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Some substance, please,
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This review is from: Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle against World Poverty (Audio CD)
Muhammed Yunus has worked tirelessly for the poorest of the poor. He has developed an enormously exciting new model for economic and social empowerment. He has expanded it to serve millions of people and give out billions of dollars in loans. His story is thrilling, even inspiring. How in the world can you criticize someone like that?
Well, here's how.
First and most importantly, you can scour through Banker to the Poor and not find anything concrete about whether the Grameen Bank and all of its allied institutions have actually reduced poverty.
In the middle of the book, Yunus says that he wants outside independent auditors to look at the outcomes for Grameen borrowers. I believe him, but the man has been in business for more than 30 years now; it would be nice to have SOME indicator of effectiveness. Moreover, when he discusses the "star" system, whereby individual Grameen branches apply for recognition for outstanding performance, he notes almost in passing that only 21 of more than 1,100 branches have even applied for the "brown star," which is awarded if 100% of the borrowers have escaped poverty. Maybe none of them even received it. Now, 100% is a very tall order and it's not the best indicator. But it is the ONLY one that Yunus offers in the entire book.
Think about the scale of Grameen: it has delivered more than $4 billion in loans since it was founded. That sounds impressive until you realize that Bangladesh has more than 120 million people, about 40% of the size of the United States. $4 billion isn't even a drop in the bucket on that scale.
And yes, Grameen borrowers have a superb record of repayment. But they also paid back the brutally unfair loans that they got from rapacious middlemen before Yunus stepped it for precisely the reason that Yunus explains: they have no other choice. So we still don't know anything about outcomes.
This critique is necessary because Yunus makes some quite extravagant claims in the book, e.g. the government should get out of the business of social service, health care, and education provision altogether. Can the free market provide such things for the poor? Of course not, Yunus says: that's why he needed to start Grameen in the first place. He then proposes a rather hazy notion of "socially conscious entrepreneurs" that will fill the gap, and insists that this sector -- which really has yet to exist anywhere -- can do it. What structures will ensure this? How can the proper incentives be provided? How would these entrepreneurial ventures look any different from the traditional nonprofit sector? Yunus doesn't tell us.
In fact, although Banker to the Poor gives a decent enough overall narrative of Grameen and its founder, it tells us precious little about the model, how it works, and why it is successful. We get a few nuggets: one key innovation appears to be giving loans to small groups of borrowers, who essentially monitor each other. This seems to have been an ingenious idea. He does discuss how dedicated his staff is, and -- to his great credit -- he names many of the important staffers and how they contributed to the organization. But his account of why such talented people work for Grameen, how he is able to retain them, and whether such staff can be found in other places and at a sufficient scale, is not explained.
My suspicion got piqued when I realized that no one seems to have been able to replicate his model on the scale he has in Bangladesh -- or at least none that he discusses. He does talk about replications, but they seem to be small and not really making a dent.
And I confess to a certain amount of annoyance as to the style of the book: the intrepid advocate Yunus battles intransigent bureaucrats, lazy bankers, arrogant development agencies (who, like the World Bank, nevertheless have funded him lavishly since the early 90's). He even relates the exact words of the exact conversations. This tone is heightened by an overheated performance by Ray Porter in the unabridged audio edition.
This surfeit of heat over light really comes through when Yunus argues that credit should be a "human right." But he simultaneously says that Grameen only wants highly motivated and energized borrowers, who will work and commit to making their businesses become successful. There are lots of people like that, and lots of people NOT like that. What about those borrowers who are not as highly motivated and responsible? Do they have the right to credit, too? Yunus wants to end world poverty, and more power to him: but at the fundamental level, in this book he doesn't really seem to have thought through the most important implications of his argument.
If you know next to nothing about micro-finance, as I did before reading this book, it's worth it. Yunus seems to have done a great deal of good; smart, committed, effective people and organizations support him. It makes a good deal of sense and it's not as if anyone else has the magic bullet. It would just be nice to know exactly what he has done and how he has done it. I'm looking forward to reading his next book and finding out the substance, because Banker to the Poor certainly doesn't provide it.
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Initial post: Jan 29, 2012 9:21:57 PM PST
Mahmood Ali says:
Read an interesting article in the following link which debunks the claims made by a couple of authors who, in their article, tried to point out why Dr. Yunus' micro-credit program was a failure and that it did not reduce poverty. The article published in the Harvard Business Review was thoroughly discredited by the blogger in the following piece:
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