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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Monday, January 23, 2006

Beg No More!

Daily News: 16/01/2006" Global Miscellany by M.V. Muhsin

"When I suggested that we will have a credit scheme for beggars, people thought I was crazy." That was Grameen Bank's Muhammad Yunus talking when I met him in Bonn, in 2004. He was being honoured at an international forum for his visionary leadership.

At that time there were some 10,000 beggars registered in Bangladesh with the Grameen Programme. Yunus predicted that registration will double at the year end. He was wrong! Today there are over 50,000 registered with "The Struggling (Beggar) Members Programme"!!

His critics scoffed at him with equal, if not more, vehemence when he proposed two decades ago that a formal bank be formed, owned by poor borrowers, mostly by women. 'A Bank for the Poor!? Credit for poor women?!! It was a revolting idea at that time. What was more revolting was that the Bank will not require any guarantees nor pledging of assets nor legal instruments.

Today there are over four million members, 95 per cent women. The system, as with that for Beggars, works on peer pressure where it is in the interest of other participating members, who operate in small groups, to ensure that each of them, and all together, behave in a responsible manner. The participants know that default on the part of one impacts all others.

My interest today is in "The Struggling (Beggar) Members Programme" as it can serve as a role model to help an often helpless segment of our societies. Their domain is the streets, car parks, bus stands, markets, places of worship and the like. Their staple is the emotional reaction of people or the desire of their quarry to get rid of them by dropping a coin or two.

Their dilemma is that they have to live by the day if not by the hour. They have no permanent or even temporary shelter. They are haunted by decease and squalor. They have condemned themselves to a style of life of no return. Admittedly, many of them have created this situation for themselves by not being enterprising even in a modest way. That is the norm. Professor Yunus did not accept this "norm".

He believes that creating opportunities for a better life is a sacred duty. He believes that begging is chosen in Bangladesh by many of the poor as a result of death of the earning member in the family, unemployment or disability, laziness and the lack of a "system" that will give them a chance to get their act together. Yunus rightly argues that most of the poverty alleviation programmes do not reach this segment of society who lives on the very margins of life.

As he did with larger programmes of Grammeen Bank, he believes that access to credit..... micro-credit... can pave the way. But he argues against the concept that micro-credit is a good intervention for the poor in the higher layers of the poor but that it's of no use to the bottom poor.

Credit to him is a "human right". So he got to work on the "Struggling (Beggar) Members Programme". The programme offers loans exclusively to beggars, particularly to those he calls "Generational Beggars".

They are invited to carry a collection of popular consumer items, financed by Grameen Bank, when they go out to beg from rural households. They are allowed to do both begging and selling at their convenience. If their selling activity picks up, Yunus hopes, they may quit begging and focus on selling. A typical Grameen loan was about Rs. 1,000 in Sri Lankan currency.

Beggars who do not have limbs, cannot go house to house do the begging at a fixed spot with a beggar's bowl in front.

They are helped, through the Grameen credit system, to keep soft drinks, biscuits, flowers etc next to them and offer their patrons an option..... to throw in a coin or buy something, or do both.

And what are the results? Yunus' face brightened and in his own words: "I am happy to report that beggars are responding to the programme enthusiastically. We see positive results".

And what other innovations are in store? Grameen has a highly successful programme titled Grameen Village Phone. Here, there are close to 75,000 "telephone ladies" as they are called, providing telephone services in some 80 per cent of villages of Bangladesh.

The mobile phones are hired out to them and they in turn visit rural areas and offer telephone calls at a fee. The loan repayment rate..... as with other Grameen Loans to the poor.... is an astonishing 99 per cent. Yunus' vision is that the "Struggling (Beggars) Member Programme" will venture into mobile phones as well.

The significant aspect of all this is that the traditional mode of poverty alleviation needs imaginative thinking. And more importantly "vision" and "courage" that Professor Yunus has so ably demonstrated to the global community.

(The writer is a former Senior Vice President of the World Bank)

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