What do Natalie Portman (Holywood star) and Muhammad Yunus (2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate) have in common?
October 26th, 2007
Answer: They both came to Harvard to talk about Micro Finance.
Last weekend Muhammad Yunus came to speak at Harvard KSG (Kennedy School of Government). I was lucky to get a ticket to this packed Saturday morning talk, which was quite inspirational. Yunus is a very impressive person: a Bangladeshi professor of economics who founded the non-profit Grameen Bank (“village bank”), a bank based on the concept of Micro Credit: giving small loans to people too poor to qualify for traditional loans or even traditional banking services. Since its inception in 1976, Grameen Bank has issued US$ 6.38 billion to 7.4 million borrowers. More than 95% of the loans have gone to women, who are disproportionally poorer than men. These women have used the money to start their own small business or pay debts. Today, when the bank is already managed and run by some of its ex-loaners, Yunus is busy developing similar non-profit projects in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. His dream is to abolish world poverty in the next 30 years, and Grameen Bank has been expanding globally quite quickly. If you’d like to read more about this vision and his way of achieving it, I recommend his bestselling book, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty.
His talk was short but very interesting; he told us about himself and how he came to think about the idea of Grameen Bank and Micro-Credit: it was after his studied in the US, visited a poor village in Bangladesh and realized that with a collective loan of 27 USD, he could help 42 women repay their debts and start their own business.
Another point in his speech that made me think (it sounds simple, yet you seldom think about it that way):
He claimed that poor people are not “different” from anyone else; they’re not born with a special “poorness gene” that makes them more inclined to be poor. He said that given equal opportunities, Bangladeshi people can succeed in life as other / Western people, and gave as examples the dozens of Bangladeshi students who receive scholarships and excel at Western universities. He offered a compelling analogy of a Bonsai tree – when you plant a seed in a small flowerpot, and give him only little food, it doesn’t have room for growth and will only grow to be a small tree. However if you plant the very same seed in a large flowerpot and supply it with all the food, water and sun that it needs, it will grow to be a large, healthy tree. (not sure about the biological accuracy of that, but the Seed idea is quite clear)
Later that day I went to a section mate’s apartment to have some drinks, and talked about Mr. Yunus with another section mate from New Zealand. He brought up the interesting example of the first Australian citizens – British convicts who were sent to Australia, then a penal colony. The descendants of the very same convicts are the citizens of successful Australia today – a nice manifestation of the “seed theory”.
Today, Natalie Portman came to HBS to talk to 1000 students about FINCA, a micro finance institution similar to Grameen Bank, founded in 1984. Portman has been involved with FINCA since 2004, and traveled to countries such as Uganda and Ecuador to help the organization. In her talk she seemed very sincere, knowledgeable and smart (and obviously very good looking…). She also has an Israeli connection – she was born in Israel, speaks Hebrew and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Geek fun fact: she’s one of the few professional actors who has a finite Erdos–Bacon number – how cool is that? :)
In contrast to Yunus, Natalie claimed that she supports both non-profit and for-profit micro-finance organizations. She thinks that it’s easier for the for-profit ones to help more people and raise more capital. That makes sense, however I do understand Yunus’ claim that you if you squeeze the poor and charge them higher interest rates, you’re not really different from the regular banks.
To summarize, two talks with two people who are so different from each other yet so united in their will to make a positive impact in the world.
Among the other talks I attended in the last couple of weeks were the CEO of Toys R Us and the Finance Minister of India. Unfortunately I don’t have enough time to write about all of them…
Muhammad Yunus at KSG
Natalie Portman at HBS (It wasn’t really allowed to take photos at this event, but anyway… everyone else seemed to be doing that)