Thursday, January 24, 2008

Muhammad Yunus, Micro-Credit, and Africa

Although I'm not categorizing this in the Issues posts, it is a sort of indirect issue affecting African children.

Micro-credit, micro-loans, micro-enterprise, micro-franchise...they're the new buzz words in international development. Lending to the poor, helping them establish business and franchises-- all on an individual, small-scale level. All these words and works were spawned from a simple idea by a brilliant man-- Muhammad Yunus. He began his work in Bangladesh in the late 70's and early 80's, which eventually led to the founding of the Grameen Bank and the Grameen Foundation. Through his efforts and ideas, many other such institutions of aid have been established, enabling millions to gain the opportunities that lead them out of poverty.

I had the incredible experience to sit in on a conference call with Dr. Yunus a few weeks ago. An energetic, visionary man with a lip-twitching sense of humor, Dr. Yunus has become an icon in the development world, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity. He defined his work as social business. The concept of business is about more than just making money-- humans aren't money making machines, he declared. Business needs to include human aspects, they need to do good to people. He gave the example of a newly-developed, nutrient-rich yogurt being used in Bangladesh. The purpose of the company is to help children become healthy.

He then addressed the idea of helping the poorest. Micro schemes have been accused of not reaching the poorest of the poor, so Dr. Yunus set out to prove that theory wrong. He spoke of beginning projects focusing on beggars in Bangladesh. They were given loans to earn money by door-to-door sales. And it worked! Many of the beggars, the poorest of the poor, stopped begging completely, and all were able to pay back their loans and earn more money. They could now earn an honest living.

Of all the things Dr. Yunus said, this struck me the hardest: all humans have unlimited potential. How can they unleash it? That is what micro projects are about-- the opportunity for an individual to tap their own potential and make of their life what they will. Now, I don't believe that micro-credit is a panacea for poverty. But it is one method that is very effective, and I for one am very excited to get involved in micro-enterprise at our orphanages and micro-credit for the people of the surrounding villages. Many of our children are not truly orphaned; families simply don't have the means to take care of them, and they are handed over to the orphanage. Micro-enterprises can help the orphanages care on the road to self-reliance, and micro-loans to the families can strike at the root of the problem. Maybe someday, a micro-loan may help some of our children return home.

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