Banker to the Poor- September Book Club

This was a fantastic choice for book club. Serious kudos to GalaticDeep for the choice. We’ve all been in those book clubs where no matter how strong the bibliophile vibes sometimes conversation just wanders away from the book.

We had a total of seven people attend this month, five members, our hostess, and her husband. Of those five of us finished the book, one had previously read it for a course in college, and another was  just starting. Everyone enjoyed it.

For almost three hours we talked about elements of the book.We talked about the author, the weird mesh of complete humility and modesty for a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Our shame in not already knowing who the Nobel Peace Prize winners. How can we unintentionally know Brad Pitts’ relationship status but not know Noble Peace Prize winners? Yunus does have weird moments, however, where his status pops up with pride. I laughed at a remark where he had an office without a bathroom and had to use the neighbors during Grameen’s early years.

We discussed what poverty really meant. In Bangladesh, farmers are not the poorest of the poor that  Yunus sought, it was the basket weavers. Similarly, in the United States, it wasn’t the service workers but those on welfare that he wanted to meet to discuss Grameen’s micro-lending program. Yunus describes some of the struggles in implementing such programs in the Western world, however,

Those who receive welfare become virtual prisoners not only of poverty but of those who would help them; if they earn a dollar, it must be immediately reported to the welfare authority and deducted from their next welfare check.

Later, he describes how in the developed world “my greatest nemesis is the tenacity of the social welfare system” because it forces informal businesses into a status of “illegal street hustles.”

Although, notably, the poorest of the poor at no point includes orphans or prostitutes. Only in Paris is there mention of a criminal attempting to open a french fry stand. The book, perhaps the organization, fails to address other parts of the population as well, such as nomads/migrant workers.

The emphasis on community was also discussed. The Grameen system requires groups of five to join. If you are alone you cannot take out a loan, it requires collaborators. We talked about how this could be both an obstacle, for example hindering someone with very low social status and using it against them, but also how it can build relationships that would not have existed otherwise. There is an echo through these predominately women formed groups of isolation prior to joining the bank. One of the most heartbreaking anecdotes is from a Mexican woman in the United States, but it resonates with women all over the Grameen project, she says:

In the fifteen years I have been  here, I never had a friend. I didn’t even know anybody. I was all alone. Now I have many friends. My four friends in the group are like my own systers. Even if the WSEP [local verision of Grameen] did not give us money, I would not leave the group.”

We also related the book to our own area. I am currently purchasing a house in a new neighborhood toward the South End of Grand Rapids, Michigan. There is an absence of banks in the area. The only one with a presence literally has an airlock system of cages only allowing one customer in at a time. Recently, I also started working with a non-profit that works to develop entrepreneurship in youth, specific areas they work in are often urban centers and rural areas. It seems strange that the organization will have to teach youth how to open these businesses without access to banks. They couldn’t even open a savings account.

Toward the end of our time, one member shared that he did not generally give to charities. Occasionally, he donates to the Red Cross, literary organizations, or tosses something into a jar at a register, but because of the impact and the type of system set up through micro-lending he would be interested in pursuing involvement further. I just love when a book can change someone’s way of thinking.




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