Beg No More!
"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
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
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
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)