the perfect gift: “a worm’s eye view”

I shake my head, writing this story with a smile on my face. Last Friday I wrote my Blog Action Day post on microfinance and social entrepreneurship. And then yesterday, I got to see a good friend Sarah Jenkins for the first time in months [who I know from college at Drury, but then really from our trip to Vietnam in Fall 08.]

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Vietnam 08: Team Awesome on the beach. I'm in the yellow shirt, Sarah is on the far right in the back row.

She’s been saying she had a little something for me. And so we finally saw one another, she put one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received in my hands: a SIGNED copy of Muhammad Yunus’ [yes, the father of microfinance who I just wrote about] book Banker to the Poor :D He came to speak at Drury months ago, and I was so sad to miss it [in hindsight, I should have just gone!] Sarah said when she went to have him sign it, she said “My friend Erin was just in Bangladesh with Water.org,” and he said, “Very good, tell her hello.”

So of course, I couldn’t wait to begin reading it, and it is as good as I had hoped. I had to share an excerpt from the introduction with you:

“I used to feel a thrill at teaching my students the elegant economic theories that could supposedly cure societal problems of all types. But in 1974, I started to dread my own lectures. What good were all my complex theories when people were dying of starvation on the sidewalks and porches across from my lecture hall? My lessons were like the American movies where the good guys always win. But when I emerged from the comfort of the classroom, I was faced with the reality of the city streets. Here good guys were mercilessly beaten and trampled. Daily life was getting worse, and the poor were growing even poorer.

Nothing in the economic theories I taught reflected the life around me. How could I go on telling my students make-believe stories in the name of economics? I wanted to become a fugitive from academic life. I needed to run away from these theories and from my textbooks and discover the real-life economics of a poor person’s existence…

Traditional universities had created an enormous distance between their students and the reality of everyday life in Bangladesh. Instead of traditional book learning, I wanted to teach my university students how to understand the life of one single poor person. When you hold the world in your palm and inspect it only from a bird’s eye view, you tend to become arrogant—you do not realize that things get blurred when seen from an enormous distance. I opted instead for “the worm’s eye view.” I hoped that if I studied poverty at close range, I would understand it more keenly.

My repeated trips to the villages around the Chittagong University campus led me to discoveries that were essential to establishing the Grameen Bank. The poor taught me an entirely new economics. I learned about the problems that they face from their own perspective. I tried a great number of things. Some worked. Others did not. One that worked well was to offer people tiny loans for self-employment. These loans provided a starting point for cottage industries and other income-generating activities that used the skills the borrowers already had.

I never imagined that my micro-lending program would be the basis for a nationwide “bank for the poor” serving 2.5 million people or that it would be adapted in more than fifty countries spanning five continents. I was only trying to relieve my guilt and satisfy my desire to be useful to a few starving human beings. But it did not stop with a few people. Those who borrowed and survived would not let it. And after a while, neither would I.”

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A small microloan might help a woman like this begin an incoming generating activity such as making incense sticks, which will allow her to make 25 cents for 1,000 sticks. Photo credit: Water.org, Bangalore City, India

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One Comment on “the perfect gift: “a worm’s eye view”

  1. You write some of the most thought-provoking posts I regularly read. Thanks for sharing–and I’ll be looking for my own ways to obtain that “worm’s-eye” view.

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