A Big Stage For Small Loans

Muhammad Yunus hopes to use his newfound status to get world governments behind microfinance

On Oct. 13 the world of microfinance came of age. That was the day that Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered the practice of making tiny loans to desperately poor people, won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Grameen Bank, which he founded. Now, Yunus wants to use the elevated pulpit the Nobel has given him to push governments to ease rules that inhibit the creation of more microfinance institutions. And he wants existing ones to learn to stand on their own, relying less on charitable donations. Yunus spoke with Seattle bureau chief Jay Greene at the Global Microcredit Summit in Halifax, Nova Scotia. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

How should microfinance institutions change their approach in the wake of your winning the Nobel Prize?

Previously, if we screamed, people didn't listen. Now, if we whisper, the whole world will hear. Take advantage of that. Tell people what you want to do, and convince them. If you cannot convince them now, you will not convince them ever. We have to review our goals because now we can do much better, much bigger. After the 13th of October, I tell them: "You are taller. So you don't get the same size shirt anymore. You need a bigger size, extra large."

Has the Nobel opened doors for you?

The prize was announced right before I went to China. And the whole Chinese government treated me as a head of state. The foreign minister gave a reception. I have nothing to do with the foreign minister. And ministers from trade and industry gave me dinner in a very posh Beijing restaurant. So another Chinese program came out of it. There are 17 organizations in China who work with us in a microcredit program. But because of this now, the Chinese government set down how to do it nationwide.

Has the prize changed your personal life?

I cannot feel it yet because I am so busy.

You've talked about how you'd like to wean microcredit from philanthropy.

My experience is with Grameen Bank. We stopped taking any external money in 1995. Within our country, we borrowed in 1998 because we had a terrible flood. But we didn't go back to the donors. We went to the Central Bank. We issued bonds sold within the market to the banks. And we paid it back by 2002. After that, we didn't take out any loans. We cut off all donor links. We have plenty of money. We are expanding at high speed.

With that experience, we say that anybody could have done that. But earlier, when donors wanted to give us money, we were always swayed and took the money. If donors hadn't given us the money, we would have discovered earlier that we have the strength.

Microfinance is popular in philanthropy circles. Are you discouraging people from giving to microfinance?

If it's a business, it should be running as a business. You wouldn't say Citibank should take donations. Grameen Bank shouldn't take donations either. People want to send us a check. I say: "Thank you. But you can write the check for another purpose, not Grameen Bank. You can sponsor a scholarship for a poor person."

The Gates Foundation is moving into microfinance. What impact will it have?

Well, [the money] shouldn't come in a way that will discourage people from finding a local source. Otherwise, you don't discover your own strength.

Having said that, it's ramping up to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on microfinance. Is there the capacity to handle that money?

Today, there are many countries where microfinance is at a very low stage. There, this money will help to lift them up. The real problem is legal. While the Gates Foundation can give money, they should also negotiate with governments to make sure that all entities that they give money to get a waiver that allows them to take deposits. Then, the spirit is not of dependence, but of creating independence.

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