FR KEVIN HEGARTY
Famine haunted the west of Ireland in the 19th century. Many English writers have left us poignant evocations of a society on the abyss between survival and destitution. Some, unfortunately, went beyond vivid description into jaundiced analysis. The Irish, they asserted, had character defects which prevented them from prospering. They had too many children and drank too much. They were reckless and lazy, their minds distorted by a sulphurous cocktail of superstition and Catholicism.
We know now that these arguments were dangerous, racist tosh, the product of mindsets conditioned by colonial arrogance. Ireland has journeyed from poverty to prosperity in the space of a century. I argued here two weeks ago that Michael Davitt and Donogh O’Malley were significant in the lifting of the tyranny of poverty in Ireland. Once people see avenues of opportunity they will follow them.
One senses from English commentators in the 19th century that Ireland would always be a most distressful country. Maybe, just maybe, today we have similar feelings about the third world. Every year harrowing images of hunger fill our TV screens. We do what is asked of us. Like Bono, we want to make poverty history. We fill the Trocaire boxes, wear the Goal badges and support Concern. We go on sponsored walks and fasts. Yet it can all seem to little avail.
If we look deeper, however, we learn that there is progress, slow but sure, some of it brought about by the Westport and Erris partnerships with African communities. There are beacons of hope amidst the desolation. One of them, Muhammad Yunus, has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Some dodgy characters have won the award but, this year, the worthies who make the decision have chosen well.
Muhammad was born in India in 1940, the son of a shopkeeper. As a child he was not a paragon of virtue. When a children’s magazine ran a competition with free subscriptions as a prize he was disappointed not to win. He wrote to the magazine, using the name of one of the winners, informing them of ‘a change of address’, so the prize was diverted to him. Later he applied this capacity for lateral thinking to positive use.
He won a Fulbright scholarship to the US. He did a Ph.D at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, after which he went to Bangladesh to lecture on economics at Chittagong University.
In the early seventies he felt hypocritical, teaching ‘elegant theories of economics’ while as many as 1.5 million were dying of hunger in the catastrophic famine of these years.
He began to make field trips to a village near the university. There he met a woman who made bamboo stools. The meeting changed her life. And his life. She told him that, after she paid the money lender his exorbitant interest, she made a paltry profit of 1p on each stool. Yunus decided to lend her and 41 others the money he had in his pocket. They paid him back and started to flourish. For Yunus this was a moment of epiphany.
He decided to develop the idea. He asked the major banks to lend small amounts to the poor. The bankers laughed at him, saying that the poor were not credit worthy. Lord Chesterfield once wrote of the kind of man who would throw you a rope only when you reached dry land. Banks are like that.
Eventually Yunus won support to establish the Grameen Bank. The bank lends money only to the poor and destitute. It lends to individuals in small groups on the understanding that if one member defaults the others will be liable. Loans are often as low as the equivalent of £20 sterling.
Since its establishment the Grameen Bank has lent over 2.9 billion sterling. Its methods have been copies throughout the third world. More than 100 million of the poorest people in the world have been helped. Over 96 per cent of the borrowers are women. Yumus believes they are more reliable than men. They repay their debts and spend the profits on their children. It gives substance to the view that the key to the development of the third world is the education and empowerment of women.
Some years ago Muhammed Yumus claimed that ‘our grandchildren will go to museums to see what poverty was like’. A noble aspiration, utopian perhaps, but one, who has enkindled such hope, is entitled to dream outrageously.