small loan and build a profitable business from it, then children with their education should be able to as well.

And with that, the children have been coming back to Grameen Bank, looking at opportunities to start a business.

Yunus' ideals have come to live within his home country, with many other societies adopting the microfinance concept for the betterment of their people.

Malaysia, too, has its brand of microfinancing facility provided by Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia (AIM) which has been financing women who are not formally employed. Since its inception in 1987, AIM has disbursed about RM7.2bil loans.

“Whether it is poverty, environment or social problems, all these should be removed. That's what the human civilisation is for.”

BORN: June 28, 1940 in Chittagong, Bangladesh

PERSONAL: Married with two daughters

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: PhD in economics from Vanderbilt University, US

CAREER: Former economics professor; Grameen Bank founder

NOTEWORTHY: 2006 Nobel Pe ace Prize, alongside Grameen Bank

Published on: Saturday February 9, 2013