How could I not have read Banker to the Poor earlier? But I’m glad I just did—thanks to my daughter’s prompting—almost 12 years after this autobiography of the visionary micro-credit pioneer, Dr. Muhammad Yunus was first published.
Banker to the Poor is a compelling story of many stories of the people Yunus helped escape poverty. They are gripping in what they say about individual resilience.
We are perhaps somewhat inured to reading about typhoons and floods that routinely wash away thousands of nameless, faceless villagers in places like Bangladesh. This memoir gives the poor of Bangladesh names, faces, character and context.
But Yunus also gets beyond their suffering to show how he introduced tiny loans –starting with $27 on impulse from his own pocket which went to relieve the misery of 42 bamboo stool-makers of Jobra. Then, with more purpose and planning, through Grameen, the reality-based, values-driven micro-credit institution he founded, he extended credit to the poor and the illiterate with the full expectation that the loans would be repaid. And they were, at a rate that surpassed the performance of middle-class clients of conventional banks. He operated on the assumption that the poor have skills; they simply lack capital and confidence. Trust in his clients and his own steadfast Islamic faith appear to be the foundation of his vision.
This is not a pious story of charity. It is a brisk, completely businesslike but also deeply felt and values-infused lesson in economics. It is a story about fighting institutional bias and conventional economics to end what Yunus calls “financial apartheid.” The word “dignity” appears frequently throughout this primer on how to truly help the poor, not just fatten the donor and government agencies and bureaucrats purportedly trying to do so. His methods avoid the recurring pattern of aid in which “the nonpoor reap the benefits of all that is done in the name of the poor.”
Unorthodox Economics Could Help Hawaii Too
Yunus explains in the language of a banker who has taken the trouble to really understand his clients’ lives, how, by providing micro-credit, by helping people circumvent the barriers of bureaucracy and collateral requirements, the poor can be enabled to help themselves. Banker to the Poor is his answer to Gordon Geckko’s “Greed is good.” It isn’t. It robs us all of dignity: those who have and those who have not. He reminds us that poverty is to our time what slavery was to an earlier age: an affront to our humanity.
His goal is nothing less than the eradication of poverty through the self-improvements micro-lending makes possible: a roof over everyone’s head, food for all, access to better health, education and opportunities for continued betterment.
“Charity appeases our consciences.” Muhammad Yunus rejects charity for what he calls “social consciousness” but which perhaps should be better called “social justice.” Banker to the Poor offers a path to approaching the problems of poverty everywhere. We should be implementing his approach here in Hawaii. When money is so scarce, should we not fully explore what micro-loans can do to enable self-employment among our poor? Conventional economics, says Yunus, always talks about the creation of salaried jobs. Scant attention is paid to what can be done in small but meaningful ways, with very small sums of money to help people help themselves: to tap what he calls “the unexplored potential of the destitute.”
Recent efforts by the Bangladeshi government to force Yunus out and take over Grameen also attest to the fact that prophets always threaten and therefore are targeted by entrenched interests.
Not Charity, but Justice
Reading Banker to the Poor is a reminder that it is time to think less about “appeasing our consciences” and more about responding to the call to justice that lies at the core of every great faith. Yunus demonstrates that there are business-like ways to do that.
As a Catholic, here’s a thought: let’s re-name Catholic Charities and describe its great work more accurately as “Catholic Justice” instead. It might remind us all that the poor are entitled to not just inherit the kingdom of God but to expect the basic necessities of life in the kingdom here on earth.
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