Reviewed by Karishma Maheshwari, Batch of 2025, Kirit P. Mehta School of Law, Mumbai
Banker To The Poor is Mohammad Yunys’ memoir of how he decided to work with the world’s poor to eradicate poverty. In the book, he traces the economic relationship between rich and poor through an intellectual and spiritual journey that he takes with his colleagues to found Grameen.
In 1974, while Muhammad Yunus was teaching economics in Bangladesh, the country was ravaged by famine. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. At one point of time after the country’s independence, 90% of the population lived below the poverty line. While he taught abstract economic theories to students at the university, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the condition of the poor of his country struggling for a square meal. Yunus realized his economic education was incomplete. To complete it, he went to local villages to “learn from the poor” about what they actually needed rather than what a textbook said they should have. The answer was credit. Yunus invented the system of microcredit where he began issuing micro loans to extremely impoverished families living in the rural regions of Bangladesh. Literally known as “Banker to the Poor”, Professor Muhammad Yunus later established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983, fueled by the belief that credit is a fundamental human right. His objective was to help poor people escape from poverty by providing loans on terms suitable to them and by teaching them a few sound financial principles so they could help themselves.
We have a lot to learn from the “Banker to the Poor”. You will only get tangible solutions to the biggest problems in the world when you work WITH the stakeholders to create solutions rather than thinking and innovating solutions for them without involving them. Only when Yunus spent time with the people of the villages did he discern the real problems that keep the poor people poor in the first place.
What is most revolutionary about Professor Yunus’ ideas is his attitude towards the poor. He regards their survival in very difficult circumstances as proof that they are smart enough to do better, if only they are given a little working capital. He rejects the idea of many do-gooder organizations that the poor must be remade by some specialized job training – supplied by those same organizations, naturally.
Not that the poor don’t need basic assistance, since some cannot read or use numbers well enough to keep track of their simple bookkeeping. But the emphasis is on moving the process forward. It is the embodiment of the maxim – teach a person to fish and there will be a lifetime of food.
The fact that the majority of the borrowers at Grameen were women because they were much more responsible with their money and also the subjects in greater need, as compared to their male counterparts was fascinating and empowering to learn. Historically, women have always suffered more than men because of the systems that are never able to support them or be in their favour and with the microlending system, a lot of women got a new ray of hope and belief in themselves that they could achieve much more than what the society prescribes and decides for them. If we come to think of it, this credit system also boosts the local economy of a region, thus promoting self sustaining economies and environmental sustainability.
It shows that this book had a little for everyone. Microlending is a concept that ought to be more politically correct and acceptable than other types of loans. Since microloans take little or no government involvement and become self-supporting in a very short time, it may please the conservatives. Liberals, with their idea of an egalitarian society would like it because it actually improves the lives of the hardcore poor. Feminists value women’s empowerment and when they see change happening in countries where women for centuries have been subjugated by customs like severe veiling for traveling in public, it is a win for them. For environmentalists, the emphasis on small-scale development is a pleasant change from the large, often environmentally destructive engineering projects that the World Bank has long promoted. If you want to learn how to make the world a more equitable place, are ardent about the eradication of poverty, passionate about social and collaborative entrepreneurship, women empowerment and aim to make an egalitarian society, then you would enjoy the read. Students or professionals who are interested in economics, banking, development, social change, and entrepreneurship should read this book.