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Interview with Muhammad Yunus

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  • "Women have a long-term vision, she wants to move up to something"
  • "It's not Grameen Bank came and told them to do that; it is in their hearts"
  • "We developed a system which doesn't need collateral, guarantee, legal"
  • "We citizens, we individuals, are capable people addressing social issues"
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(CNN) -- Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his pioneering work in microcredit, which has helped millions of people out of the poverty cycle. The first businessman ever to receive such a high honor, Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded revolutionized conventional ways of banking, creating a system of lending money to the poor, mostly women.


2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus


AR: Professor Yunus, welcome to Talk Asia. Now, it's been nearly a year since you've won arguably the world's most prestigious award, the Nobel Peace Prize. How's your life changed since then?

MY: Well, it's a fantastic thing to happen in anybody's life. It brings the floodlight for attention from the whole world right to one person, so the whole world's watching you, what you're doing, what you're saying. So in a way it's exciting, very exciting thing, but at the same time it's an opportunity, opportunity to bring out the issues that I have been raising for years. Sometimes felt that nobody was paying any attention, like I've been screaming and nobody's hearing me. Now suddenly this prestigious prize comes, and you get a feeling that you can whisper, the whole world listens. This is your time to say what you wanted to say.

AR: Now a lot of other people out there said, ok, well, I can understand why Professor Muhammad Yunus might win a Nobel Prize for economics, but why for Peace?

MY: I have been raising this question about poverty being a threat to peace, everywhere, not just Bangladesh. Because poverty ultimately is the breeding ground for violence, breeding ground for all kinds of political turmoil, breeding ground for terrorism. So this is the argument I made. I said peace is sometimes narrowly interpreted; it's the absence of conflict between nations or something. But peace is more inherent, more basic to human life, human beings, what we feel about each other, what we feel about life around us and what we see in our future. So that has to be addressed in a broader sense, and poverty is one issue that kind of upsets the possibility of peace.

AR: Now, the idea for the Grameen Bank came to you in 1976 after the experience that you had then. Tell us about that.

MY: In 1974 we ended up with a famine in the country. People were dying of hunger and not having enough to eat. And that's a terrible situation to see around you. And I was feeling terrible that here I teach elegant theories of economics, and those theories are of no use at the moment with the people who are going hungry. So I wanted to see if as a person, as a human being, I could be of some use to some people, outside of the university campus where the villages are. Go out in the village, be with the people, see if I could be of any use to anybody even for a day. So this is what I was doing, and as I did for days, I was doing that, I started noticing something very ruthless. This is the operation of money laundering.

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People lend a small amount of money to poor people in the village and practically take over the control of their entire life, just for a few cents or few dollars worth of money. It's not millions of dollars people are waiting for, it's few pennies that people were looking for that's not available. So I looked at that and I saw the problem is so serious, so big, but the solution suddenly appeared to me so simple. I thought if I give this 27 dollars from my pocket, the problem of this 42 people is solved. They can take this 27 dollars, pay back their moneylenders, no way they can control their lives anymore. They will be free people. Immediately I did that. I took the money from my pocket, gave it to them, and told them return the money, be free.

And it created such an enormous reaction, they were so happy. Looking at them later on, as I went the next few days, I thought if you can make so many people so happy with such a small amount of money, why shouldn't you do more of it? So I went to the bank. I thought, this was such a simple solution, he would be excited to do that. He said no. Bank cannot lend money to the poor people. I said this is such small money, you'll not miss this money. He said no, it's not the question of the amount of money, it's the principle: Bank cannot lend money to the poor people.

AR: They must've thought you lost your marbles, trying to lend to the un-lendable.

MY: I know, now I was becoming kind of stubborn. Why shouldn't they do it? Such a small amount of money. And they're wasting so much money lending money to the rich people who never pay back. Then I learned something from their conversation, I used that. I said, why didn't you accept me as a guarantor? I'm your guarantor. I'll sign any paper you give me. So you save your rules, and I'll get the money. This time it worked, because I'm speaking their language. And the bank manager told me, Say goodbye to your money because it's not going to come back. I said I'll take a chance, I don't know how it'll happen. Then I came up with simple rules to encourage people to pay back and it worked, and that was the beginning of microfinance.


