Friday, November 10, 2006

Millions for Millions


A couple of weeks ago I sent a story about Muhammad Yunus winning the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.  Here is an article from the New Yorker which provides a more in-depth look at what is involved with micro-credit.  You can also read the article online at

This story was referred to me by the pastor of a local Friends Meeting here in Richmond, IN.  Please continue sending items that you think would be of interest to others on the list! 

May we use our money and wealth with intention and for justice!


This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and some high-tech entrepreneurs are competing to provide credit to the world’s poor.
Issue of 2006-10-30
Posted 2006-10-23

Over the Labor Day weekend of 1995, a ponytailed, bearded young software engineer named Pierre Omidyar wrote a code that enabled people to buy and sell items on the Internet. In the first few weeks after the program was introduced, items ranging from a Maxx comic book to a 1952 Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn changed hands. That program eventually became eBay. Not long after the company went public, in 1998, Omidyar’s share of the stock offering was roughly ten billion dollars, and he became the richest thirty-two-year-old in the world. He found the experience slightly unsettling­he told friends that he had never planned to get rich­and he continued driving his Volkswagen Golf. With his wife, Pam, he started a foundation to give away large sums of money, but he was frustrated by the constraints and inefficiencies of the nonprofit world. Omidyar was searching for a way to change things on a grand scale, and, like many other highly successful young West Coast entrepreneurs, he became interested in a field called microfinance, or microcredit. In November, 2004, he and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the co-founders of Google, and other leaders of the high-tech community gathered at the San Francisco home of the venture capitalist John Doerr for a weekend session with Muhammad Yunus, who is considered the godfather of microcredit.

Yunus, a silver-haired man of sixty-six with a round, luminous countenance, is a highly gifted interlocutor between the extremely poor in the developing world and the West, and for years he had been seen as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. (This December, he will go to Oslo to receive it.) During the famine of 1974 in Bangladesh, when the dying lined the doorsteps of the better-off in Dhaka, Yunus, an economics professor at Chittagong University, found the theories he was teaching maddeningly irrelevant; so he went into a neighboring village and began talking to the poor. He experimented with ways of helping them­initially, he lent twenty-seven dollars to a group of forty-two villagers­and before long he became convinced that he had a remedy for their condition: providing very small individual loans to the impoverished to start activities ranging from making bamboo stools to buying a dairy cow. In 1976, after local banks refused his entreaties to make the loans, he resolved to do it himself, and he founded the Grameen Bank.

Yunus is a mesmerizing salesman. In the eighties and early nineties, the Grameen Bank received close to a hundred and fifty million dollars in soft loans and grants; today, funded by savings deposits from borrowers and others, it essentially supports itself. It has disbursed more than $5.3 billion to nearly seven million borrowers who have no collateral; ninety-six per cent of them are groups of women, who meet once a week and, through incentives, help to insure their individual loan repayments. (Traditionally, Third World banks lend only to men. Yunus says that he developed the policy of lending mainly to women not only because they were more responsible about re-paying the loans but because families benefitted more when the women controlled the money.) To cover the high cost of servicing these small loans, borrowers pay interest rates of up to twenty per cent, and Grameen claims that it recovers ninety-eight per cent of the loans. Some of Grameen’s numbers have been challenged, but no one disputes Yunus’s assertion that, contrary to traditional banking doctrine, the poor can be reliable borrowers, even at high rates of interest. These days, Yunus raises money for the Grameen Foundation, a global nonprofit group that supports microcredit institutions around the world. Many are related to the Grameen Bank, but only loosely; Yunus believes in locally designed, run, and controlled institutions.

As microcredit has changed in the past thirty years, achieving broad recognition and even some early commercial success, Yunus has modified his methods, but he has never wavered from his goal. He insists that microcredit can lead to a world in which poverty has been extinguished and that eventually, as he puts it, there will be “poverty museums.” He told his audience at Doerr’s home that more than fifty per cent of the Grameen Bank’s borrowers who have been in the program for more than five years have risen out of poverty, according to a simple measurement system that he himself had devised. (To have graduated from poverty, a family must have, among other things, a house with a tin roof; clean drinking water; a sanitary latrine; warm clothes for winter and mosquito netting for summer; about seventy-five dollars in a savings account; and schooling for the children.)

