World poverty won't be solved by grand schemes or government programs. As the worldwide microcredit movement has demonstrated, it will be solved one person at a time.
Incredibly, that approach has now reached more than 100 million individuals, which was the goal the movement established a decade ago.
Microcredit involves giving small loans, sometimes no more than a dollar or two, to hard-working but extremely impoverished people, and setting up a system that gives them support and tracks their progress. These new entrepreneurs use the money to establish their own businesses, and when they pay off the first loan, they get a loan that is a little larger, and so on. Eventually, they become self-sufficient and successful, able to afford food, shelter and educational opportunities for their children.
The founder of this idea, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. His approach may well be the key not only to solving worldwide poverty, but to ending the threat of terrorism, which seems to find fertile ground amid the despair of endless poverty. If President Obama wants to dramatically increase U.S. aid to the poorest nations of the world, he could do much worse than to support a massive investment in microcredit programs.
Yunus was an economics professor in his native Bangladesh in 1974 when he decided to understand why economic theories seemed not to work in the everyday realities that surrounded him. He ventured into a nearby neighborhood where he met a young woman who made stools out of bamboo. She was borrowing money from a trader who then required her to sell the finished product back to him, leaving her with only about 2 cents per day for herself. Yunus decided to lend her $6, which was enough for her to buy her own bamboo. Right away, she began earning $1.25 per day, which made a huge difference.
In all, Yunus found 42 people in that neighborhood who needed a combined total of $27 to become more self-sufficient. He lent them the money out of his pocket. All of them repaid him.
When Yunus took his idea to banks, he found no one willing to help. So he formed his own, the Grameen Bank. Now, other banks have been formed to make similar loans.
It's scarcely possible to imagine 100 million people. Take the seemingly endless sea of faces that packed the Mall in Washington for Obama's inauguration and multiply it by 100. Then realize that each one has been lifted out of hopelessness and given a real chance to succeed.
That's a rare piece of bright economic news in these troubled times. It ought to spur Congress, the president and anyone else interested in ending poverty to a renewed emphasis on microloans.