AR: Almost all of your clients are women. What accounts for that?

MY: We started noticing as we went on, that the money going to the family through women brought so much more benefit to the family than the same amount of money going to the family through men. Because women immediately take care of the children -- if she makes money, she takes care of the household, she improves the household if she makes money. You don't see that immediately in the men as the borrower. Women have a long-term vision, she wants to move up to something. Men were more casual, more I can enjoy now whether than looking at the future. So you can go down the line, kind of comparing what happens when a woman is the borrower, what happens when a man is a borrower. Today we have 7.3 million borrowers in Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and 97 percent of them are women.

AR: Given that you operate in a traditionally Islamic society, imagine that you must have faced some serious opposition and hostility amongst not only men, and it's a very male-dominated society. But also among the money lenders, I assumed that they weren't willing to just sit back and let you steal their business.

MY: Well, we had opposition from every single side, not just one. But the first one, the most strong one to begin with was men. Men opposing because we are offering loans to the women. Even the husband of the very women we are trying to give loan to was hostile to us, because he felt that we were insulting him by offering money to his wife, not to him. So he thought it was kind of a deliberate way to undercut his authority. It's not only villagers talking but even academicians telling, Why you give loans to the women when so many men are unemployed? As if that is what should be done before anything you can think of.

But we didn't move from our position, we continued to do that. Then it is given a new color, religious color. Saying that giving loans to women is not accepted by religion. I said that's funny, because I thought religion always supported women being in business and so on, I gave examples, we brought all the historical evidence from Islamic history where women were in business and Muslim women were successfully doing business and so on.

And we also had opposition from money lenders, we had opposition from political parties because extreme left, the ultra left, thought this is capitalism coming into the country and stopping the whole socialist movement within the country, and this is an American conspiracy planted in Bangladesh to kind of get the poor people out of the attention of socialist movements. And the conservatives thinking that this is a new way of organizing poor people, this is a communist ploy to get ready for a bigger movement, taking over the power of the country, and so on.

So everybody had their own interpretation of how... We said, look, we're only simply lending money. Money lenders have been lending money to them for ages, nobody bothered about it. The moment we want to do it in a fair way, everybody seem to be concerned.

AR: In other countries when people go to traditional banks for a loan, they wait as long as it is humanly possible a lot of the time to actually repay the loan, if they bothered to at all. Why is it with the Grameen Bank, people want to give you back the money?

MY: It's very small amount. When it's a small, you don't feel threatened, because after all you made some money, why don't I give some money so that my load of the burden, of the debt, goes down and I feel free and breathe easy. And since I'm earning money, I don't mind that. So we always encourage them to use the money to earn money. So this is another reason why it works, by the way. And a very close relationship when you're making weekly payments, you can't ask everybody to come every week to your office. So we go there. So every week we meet them at their place. We have 7.3 million borrowers right now, we have 25,000 staff. These 25,000 staff go and physically meet all these 7.3 million borrowers at their doorsteps within five days. So here is a very intimate relationship.

AR: You do ask your clients though to sign on these Grameen's 16 decisions, which includes things like family planning and educating children, not accepting dowries. Do you see yourself as a model for social change as well as economic change? Because you really do have to go about altering people's mindsets, don't you?

MY: These are not imposition, and nobody has to fulfill every one of them. Simply these are wishes that will do. This is kind of pledge, personal pledge, not a pledge imposed by the bank. But circumstances are such they see it's so important because it came from them. Like we shall not take any dowry, we shall not give any dowry. That came from a long history of the hardships created by the dowry in their own lives. It was a disaster when a girl has to be married off. You have to sell everything just to give dowry to the future in-laws and it destroys families. Many brides commit suicide because of the problem related to dowry. So they understand that. So it's not Grameen Bank came and told them to do that; it is in their hearts they want to do that. Like one of the 16 decisions is we shall send our children to school. And the decision became very important, we encouraged them to include in that and encouraged them to send their children to school, helped them send them to school. As a result, 100 percent of the children of Grameen families are in school.

AR: May other countries have tried to emulate the Grameen Bank concept and it hasn't always worked -- for Malaysia, for example. If the initiative isn't something that can be applied universally, then can we realistically expect poverty to be wiped out, as you say that it can, even in our lifetime?