At lunch, Janet McKinley, a Grameen Foundation donor who used to run a major mutual fund and retired at the age of forty-nine to concentrate on microfinance, told the group that in 1995 she had visited a small program run by the Vietnam Women’s Union, and saw how a loan of twenty dollars could change a woman’s life. Her companion, George Miller (now her husband), gave the union a five-year grant of a million dollars, enabling it to expand from five hundred women to ten thousand, so that the more successful participants could get bigger loans and hire other women. McKinley and Miller returned each year. “There was a woman who started out with a mud hut,” McKinley recalled. “When we came back, she had a three-room house with a cement floor, and the pigs were in the hut she had stayed in before.” When the women first came for loans, “they sat hunched, looking down into their laps. They would take the money and fold it into a hairpin behind their ears, looking so frightened­because, they said, they were afraid they couldn’t pay it back. Two or three years later, these same women were running businesses, and were often involved in politics in their village.” She continued, “Does everyone succeed? No. But it is the same in the investment business. You don’t want to take a lot of risk? Buy some ducks. But the more risk-taking borrowers will pool their loans and buy a baby water buffalo and rent it to men for farming. And then there are those who blow right past livestock and build a brick factory.”

That afternoon, the participants broke into discussion groups, and were given forty-five minutes to devise a solution to end world poverty. The entrepreneurs weren’t humbled by the challenge. “The inner graduate student in all these people came out,” Alex Counts, the Grameen Foundation’s president, said later. “They were all rushing up, taking turns at the whiteboard. And they took it so seriously!”

None, perhaps, more than Pierre Omidyar. Born in Paris to Iranian parents, Omidyar came to this country as a child in the nineteen-seventies, and viewed himself as a truly transformative capitalist. His purpose in creating the program for what became eBay was to create a perfect market, something realized only in economics textbooks, where buyers and sellers would all have equal access to information and opportunity. And microfinance, after all, was about equal access to capital.

Counts recalled that Omidyar, who is given to phrases like “Wow!” and “That’s neat!,” kept refining the numbers throughout the day. Omidyar was struck by Yunus’s statement that the poor are natural entrepreneurs, essentially because their business activities are a matter of survival. “By giving them the tools, you unleash the entrepreneurial instinct,” Omidyar told me. Janet McKinley said, “All these wealthy entrepreneurs loved it, because they say, ‘This woman is an entrepreneur­just smaller scale.’ ”

The event at Doerr’s home had been billed as a learning session, not a fund-raiser, but several participants insisted that they be given a chance to contribute. Alex Counts introduced an idea that had been discussed at the Grameen Foundation for some time: a guarantee fund. If the guests would each guarantee a certain amount of money, the combined pledged funds would constitute a letter of credit, which Grameen could present to banks in various countries to induce them to loan to local microfinance institutions­in larger amounts and at a lower rate than they otherwise would. The donors’ money could continue to work in their portfolios and would be called upon only if an institution defaulted on its loan. According to Counts, John Doerr declared that everyone should commit no less than 0.1 per cent of his net worth. “It was kind of awkward,” Counts recalled, “but finally some raised their hands and said they would do it.” Ultimately, nine people committed a total of thirty-one million dollars to the guarantee fund, which aims to reach fifty million dollars.

Omidyar, however, wasn’t among them. As much as he admired Yunus’s belief that anyone, provided the means, can become self-sufficient­even successful­he has a different idea about the future of microfinance. Yunus is now seen by Omidyar and many others as the archetypal founder, too wedded to his original vision. In recent years, younger and nimbler players have been taking microfinance­their preferred term­toward the idea of building a fully commercial, profit-making sector. This conflict, between pure do-gooders and profit-minded do-gooders, has come to define the current debate in the microfinance world.

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