Small Change Gets Big Trophy: Bangladesh

Microlending Revolution

Mon, October 16, 2006

It’s always heartening when a totally unsexy but hugely important idea gets its due. It breeds hope. So it was uplifting to hear that Muhammad Yunus and the lending institution he founded, Grameen Bank, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Microlending and microfinance - dull as they sound - are powerful tools for revolution in many parts of the world, and we tip our tiaras to the folks like Yunus who advance these nutritious forms of capitalism.

Ela Bhatt, one of our favorite of these leaders, created SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), the largest union in India. By organizing disenfranchised, and often illiterate, paper pickers, weavers and fruit venders from Delhi to Calcutta, she’s made massive change in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.  When we visited her in Ahmedabad we toured the women’s bank she founded. With bangles as collateral, local women have acquired loans as modest as a few rupees to grow their (often) home-based grassroots businesses. And their default rate is almost nonexistent.

We savored the scenes of hard-working women shoving thick wads of cash into the bosoms of their brightly colored saris. And we appreciated the hugely significant rule of the bank: the husbands are not allowed to withdraw money. When women control the purse strings, money is spent on food and education, rather than,say, booze or gambling (sorry fellas, but I’ve read the studies).

With self-reliance as SEWA’s rallying cry, Ela Bhatt says of poverty: “Poverty is a matter of power, and as long as the poor remain powerless, poverty will never be removed from our country.” So here’s to Ela Bhatt, Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel committee, and all those who’ve seen the big power of small change.

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It’s comforting to know that enlightenment continues to thrive in parts of the world.  While some cultures are souring from exposure to misguided attempts at revolutionizing the world based on neanderthal interpretations of freedom, faith and democracy, I am heartened by the spirit of individuals like Muhammad Yunus and Ela Bhatt who understand that nurturing cultures of inclusion can also be revolutionary.

If capitalism is to be the prevailing foundation upon which we all interact, then everyone must have a vested interest in that doctrine; everyone must by allowed to play the game. Microlending and microfinance are a tiny, yet vital step in ensuring that the meek no longer need dream of inheriting the Earth – they can be a vital part of it.

by Larry O'Toole on Wed, October 18, 2006 at 6:52 pm PDT

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