Solving poverty, one dollar at a time

Microcredit offers a promising, grassroots approach to combating poverty.

You might think that $20 isn’t enough to lift someone out of poverty. But you’d be wrong, and Muhammad Yunus has a Nobel Peace Prize to prove it. Last week, the Nobel Committee honored him for bringing hope and opportunity to thousands of people in his native Bangladesh through his work in microcredit lending.

Microcredit is a program that loans small amounts of money, sometimes as little as $9, to the poorest of the poor. No traditional bank would dare lend money to these people because they are considered unreliable to repay the loan.

But Yunus and his organization, the Grameen Bank, have managed to loan money to these “at-risk” clients for 30 years and have been paid back an astonishing 98.5 percent of the time. The key to their program’s success has been a completely novel approach to the problem of poverty, making trust and cooperation the cornerstone to their solution.

Yunus began the program after a famine struck Bangladesh in 1974. By 1976, he had set up the Grameen Bank and focused exclusively on loaning money to the peasants and beggars who had nowhere else to turn for assistance. The bank’s unique model asks borrowers to take out loans as five-person teams of neighbors or relatives. That way, a sense of responsibility to the rest of the group motivates people to use the money carefully and pay back the loan when they are able. With the money, peasants can start their own informal businesses, such as purchasing straw to weave into baskets and sell. There is no legal mechanism for the Grameen Bank to recover the money it lends, making its high payback rate that much more impressive.

The most promising aspect of this program has been the high participation rate of women. It was often considered a taboo in rural Bangladeshi culture for women to touch money or work outside their homes, which left widows and divorcees without a means to survive. Yunus’ program has changed this view and given women an opportunity not only to be independent, but successful as well.

The often ineffectual top-down loaning strategies of the World Bank and other organizations would do well to take note of this promising bottom-up approach to poverty.