Power to the poor

By Zafar Masud


WHO would have thought that reading a book about GNP, growth, profit and loss and micro-credit could bring a lump to your throat!

But the writer in question here, also known as the poor man’s banker, is far from dealing in sentimental absurdities and is coolly ratiocinatory in his extrapolation as to why it is necessary to give power to the poor before it’s too late … and how to bring this miracle about.

Professor Muhammad Yunus who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize entertains no quixotic vision of a world in which the rich will be sent to the gallows and the workers will unite and start running a thoroughly moralistic and egalitarian society. On the contrary, he says the world’s future lies in capitalism and in little else. In other words, it’s time for today’s movers and shakers to get their act together on more realistic lines or hit the road to perdition.

By creating a world without poverty, Prof Yunus holds, the rich will be ensuring a safer world in their own interest and will not be doing anyone a favour by investing in non-profit-making ventures. The reward will not be tangible ownership of stock market shares for some but a better-fed world and peace for all. The contrary will be nothing else but a state of permanent war, against each other and against the terrorists, a scenario to grasp whose quiddity one hardly needs imagination as it is already an everyday reality.

This happier future Yunus qualifies as ‘new capitalism’. But who has the power to lead us to this utopia? Like a good logician he begins by a process of elimination. Governments cannot deliver as they are stymied by the monster named bureaucracy. The NGOs can scarcely do better, first because their motivation has to do with obscure, semi-religious notions of charity and compassion, and second because they depend entirely upon donors who in their turn have a limit to their resources and can turn off the faucet when those resources, and consequently their patience, run out.

That leaves us with multilateral organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But the problem is, to put it frankly, the multilaterals are funded by rich countries with an end to helping poor countries alleviate poverty; and for this they count on the governments in the target area to do the job. Aha, here lies the rub! The whole affair comes to a crazed dog chasing its own tail! We have already seen governments are pathetically dependent upon bureaucracies who are not only painfully slow but are also invariably corrupt in the Third World.

The solution, hence, lies not in bestowing handouts to the needy but in empowering them. The poor, says Yunus, are like a bonsai plant. Give the seed a paltry, six-inch flowerpot to grow in, and it will rise as a ludicrous caricature of its own self, the tall and stalwart tree it otherwise would have been had it been allowed to flourish in a proper, healthy, generous soil.

The poor man’s banker had never thought of being a banker at all. He was educated and trained as a professor of economics and had begun his career in that capacity in his home country, Bangladesh, 30 years ago. It didn’t take him long to realise that the lofty theories he was teaching in the classroom had little to do with the harsh realities beyond its four walls. His genius lies in challenging, then upsetting, a basic banking law in force ever since money-lending has existed. That is, in order to get credit you need to show something in hand. In other words, no collateral, no loan!

That was the injunction Yunus rebelled against and shattered by handing out his first mini-microcredit sum of $27 to a group of basket-weaving women, door-to-door peddlers and, surprisingly, beggars. He neither asked for an interest nor did he set a date for repayment, but made it very clear to his impoverished borrowers that this was no charity but a loan. The message from this prodigious pioneer had nothing to do with the much in vogue plangent nonsense concerning victims, rights, injustice, guilt, redemption, penitence, contrition and self-flagellation.

He simply seemed to say: ‘I am lending you this sum to help you get out of your difficulties. If you honour your pledge, maybe we can work together some more to create a better, happier world for all of us.’ To his surprise, everyone paid back, even the beggars. Soon after, in 1983, he founded the Grameen Bank that today handles 25 companies, funds and trusts. The group has helped hundreds of thousands of poor Bangladeshis lift themselves out of poverty through interest-free loans and this includes thousands among the young who were able to acquire high school-, college- and even university-level education. Grameen is helping 138 anti-poverty projects in 37 countries with a funding nearing some $22m.

The basic thing, Yunus says, is to readjust our vision of poverty and of the poor who have been looked upon since the dawn of civilisation as a social liability. Policies and institutions have been weaved around that treacherous concept through centuries. Once we free ourselves of this fallacy, things become easier to understand.

Think hard, he is saying, why is it that we fail to recognise the capacity of the poor to contribute productively to society? It is because poverty deprives some of us of the power to control capital; in other words, to retain the genuine fruit of labour, to benefit from it and to make society benefit from it. Only by empowering the poor will we be creating a world free of the meaningless squabbles that bring so much misery, death and destruction to humanity today. Not very clear? Skip a couple of McDonald’s lunches with your buddies and you’ll save enough money to buy Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business & the Future of Capitalism published by PublicAffairs. It’s worth it!

The writer is a journalist based in Paris.

Source: Daily Dawn, 8/9/2008

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