Not only did he invent a new kind of bank, Muhammad Yunus invented a new theory of economics. His idea: People are poor because their institutions are poor. Something is wrong with our government or our lenders or our social agencies - or else we all would be able to earn enough money to live.
Yunus came to Utah earlier this month. He spoke at Brigham Young University's graduation ceremonies, at a luncheon for congressional candidate Scott Leckman, at a Rotary Club luncheon, at the BYU Marriott School of Management and at several other sites. He urged his Utah audiences to think upside down - like he does. "Try to learn economics from the lives of the people."Yunus, a Fulbright scholar, got a doctorate from Vanderbilt University before going home to Bangladesh to teach economics in a local university. The year was 1971. While he lectured about five-year economic plans and other "grand beautiful theories," people starved in the street next to the campus.
He decided to try to save just one life. He went into a nearby village. He found more than one person whom he could easily help. Yunus found 42, actually, in that first village, 42 people who only needed a loan. People had skills - they were making stools or weaving cloth or raising chickens. What they didn't have was a tiny bit of capital. They had to rely on moneylenders and traders - who sold their goods for them and kept nearly all the profits.
The villagers repaid Yunus' personal loans. When he couldn't get banks interested in making more tiny loans to illiterate and suffering people, he started his own bank. He made sure the borrowers were also the owners. Over the last 20 years, the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh has become synonymous with microlending, synonymous with self-sufficiency.
Yunus travels a lot these days, talking about Grameen. This is his second trip to Utah within a year, and he gave Utahns an update on the Grameen statistics.
There are now 3 million borrowers, $2.4 billion on loan, and 94 percent of the borrowers are women. The average size of a first loan is $25. The average of all Grameen loans is $180, which shows people expanding their businesses dramatically since their first loan, Yunus says.
The bank now makes loans for houses and higher education, too. The loans are interest-free, Yunus said. Children of Grameen borrowers can go to college.
The Grameen borrowers come together in borrowing groups, giving social support to women who have never before handled money. At first, Yunus' goal was to lend to equal numbers of men and women. Then he discovered that money lent to women went to improve the lot of children. Men tended to squander their profits rather than invest in a roof or more chickens.
Muslim clerics continue to oppose the Grameen bank, Yunus said. They believe that anything that takes a woman into the marketplace will destroy religion. Yunus and his staff cite a history of strong, capable, religious women. But the opposition doesn't disappear, he said.
Yunus makes his Grameen story sound simple. Yet a glance at the bank's Web site shows how the nonprofit has grown and diversified. There's the bank, yes, and a dozen other enterprises including a Grameen Fisheries Foundation; the Grameen Kalyan, to provide health care and disaster relief; the Grameen Agricultural Foundation to improve irrigation facilities, organize landless groups in irrigation management, to lease machinery to farmers, etc.; the Grameen Textiles Project to manage and export hand-woven cloth.
And then of course, there is Grameen Telecom. Or as Yunus calls them, "the telephone ladies." Grameen is a partner in a company to provide mobile phones to one woman in every village. So far, 104 villages have a telephone lady, who gets paid for placing calls or for answering calls and carrying her phone to the home of the person who is being called.
By the end of the year, Yunus hopes to see 1,000 telephone ladies in 1,000 small villages. They earn a little extra income - averaging $2 a day, in a country so poor that the average annual income is still less than $200.
"Poverty is created by institutions. We should be looking at ourselves," Yunus reminds. And if we look to ourselves as the cause, we can look to ourselves as the solution as well.
In February 1997, leaders of nonprofit organizations from many countries held a microenterprise summit in Washington, D.C. They pledge to extend microcredit to 100 million of the world's poorest families, through the women - by the year 2005.
This is where you come in, Yunus told his audience at BYU's management school. Please help one Utah family - five families would be better. Help five families get off welfare. That will be five less than 100 million for the rest of us to worry about, he said.