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One Miracle at a Time

Dr. Muhammad Yunus

S ometimes very big humanitarian movements have simple beginnings. As the

child of rich parents in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus learned about helping
poor people from his mother. From his Boy Scout leader, Quazi Shahib, he learned
the value of good friends, leadership, being part of a group, thinking for himself and
hard work.
He studied hard and earned a scholarship to Vanderbilt University in Nashville,
Tennessee, where he received a doctorate in economics. When he returned to
Bangladesh and began teaching economics at university, he discovered that the
ideas he had learned and was teaching to his students would not help the poor
people of his country.
It was in 1974, when famine had killed more than a million people in Bangladesh,
that Dr. Yunus decided to explore the poor villages to see what he could do. By the
side of a road he met a very poor 21-year-old woman named Sufia Begum, who was
weaving baskets from bamboo strips. When he talked with her, he discovered that she
had to borrow money to pay for her bamboo from the rich businessman who bought
her baskets when she finished making them. The businessman charged the woman
a lot of money to borrow money—up to ten cents for every dollar, every week.
By the time the woman had finished her work, paid for more bamboo and repaid
the money she had borrowed, she earned just two cents a basket. The businessman
kept all the profit.
Dr. Yunus found out that if this woman had a little money—twelve dollars—she
could buy her bamboo at a low price, earn much more money and not need the
greedy businessman any more.
Dr. Yunus loaned her the money out of his own pocket and trusted that she would
pay it back. His friends told him he’d never see his money again. They thought
O ne M iracle at a T ime

he was just giving it away with false hopes. Lo and behold, a short while later, the
woman paid back every penny.
Her life was better. She was more independent and not so poor. She and her family
were creating change in their own condition. There was hope after all.
Dr. Yunus began organizing village women into groups of borrowers. At first this
was difficult. They did not want to borrow money without being sure they could pay
it back. But when one after another began to succeed, the idea caught on.
Dr. Yunus tried to interest banks in taking over the project, but they believed that
poor people would not be able to repay their loans and banks were only in business
to make money. Dr. Yunus’ personal loans worked for one person, but it wasn’t
126 enough to help one village. He decided to start an independent bank for the poor,
but the banks didn’t believe in the idea.
Fortunately, he met Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, who later became Finance Minister
of Bangladesh. Mr. Muhith helped Dr. Yunus set up Grameen Bank in 1983 on the
idea that the poorest of the poor could be trusted with “micro-credit”—very small
loans with nothing but the person’s promise to repay the loan. The pressure of being
part of a borrower’s group helped make sure the money was paid back.
At first Dr. Yunus wanted to give an equal number of loans to men as to women,
but he found that women paid back the money better. At present, 94 percent of
the bank’s customers are women. Women spend the money to support their entire
Grameen Bank grew to serve 36,000 villages in Bangladesh and gave micro-loans
for rice farms, fish farms, housing, cloth making and other small business activities.
Today it is a big success.
As Dr. Yunus put it, “It is not the poor who are not creditworthy, it is the banks that
are not peopleworthy.”
Dr. Muhammad Yunus is a real hero to the poor in his home country and around the
world. So much so, that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
Heroes become heroes by looking at situations for themselves with a “What can I do
about it?” attitude, rather than “What can they do about it?”