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Banker to the Poor - Big Hopes

Interview With Author Elisabeth Petit

ROME, DEC. 21, 2006 (Zenit) - Muhammad Yunus, the "father" of microcredits and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was an inspiration for Elisabeth Petit.

Petit is the author of a book which recounts the day-to-day hopes of the microcredit initiative, "Rebondir, partis de rien, ils ont créé leur entreprise" (Starting Afresh, from Nothing, They Created Their Businesses), published by CLD. She shared her views about microcredits with us in this interview.

Q: You have just published a book on microcredits. What has it meant for you that Muhammad Yunus, the "banker to the poor," was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

Petit: It is a greatly merited recompense, to the measure of the exceptional destiny of that Bangladeshi whose action has permitted tens of millions of deprived people to rise from their poverty.

Muhammad Yunus is considered in the world the father of microcredits. He first had the idea in 1974, when a deadly famine hit his country.

Muhammad Yunus is a professor of economics. Passing through villages where thousands of people lost their lives, he was overwhelmed by the poverty of the landless peasants, exploited by usurers. Given this injustice, it was impossible for him to shut his eyes. In 1976, he decided to found his own bank, the Grameen Bank, to lend small sums of money to those who were excluded.

In 1997, Muhammad Yunus explained that "one does not eradicate poverty except by giving the poorest the means to control their own destiny." To believe in what is the best in each one, not to act in his place, but to treat him as an equal by enabling him to ensure his survival by his own means -- therein lies the whole of his genius.

In 30 years, that which in the beginning was an unusual initiative has become a formidable chain of solidarity. In total, $5.7 billion has been lent, and more than 6.61 million people have been financed. The Grameen Bank model has been examined in some 40 countries. Today, it is estimated that 113 million people worldwide are benefiting from microcredits.

Q: What is the microcredit practice like in France?

Petit: Microcredits came into being in 1989 with the creation of the Association for the Right to Economic Initiative. ADIE grants loans up to a maximum of €5,000 to the unemployed and to "Rmistes" -- those who understand the RMI: minimum insertion revenue -- who wish to have an account, but are excluded from the "classic" banking system. Since the beginning, it has been possible to create more than 36,000 jobs.

Other organizations also give decisive financial incentives to individuals who wish to get a fresh start by creating their own employment.

It is the case, for example, of the France Initiative network, founded in 1980. This movement grants honor loans without requiring any personal guarantee. Their average amount rose to €7,350 last year.

This year, France Initiative financed 10,900 project bearers. Among them, close to two-thirds were asking for employment. In total, it is estimated that each year more than 10,000 people create their own employment thanks to microcredits. If this figure is significant, it represents nevertheless only a drop of water, compared to the needs which are enormous.

Maria Nowak, president of ADIE, assessed the potential annual demand at 300,000 loans. Microcredits alone do not constitute the solution to unemployment, but can represent hope for close to one out of 10 unemployed individuals.

Q: Your book shows the importance of a network of aid and solidarity. In short, is there much generosity around us?

Petit: Yes, it is undoubtedly the great lesson of the testimonies we have received.

The creators of businesses that we met were unanimous. Alone, they would not have achieved anything. If they were able to get a fresh start, it is because they found near their families, relations and friends treasures of solidarity, which often surprised them. An attentive ear, a shoulder to lean on in difficult moments ... the feeling that something was still possible.

But if they dared to plunge into the waters, it was also thanks to the networks of aid to create business, which gave them the necessary advice and moral support to surmount the inherent obstacles of their society, to take off. They benefited from different and specific forms of solidarity, which would be more profitable if they were better known by the general public.

There is only one sponsorship. Certain organizations suggest to creators of businesses that they be supported by a "godparent" before and after the birth of their company. This is the case of the Entreprendre movement founded in 1986 by André Mulliez, of Roubaix.

The sponsors are retired persons or heads of enterprises, who allow their "godchildren" to benefit ...

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