Banker to the Poor Review

Banker to the Poor by Muhammad Yunus was an excellent read. Not five star excellent, but still interesting. Reading through it I could pick out parts that would be exciting and interesting for our book club to discuss. Micro-lending, in particular in as varied of circumstances as Yunus presents, touches on almost every level of life, which makes it exceptionally easy to discuss.

It wasn’t a quick read like some of our journalistic style non-fictions from the past. Detroit: An American Autopsy, for example, was a faster paced, more gripping story. Banker to the Poor started off slow. Feeling more biographical, detailed, and halting language. Yunus tells stories about being a boy, his academic background, his culture. It isn’t that it isn’t interesting, but it doesn’t pull you into the story of non-traditional banking immediately.

Still, you get to know him, understand why an economics professor might want to get involved in improving the lives of extremely poor villagers near his campus in Bangladesh. Yunus started small, at what he calls the worm’s view. Readers get to hear the stories of the professor approaching impoverished women and introducing them to a non-traditional loan system when their cultures discourage women from touching money. All the while traditional banking is laughing at Professor Yunus for asking for such paltry loans. And yet they make it work, improving the lives of enormous numbers of people both in Bangladesh and later the world.

There’s a passage where Yunus describes himself, which also reflects his policies as the book presents them:

I take a pragmatic approach grounded in social considerations. In evrything I do, I try to be practical. I rely on learning by doing, while making sure that I am moving toward achieving a social objective.

While he is wildly, almost vehemently, optimistic about  human nature, he is surprisingly often proved correct in his optimism. Grameen, the micro-lending bank they set up, operates under the assumption they can trust the very poor to repay small loans because their very lives depend on them doing so. At a 98% repayment rate, they do better than traditional banking. He also believes individuals and organizations have the potential to invest in socially responsible initiatives.

In his chapter, The Future, he states:

The most daring of these goals [established by the Millennium Summit of world leaders at the United Nations in June 2000] is an entirely achievable one: halving poverty by 2015.

When reading this it seemed less than “entirely achievable” to me, so I wanted to find out if his goals were met. I looked at Our World In Data and discovered that in 2002 26% of the population of the world lived in extreme poverty. In 2015 it was reduced to 9.5%. I was amazed and delighted.

The type of micro-lending I do is unlike the Grameen Bank. I loan to individuals through third parties rather than a bank supporting them directly. The requirements, goals, and culture is probably different because Kiva works with various lending partners as well. However, the book supported the impact any type of micro-lending can have on a community, family, and individuals. Obviously, they believe Grameen is the ideal, especially since it has evolved over time, but it still reinforces many of the reasons I originally got involved in micro-lending. The data of the organization was collected in a way that only an academic would have considered early on. While Yunus seems an unlikely candidate to start a bank, a reader can easily see why he fell into such a career.

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