MY: We need to have a banking system which is inclusive. Whether you call it microcredit, whether you call it Grameen Bank, that's something else. But we have to have a system which can be addressed to everybody. We developed a system which doesn't need collateral, doesn't need guarantee, doesn't need legal instrument. So whichever banking system you're developing to include everybody, this experience will be helpful. If it doesn't work in some place, suppose it doesn't, I do not agree with that, suppose it doesn't, they need to find one. You can't give it away, just sorry, it didn't work. You have to find an alternative which works, because if it works in one country there's no reason it can't work in another country. Today, to our experience, almost every single country in the world has microcredit program in one shape or another, including the rich countries. So I would say generally this is a very successful idea, very successful program. Over the whole world right now there'll be at least 120 million borrowers of microcredit spread out all over the world.


AR: So professor, you come from a large family yourself, you have got nine siblings and you weren't very well-off growing up. Do you think that your own economic circumstances as a child had much bearing on the path in a direction that you've eventually taken?

MY: I'm sure everything has a bearing on what I'm doing. My family is a lower-middle-class family, there's lots of children, seven brothers, two sisters grew up together, fighting with each other, went to school. My mother went to school up to 4th grade. My father went to school up to 8th grade. So that's about the education level we had in the family. But they both wanted all the children to be in school and complete school, go to college, they never gave it up. They wanted everybody should go to university. So they always encouraging us to continue our education, as a result all of us went through the whole education system. We did our masters degrees, some of us had PhDs and so on. So that way we enjoyed all the freedom. My father is a very religious man, my mother was a very religious women, but they never interfered, none of them interfered whatever we're doing, whatever activities we're involved with, they encouraged us, both of them. So we grew up in that environment.

AR: Now at one point you did leave Bangladesh to go off and get your PhD in economics and also to teach there as well, but eventually you returned back home. Why did you do that? So many others in your position would have wanted to stay exactly where they were in the prosperous West?

MY: I got the Fulbright Scholarship. I was not thinking about going outside the country. But since I got the Fulbright scholarship, that would make it easy to go, and my entire family supported it, yes, you should do that, and I did my PhD and started teaching. But at no point of time I ever thought that I'll live in that country, 'cause I thought I'm just getting ready to go back, because I always thought that's where I belong, that's where I should be. So I came back as soon as Bangladesh became independent. I resigned my job and came back to the country.

AR: You did recently decide to take a different tack when you entered politics, you started your own political party in Bangladesh called Citizen's Power, but then you decided not to pursue it. Does that mean that politics is entirely off the agenda for you?

MY: No, it's totally done.

AR: Why?

MY: I don't think I can make it. That doesn't go with me. I thought that I'm much better doing this, the kind of work that I do, rather than be in politics.

AR: How far do you think you going to be able to take your Grameen dream?

MY: Now that people are paying attention, this is a good time to explain to them, so that we can make a bigger step, bigger jump in the future development of the whole idea. And this idea of microcredit also led me to other ideas, like one issue that I raise, that poverty is not created by poor people, it's created by the system. So we need to fix the system.

Today, the concept of business is to make money. Making money is the name of the business. And profit maximization is the mission of business. And I'm saying this is very narrow interpretation of human being. Human beings are much bigger than just making money. So I said, to be true to the human nature, we should include at least one more type of business, business to do good to people, without an expectation of making any personal gain out of it.


So microcredit can be a social business. I don't lend money to the poor people to make money myself. I lend money to the people to help them get out of poverty, so I can keep the interest rate low, because I don't need to make money for myself. As long as I can cover the cost and run the company, that's good enough. So that's the idea for social business. So once we include this into the business world, tremendous things can happen in poverty alleviation, in nutrition, in health care, in child care, you name it -- whatever problem we see around the world can be framed, can be designed as a social business and address that.

Today we leave everything to the government. Let government solve all the problems. We citizens are free, we're busy making money. That's not the way it should be. We citizens, we individuals, are capable people addressing social issues. Maybe address a small social issue within my neighborhood, maybe within my district, within my village. Government has to cover the whole country, that's the only difference. But I'm more innovative than the government. I'm more enterprising than the government. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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