Looking at the world upside down

When one of my daughters was young she liked to be upside-down.  As a baby, when she fussed, she would quiet down if we held her with her head lower than her feet.  When she got to be a toddler, she spent quite a bit of time standing on her head.  She watched television upside down.  She sat on the sofa upside down.  Something about that alternative view of the world seemed to fascinate her.

Sometimes drawing is taught by asking the student to draw a subject upside down.  Apparently drawing from that different perspective allows the brain to process what we see differently.  Maybe it allows us to see what is really there rather than what we expect to see.

The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bangladeshi economist, Mohammad Yanus, is quoted as saying “All of Bangladesh has changed if you look from the bottom up.”  It was from that upside-down perspective that the 66 year-old, American educated, university professor came to understand what others had missed–that what was needed to help the poorest of the poor who live on less than $1 a day was a loan.

Yanus’s first loan to a group of people in a small village in Bangladesh was a mere $27 US.  The villagers paid him back and the idea of micro credits took off.  Since that day in 1976, Yanus and his grameen Bank network and other similar micro credit institutions have made small loans to more than 92 million clients.  Eighty-five percent of the recipients of micro credit loans around the world are women and the loans average a mere $160 each.  There is no collateral required and the money must be used for self-employment or to generate income.

According to Yanus, he has turned the ideas of the banking industry upside-down as well.  Money is lent only to those who cannot acquire affordable credit because they have nothing to guarantee a loan.  Occasionally these individuals do manage to negotiate a loan from a money lender.  Usually they cannot generate enough income to pay back such loans because the interest rates they are charged are so high that all of their earnings go to pay the lender.

Yanus emphasizes that the money lent by his Grameen Bank is a loan not a grant.  The bank charges a reasonable amount of interest which, when the loan is repaid, generates new money available to be loaned to even more people in the community.  The local Grameen Banks are owned by the borrowers and the money repaid is recirculated in the community.  The banks also provide a place for local residents to save their money and earn interest on their deposits.

Interestingly, most of the borrowers are women.  Professor Yanus, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company said that his experience was that women were both more likely to repay the borrowed amount and to use the profit earned from their micro enterprise to better the well-being of their family and community.

In addition to loans, the Grameen Bank network provides financial and business education and community development.  The Grameen Foundation, USA’s web site cites examples women around the world who are able to feed their families and send their children to school because of these small loans and the small businesses they have made possible.  The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Muhammad Yanus and the Grameen Bank for the impact they have had in reducing poverty around the world.

The concept pioneered by Muhammad Yanus is upside down because it takes a huge problem and uses a small scale solution multiplied over and over again.

Perhaps we could solve more big problems if we tried standing on our heads and looking at them from the bottom up.

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains