CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 18 May 2019

Print Version    Email to Friend
Book challenges any belief the poor must always be with us

I believe that microcredit is a human right” is a bold statement, but it is the conviction of Hongyu Wang, the Hong Kong-based author of a short, but enlightening book titled Grameen in Kosovo, on the impact that a little bit of money with the right expert advice can have on the lives of impoverished people, even within the context of war-torn Kosovo in the early 2000s.

While it is a technical read, it is not a difficult one for anyone who has an interest in microcredit or breaking the poverty cycle that plagues the lives of around three-quarters of the population of the world.

But even the uninitiated or the casual reader can turn the last page with at least the suspicion that the poor do not always have to be with us.

A short book of only 80 pages with double spacing, it can be read in one sitting, but the large amount of information crammed into each page does invite a return visit.

Wang’s exposé of the difference a little knowledge and a small amount of money expertly injected into the bottom rungs of the economic ladder can make, is sufficient to justify the hope that, with the political will to develop the expertise, a model of wealth-sharing that could give the assurance of a decent life for all people is not beyond the ability of the world economy to deliver.

Microcredit was not a new concept when Muhammad Yunus institutionalised it under the Bangladeshi Central Bank in 1976 and then as the internationally known and recognised Grameen Bank in 1983.

By 1989 it was a truly internationalised reality, eventually spreading its tentacles to 40 countries across the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The concept was already well known in the first world, mostly under the title of credit unions, but while their business almost exclusively involves consumption—especially of whitegoods—Yunus believed that microcredit could operate among those who have little or nothing—not to consume, but to produce.

Mainland born and Macau educated Wang builds his thesis on the belief that humankind is simple, yet revolutionary; as there is potential in each human being to eradicate any form of suffering caused by poverty.

The Grameen Trust has provided support to 150 partners that use the approach that Yunus championed of introducing sustainable credit programmes into some of the most desperate poverty-stricken areas in the world.

But successful microcredit programmes are not built on ignorance and Wang explains in detail the necessity and process of providing expert assessment of proposed projects, careful screening of candidates and the discipline required in monitoring a programme to make it a success.

He quotes figures showing an almost negligible default rate on repayment, with most outstanding loans attributable to death, sickness or natural disasters.

Microcredit has succeeded where states have failed to provide adequate infrastructure for normal business and employment practices to thrive, but Wang demonstrates that even in the most hostile environment of a totally failed state like immediate post-war Kosovo, it can also succeed, as it creates its own infrastructure and introduces its own discipline.

The tiny, but politically sensitive Kosovo was decimated during a vicious two years of ethnic cleansing from 1998 to 1999, raping it of a huge percentage of its population, industry and social infrastructure.

When a relief programme run by the Italian government invited the Grameen Trust to come to Kosovo in 2000, it arrived into a state of easily punctured peace, which often saw more damage inflicted than the war itself.

While the preponderance of unfamiliar acronyms Wang uses in his book can be irritating, although all are notated somewhere, he does give a brief enough overview of Kosovo’s pre-war history, which is adequately credible to set the scene and sufficient to give an understanding of the problems that people were facing and the microcredit gurus had to deal with.

“Some households only had women left; all the men were killed,” Wang quotes the Grameen Trust general manager as saying.

A 2003 assessment showed a positive result.

The project had provided opportunities to women where none existed and promoted opportunities for war victims. Most importantly, it showed incrementally increasing incomes and growth of entrepreneurial skills, while at the same time building strong communities and boosting the self-esteem of its members.

It also put women in the centre of decision-making processes, gave an impetus to employment and developed a culture of saving, especially among women.

In addition, it bred resilience to natural disasters and especially assisted people in dealing with the harsh, freezing winters of the Kosovo climate.

A year later, the Grameen relief project was able to move to the second phase where enterprises were able to cover their own costs, and loans to successful projects could be increased in order to aid growth and expansion.

Eventually, it grew to the extent that many demands for loans were beyond the capacity of micro-lending to providae, which reflects the ultimate success of any such programme, which ideally, should lead to the growth of a full-blown banking system.

While Wang’s personal background has taken him into the world of Habitat, a programme that trades sweat for capital in providing low cost housing, his experience with micro-finance comes out of a document study in Grameen’s head office in Dhaka and his book was originally an assessment report on the Kosovo project.

Consequently, while it does provide an excellent chronicle of the technical dynamics, the human side of maturing self-esteem, growing confidence, the community aspect of peer-monitored discipline and cooperation among members, which produces the cultural change essential to the success of microfinance, is not gone into. But maybe that is another story.

However, what he does do is clearly demonstrate the possibility that the encouragement of human ingenuity and promotion of self-development can yield an economic return far in excess of the small investment.

Does he establish his claim that microfinance is a human right? He says it does, as it concerns human dignity and equal opportunity. But ultimately it is up to the reader to answer this question.

But it will provide a challenge to anyone who believes that the majority of the world’s population has to be condemned to live in poverty and that the poor must always be with us.

 

Reviewed by Jim Mulroney

 

Published by Author House (April ’15) Printed by Bookmasters USA
& Lightning Source UK

 

ISBN : 978-1-5049-4052-8 (sc)

            978-1-5049-4051-1 (hc)

            978-1-5049-4053-5 (e)

 

 

Incd in British National Bibliography