Book Review: Banker to the Poor

June 07, 2007

I am yet to understand how Dr. Yunus got the Nobel Peace prize rather than the Economics prize. His application of microeconomic principles across the board through the phenomenal success of Grameen Bank and its international clones certainly opened the eyes of the international market driven capitalists to review the power of the poor, economically speaking. Of course, the fallout is political too and finally strengthening democracy. It appears as if the Nobel foundation did not want to give "scientific" credibility to the Professor's lifework as it has a lot of heart (in the right place) in it. So, if you showed a lot of heart, you get the Peace prize.

Anyways, getting back to the book itself, it is a very well written autobiographical take on the establishment of Grameen, how it came to be, the vision of a college professor who certainly rewrote the way banks did business with the poor and the illiterate with the simple but powerful idea of Micro credit which began with $27.

I strongly recommend every feminist and pseudo-feminist to read this book and understand what it is to be Woman against all odds and make a success of your life without trading your sari for a pair of jeans. All she needs is a financial institution that trusts her and says, "Be the creator of your own fate and I know you can make any venture of yours, a success". This is the book's message in a nutshell.

Dr. Yunus has certainly re-scripted the lives of millions of poor and destitute mostly women, especially in his beloved Bangladesh. His patriotic fervor shines through the prose. Apart from a glancing sentence on India getting 10 million Bangladeshi refugees after their terrible famine of 1974, there is no mention of India except in a later part where he realized that Bangladesh was importing cheap Indian Lungis and not making their own, when they had superior weaving at their disposal. To counter this videshi maal of madras checks, he got his people to create the Grameen checks which as per his words revolutionized the image of Bangladeshi fabric. I wonder if he is upset that we Indians have not done anything to prevent flooding in Bangladesh. Also, India has implemented her own version of micro credit in several states without the word Grameen mentioned anywhere. Local politicians like to take all the credit and win more votes.

I can well understand his anger with India as he has not been deified in India, nor can our corrupt, MNC-shoe licking politicians who are pro-liberalization begin to comprehend how to get rid of rural poverty. They want to give freebies to their vote banks which they have very carefully nurtured on caste lines for the past 40 years and keep them dependent on them eternally, never making them economically independent. He rants against the foolishness of politicians who forgive loans (that makes the rich richer) and get immense electoral mileage from such actions with no regard to integrity and hard work.

He writes, "...(the poor) cannot retain the returns of their labor. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty." That is yet another hit against the traditional capitalistic systems that need to be rewritten by the common person. He shows the huge commercial systems that we have created that support a highly informed, literate class to make the most of its options leaving the poor far behind, poorer still. He comes out strongly saying that poverty is something that future generations will learn about in a museum and get shocked at the lack of basic human dignity.

As John Perkins exposes in his book "Confessions of an Economic Hitman", the dubious role of International agencies such as the World Bank, Muhammad Yunus, in his mild scholarly way vouches for the same. What a different take from the farce that is Jeffery Sacks' "The End of Poverty". Dr. Yunus shares how poverty issues can truly be addressed when the World Bank has its headquarters in Dhaka rather than Washington DC. For one, the administrative costs involved in researching a project is cut down and the "consultants" who are in it for the money would not want to subject themselves to live without electricity and other modern conveniences that define an American lifestyle. Oh, and we forget the mosquitoes!

His book certainly chronicles Bangladesh through the later part of the 20th century and its struggle as a new nation in attaining economic strength when buffeted by natural disasters such as floods and famines. His strong Islamic believes do not sound fanatical, rather pragmatic- a lesson to point for Indians who decry their religion in the name of secularism, throwing the baby with the bath water.

One shortcoming I felt personally, was a lack of a cohesive plan where the environment is taken into consideration when increasing the economic wellbeing of humans below the poverty line. As of now, Bangladesh is so agrarian and connected to the soil, that the environment has not yet been drastically impacted the way it has in India for instance with our brilliant Green revolution that has contaminated our ground water and fields. With the looming threat of rising sea levels that could adversely impact Bangladesh because of global warming, it behooves us to make a global plan to become economically prosperous in a sustainable manner. This aspect is not yet a central principle of Grameen. But looking at the way it has evolved over the decades, I will not be surprised if the people at Grameen rise to the occasion and make it one.

As you flip through this easy read, it is very easy to get caught up in the histoires of aam janta and their real stories of triumphs and failures that make it totally human even surprising a few tears here and there from the stoniest of hearts. May the racing middle class of India read this book and develop a sustainable economic model that benefits the world at large.

Blokes aka Meenakshi enjoys writing along with being a mom, a school teacher, a musician and an Art of Living teacher (of meditation and breathing)
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June 8, 2007
02:52 AM

Good review and tempting me to start reading this book soon. Though I have not read this book yet, will go for it soon. I happened to read an interesting article on the microeconomic principles and the role of Muhammad Yunus in the Apr'07 edition of Fortune Magazine. It says how, the French food giant Danone has set up a rural factory about 140 miles northwest of Dhaka, that has recently started producing low-cost, fortified yogurt for sale in rural communities. It uses Grameen's microcredit web of small business owners to both furnish milk and sell the final product.

June 8, 2007
04:47 PM

thanks Tanay- i appreciate that info about dannon yogurt- i hope they r not packaging them in plastic containers that r not sustainable!

June 10, 2007
10:33 PM

hey finally tracked u here from rediff! exactly my sentiments - why the noble for peace instead of for economics. but then nowadays anything economical that affects millions leads to peace and hence the reasoning goes i guess. as for microcredit, once the fat cats are licked and well fed the BIG BANKS and institutions will be competing in the microcredit space, thats when the real fun in lending begins OR should one say in borrowing????

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