Director Holly Mosher spent years making this documentary detailing how innovative economic initiatives, such as microcredit to the poor, can provide an alternative to traditional capitalistic financial products that ignore those without wealth. In the film, Mosher not only provides a close-up portrait of microlending at work in rural Bangladesh, but also talks with Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus about his growing alternative economy and the provision of services for those without means. Truthout and BuzzFlash readers can directly obtain “Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus” on DVD and support uncompromised journalism by clicking here.
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Mark Karlin: In contrast to the Republican trickle-down theory of economics, Muhammad Yunus developed a trickle-up approach to empowering the poor through financial opportunity. What is his theory, distilled down to two or three sentences?
Holly Mosher: Yunus has seen that lending small amounts of money to people unleashes their human potential and unlocks their hidden entrepreneur. When people are given access to credit, they can create the first steps toward improving their lives and creating businesses based on their individual strengths.
M.K.: He lives in, and started out microcredit loans in, Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations in the world. Is he a wealthy individual? What inspired him to commence such a transformative project to improve the lives of the very poor?
H.M.: During the famine of 1974, Yunus was the head of the economics department at Chittagong University. He felt silly teaching elegant economic theories while people were dying around him. So, in his quest to do something, he took his students into the field and initially tried to help crop yields. It was through that experiment that he realized that it was the day laborers who husking the rice that were the ones who were really suffering, and that they were often at the mercy of moneylenders who they’d buy raw products from and then sell their finished wares to, at the prices set by the lenders. He had his students ask the villagers to find out how many were indebted to loan sharks in this way and found out that they could give 42 people just $27 to break this vicious cycle. When the villagers paid him back, he realized they were on to something. Many of his students still work with him to this day.
M.K.: Much of the emphasis in your documentary, “Bonsai People,” is on how a representative of the microcredit Grameen Bank works with women in an impoverished, rural shantytown area of Bangladesh. Why is there an emphasis on working with indigent women?
H.M.: When Yunus began this work, the Bangladeshi bank customers were made up of 99 percent men, so Yunus wanted to change this. He aimed to have 50 percent of their clients be women. It took six years to get to equal lending because the women were afraid of borrowing. As they watched the progress within the families of the borrowers, they noticed that the women used the money much more wisely to improve their families’ food intake, the housing and the schooling of their children, so that’s when they said, “Forget 50/50; let’s just lend to the women.”
M.K.: What is the crossover that Yunus made between microlending – uplifting the economic prospects of the most fundamentally poor – and social services?
H.M.: In Bangladesh, the struggle to survive is so great, and when working with the poor, it is hard not to notice their other difficulties. They have little to no access to health care, education, electricity, proper nutrition, etcetera. So, as much as Yunus saw that microcredit is a tool, he also saw that the poor in Bangladesh lack access to so many other services that we take for granted. So, that’s when they started providing business solutions to fill these other needs. Yunus has said, “Whenever I see a problem, I immediately start a business.” And it’s pretty true. He’s finding viable business solutions to provide access to goods and services that are just as beneficial for the poor as they are to you and I.
M.K.: What are some of the offshoot businesses Yunus developed to improve the health of poor communities, and who receives the profits?
H.M.: Yunus tries to address health care in several ways. First, there is Grameen Kalyan, or Grameen Health Care, which has 54 clinics in rural Bangladesh and provides insurance for a family of seven for $1 a month. There is also Grameen Green Children Eye-Care Hospitals, which is providing cataract surgery and general eye care. Thirdly, Yunus and his colleagues are trying to prevent illness by providing better nutrition through their partnership with Danone. Grameen Danone sells fortified yogurt in the hopes that kids will get two units a week in order to get the basic intake of vitamins and minerals that are missing in their diets. They also have a fishery and livestock company. The fisheries have greatly improved the yields of their ponds. And they have a seed company and encourage people to plant and eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to have a balanced diet. In all of Yunus’ endeavors, he doesn’t own a share of his companies. With the bank and the fisheries, the borrowers and participants are the stakeholders of the company. Yunus doesn’t own a share of any of his companies. He is doing his work for the benefit of the community and not for personal gain.
M.K.: You quote Yunus as saying, “Poor people are bonsai people; there is nothing wrong with their seed – society never allowed them the space to grow.” Many well-off people don’t agree; they regard the poor as “losers.” What makes Yunus different and so invested in implementing these innovative financial initiatives?
H.M.: Yunus sees the beauty and potential in each and every human being. He treats everyone equally and knows that if you give each seed the proper nutrients and growing conditions, it can reach its full potential. Instead of seeing the poor as a burden, he sees their full capacity and tries to figure out how to nourish it, so that they, too, can bear fruit.
M.K.: Do Yunus’ models have applications in contexts other than poor, rural communities?
H.M.: His models can and are being adapted around the world in a variety of ways. Grameen America has taken the microcredit model to New York City, Omaha, Indianapolis and San Francisco, and they are seeing the same successes. Other groups are being inspired by his solar energy company, which is the fastest-growing solar energy company in the world, with a tangible goal of reaching 1 million homes by 2015. So, people can study his models and think outside of the box, as he’s doing, to bring the solutions to their own communities. In fact, I am excited that the Social Business and Microcredit Forums are starting in the United States to solve problems here at home.
M.K.: Does the concept of cooperatives have any application for the microcredit models?
H.M.: Yes, in fact, at Grameen Bank, each borrower ends up buying a 100 Taka share of the company, and they have nine borrowers on the board of directors (out of 12 members). Also, each group of borrowers has a chairperson, and the chairwomen meet in regional and zonal meetings. The management listens to the needs of the borrowers and has adapted their programs to best suit their borrowers’ needs. They have switched over from what they call Grameen 1.0 to Grameen 2.0. They went from group lending to individual lending and have created flexible loan plans, etcetera. I would love to see more microcredit programs have borrower ownership, as well.
M.K.: Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize. What did the Nobel Committee cite as his contribution to peace?
H.M.: The Nobel Committee gave Yunus and the Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize, “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.” As Yunus said in his speech: “Poverty is a threat to peace. The world’s income distribution gives a very telling story. Ninety-four percent of the world income goes to 40 percent of the population, while 60 percent of the people live on only 6 percent of the world income. Half of the world population lives on $2 a day,” he said. “This is no formula for peace.” So, by raising the living standard for the world’s poor, we can help create a more peaceful world.
M.K.: Are the global banks who control wealth for the rich and corporations threatened by Yunus’ economic successes with the poor? In many ways, most of the profit is put into the pocket of the individual instead of a business. Isn’t this a threat to the standard banking model?
H.M.: I don’t believe that the banks and corporations are threatened by Yunus’ success; in fact, I think he is showing them a new successful business model. Major corporations are even partnering with him because they see how he is able to engage the poor into the economy. One thing that I find beautiful about his work is that it appeals to people from all political spectrums and is a unifying force. So, that is why I see social business as one of the best real solutions for the world.
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