Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Loan Officer as Peacemaker

The Nobel Committee’s selection of Muhammad Yunus as this year’s outstanding peacemaker may, despite his unquestioned good works and that of his Grameen Bank, have surprised a lot of people.  The banker as peacemaker?  Yes indeed this banker is a peacemaker as are the others like him around the world who are engaged in similar work.  It may seem simplistic to distill the world’s greatest impediments to peace down to two prime causes, but I would suggest that “mine is the only way” religion and rampant poverty are compelling candidates.  All too often the two converge.  Perhaps some suicide bombers including those who flew planes into the Trade Center and Pentagon come from the well educated and middle class, but that oft quoted fact is misleading.  Militant movements require countless foot soldiers and the upwardly mobile bombers are the exception not the rule.

The abject poverty and unspeakably low standard of subsistence (one can’t call it living) found across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even South America is well known to be a breeding ground for unrest, and most importantly for manipulation by charismatic demagogues who today are often extreme religious fundamentalists of one stripe or another.  These are people so desperate and so turned off by the status quo that any attention is welcome, certainly if it carries with it the promise of a better life (even if in the world to come).  Conversely, it you can change the lot of the desperate by giving them a helping hand and enough economic aid, in Grameen’s case a few dollars in seed (often literally) money, the dynamics can also be altered.  The idea that providing seed for a garden can feed a family for years while a donation of food is merely a short term fix is not a romantic cliché but a practical reality.  The latter, no matter how well intentioned, is tantamount to crisis management and the former to a potentially permanent solution which is precisely what Yunus opted for.  His micro loans to the impoverished of Bangladesh have literally turned around lives.  That many of the recipients were women whose societal status was changed in the process is an added bonus, but focusing on this bit of social engineering really misses the point.

No one can say for sure that those whose lives have been turned around by the small loans made by Grameen and other micro lenders across the globe will never join the ranks of the destructive.  At the same time, it is probably not a stretch to suggest that the potential of such an end is far less likely than it might have been without this creative intervention.  It would also be naïve to think that most of the recipients of micro loans will end up as have the very small number of moderately successful entrepreneurs that got their start from his helping hand.  But if the borrowers as a whole can just get on the road to self sustaining family life, a big step will have been taken toward peace.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads these posts that I don’t put much stock in military force to answer the world’s problems whether in Iraq, the Holy Land or anywhere else.  Fighting just tends to breed fighting to wit the emerging arms race that is demanding our attention these days.  Of course, military action may sometimes be unavoidable, but like that donation of food rather than seedlings, it remains a response to immediate crisis never a mechanism for long term solutions.  On the other hand, economic development may well be, especially of the micro kind.  The problem with so many efforts at lifting societies through economic development is that donating governments and agencies want to do grand things.  If we build something big it is thought, if we can infuse large capital pools into an underdeveloped place, the lives of the many can be impacted.  At least that is the promise but, without discounting the importance of doing those big projects as well, such development relies essentially on trickle down (yes Voodoo) economics.  So often it results at best in the emergence of yet another, but relatively small localized middle class and all too often accompanied by a truly tiny elite class of new super rich.  Sadly this kind of high profile development, which routinely holds out the promise of more jobs than it really creates not to mention what turns out to be the most ephemeral ripple effect, simply has not solved the problem.  Rather than eradicating or even putting a dent into global or localized poverty, at times it has actually exasperated the growing disparity between those who have and those who remain without.

The underlying message of the Nobel Committee is that peace takes a lot of work and, while the task seems daunting, ultimately it has to be addressed at the individual level.  This is a painstaking and prolonged process.  Peace has to be made by small and deceivingly unimpressive acts one person at a time.  The most hopeful message that they have conveyed in honoring Muhammad Yunus is that it can be done.  The best take for us on their selection of the loan officer and peacemaker is that it must be done if we are to address and then overcome the most pressing challenges of interacting peacefully in this incredible but shrinking planet.

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