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Banker to the Poor
Book Review
Amina Kamal Khan


Book:             Banker to the Poor the autobiography of Muhammad Yunus founder of the Grameen bank

Authors:              Muhammad Yunus and Alan Jolis

Publisher:           Oxford University Press

Price:                   Rs 595


It all started when Muhammad Yunus noticed that the farmers near Chittagong, where he taught, could barely make ends meet through their labour wages. He thought that a system under which poor people could take loans and repay them on easy terms would help them set up small private enterprises and become self-sufficient and self-employed. The project, initially started on a small scale, culminated into the Grameen Bank (Grameen: village).

‘Banker to the Poor’, the autobiography of Muhammad Yunus, is written in collaboration with Alan Jolis, an American journalist and writer now living in Sweden. The book begins with a foreword by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, in which he hopes that the book would bring the benefits of micro-credit to a wider audience. The book does more than that. It encourages people with the idea that if one can dream about it, one can make it happen, and transform the lives of millions.

The book is divided into seven parts, each tackling a different stage of the bank’s development or a part of the philosophy behind the micro-credit system. The first part, ‘Beginnings’, spans the time from 1940 to 1976 and relates effectively the background of the Grameen Bank in relation to the history of Bangladesh. Muhammad Yunus traces some of the events and experiences, such as the war of 1971and how they led to the social and political situations that, in turn, led to the founding of the Grameen Bank.

The second part, ‘Experimental phase’, spans the time period from 1976 to 1978 and is a narrative of how the Grameen philosophy was put into action. Muhammad Yunus thought that poverty alleviation could only be attained if the poorest segment of the society was given loans so that they could initiate their own business ventures. He further decided that women would be the main targets of his micro-credit scheme since poor women were even poorer, in some respects, than poor men and, as such, had hardly any decision making powers. Giving loans to women, Yunus was sure that their decisions-making powers would increase and that poverty alleviation would be properly addressed.

Reaching the women in the rural areas -- the woman who really needed loans -- was a difficult job due to cultural and social restraints. Men would not talk to women who needed loans so women bank workers were employed. This, in itself, was a rather bold step since it was difficult to persuade women to go into villages and talk to people. Moreover, the bank policies themselves came under fire from people in general since the bank took all the principles of conventional banking and turned them upside down.

The third part, title ‘Creation’, spans from 1978 to 1990 and relates how the Grameen Bank was finally officialized against all odds. It depicts how the Grameen Bank went against the popular mindset of the people and how the bank braved natural disasters. During an earthquake when quite a large number of the bank ‘members’ were affected, the bank jumped into the void of a social organization and put the loan repayment on hold for some time till the ‘members’ had put their lives in order again. None of the loans were ‘cancelled’. The borrower had to pay loan back with interest regardless of how nominal an amount he had to pay each term.

Due to the hard work and dedication of its members, the Grameen Bank became a separate corporate entity in 1982 to 1983 and during the period of 1985 to 1990, gained full independence from the government. The bank had succeeded in Bangladesh.

The next part, ‘Replicating the Grameen Principle’ examines some of the international replications of the bank. The bank principle was applied to almost fifty countries, all of which did not succeed with it. This segment of the book also recounts the United States urban and rural experiences and how the application of the Grameen principle changed the lives of many people for the better.

The fifth segment, ‘Philosophy’, deals with the philosophy behind the Grameen Bank, explaining the economics of the bank as a Social Consciousness-Driven Free Market principle. The importance of self-employment is explored here. An interesting aspect of developing countries put forth by Mr Yunus is the idea of educating and training the poor so that they can be employed. Mr Yunus thinks that instead of wasting time and resources on training people for jobs that they might get, it would be a better idea to exploit the skills these people already have. This is a principle that has made the Grameen bank a success and that would save developing countries thousands of dollars if they would only apply it.

‘New Horizons’, the sixth part of the book traces the further development of the Grameen Bank from 1990 to 1997, and details the various ventures the bank has undertaken since then. These ventures include a fisheries foundation, the Grameen Check (woven cloth), housing loans, the Grameen phone and the Grameen Trust.

The last segment, ‘A New World’, examines the possibilities for the Grameen principles of banking in the coming years. Mr Yunus debates the various possibilities and forecasts a poverty free world and what it would be like.

The book is a very interesting narrative, starting from the background of the Grameen Bank and ending with a forecast of future application possibilities. The language is simple and the narrative by Muhammad Yunus and Alan Jolis is captivating. It is not just a book about banking principles, but how these principles changed the lives of poor people. It is not only the autobiography of the founder of the bank, but also the biography of the bank itself. It is the story of an idea that started small, and gradually worked its way into the league of those rare great ideas that have the power to change the world.


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