Nobel Prize Winner Yunus Revered by Poor

The Associated Press
Saturday, October 14, 2006; 4:14 AM

-- Walking alongside rice paddies and water buffalo on the outskirts of Dhaka with Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus was like walking down the red carpet with a Hollywood movie star.

Women in saris grabbed at the handsome man with thick gray hair, flirting and addressing him with ease. I was surprised, given we were in a conservative Muslim country where rural women typically take a backseat to men.

But this man, who won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, had taught them to stand up to their husbands by giving them small loans that now put them in the driver's seat.

"The first hostile person to our program is the husband. We are challenging his authority," Yunus said as we walked around Kashipur, where water buffalo lumbered down dirt paths alongside women barking Bengali into the cell phones they had bought with small loans from his bank.

"In the family, he's a macho tyrant," Yunus said. "He starts to see that she's not as stupid as he thought. He says, `Now she cannot nag me about money, because she understands now how hard it is to make.' The tension eases and they become a team."

We had driven to the village just north of Dhaka in April 2004. I wanted to profile the father of the banking revolution known as microcredit, fueled by his Grameen Bank, which now shares the prestigious Nobel prize.

When we arrived, the women sat on benches in a tin-roof shack with hard mud floors and reported on their projects, laughing and cheering as they tallied up their earnings. One complained her cow was sick; another missed her son, a construction worker in Saudi Arabia.

Yunus has enormous faith in these women, who make their payments on time and put their profits back into the family. In Kashipur, the barefoot women lined up to hand the local Grameen representative small wads of cash. After 17 years with the bank, they had 100 percent repayment.

Some had borrowed to buy another cow or expand their rice paddies or mustard fields. Others bought cell phones, walked about the phoneless village, making and taking calls for a fee.

"Mr. Yunus has done more for the poor people of Bangladesh than anything our government has ever done," said Anju Monwara, one of the country's now-famous "telephone ladies."

They help seal deals, find out the price of shrimp in rival fishing villages and even mediate marriage ceremonies from across the seas.

"This is a form of globalization," Yunus said. "They have the whole world at their fingertips."

The crushing poverty _ in a country Henry Kissinger once dubbed "South Asia's basket case" _ has decreased since Yunus founded Grameen in 1983. Bangladesh's per capita income has grown from $280 in 1985 to $440 in 2006, according to World Bank figures.

Anju Monwara had been one of Kashipur's telephone ladies for six years, earning on average $50 a month making and taking phone calls for others.

Her most memorable, and profitable, call was a 36-minute marriage ceremony between a young woman and a fellow villager on a construction site in Saudi Arabia. He had sent a wedding ring and some money, but could not afford to come home.

"So, he brought a local registrar with him and they said their vows over the phone."

© 2006 The Associated Press