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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 from their experience. These benevolent individuals want the project bearers to avoid committing the errors they themselves committed, and are pleased to offer them a bit of what was the key to their own success. The bonds they forge with their godchildren are often very strong. Both gain from this exchange, where each learns to know the other better, through concern for the other.

The example of the Cigales, created in 1982, could also be mentioned. These are investors' clubs for an alternative and local management of joint saving.

These structures of common risk capital mobilize the savings of their members for the creation and development of microenterprises. Their members are people like you and me, not necessarily specialists in economics.

Every month they put a small amount in a common pot. Then they enter together in the capital of one or several companies. At the end of five years, they move out, and the creator buys back their shares. The objective of these investors is not to make profits but to give a helping hand to the most deprived. In 2005, 62 enterprises came into being thanks to their contribution.

Q: Your book talks not only about solidarity but also about hope.

Petit: Yes, the people we met were those who experienced what we call a "life accident." They suffered a layoff, a divorce, an illness or an accident, which deprived them of their work and at times of their physical capacities.

For all of them, to create something was a challenge. Work gives each one of us a role and an identity. When one is deprived of it, one is lost and one must battle with oneself so as not to give in to discouragement and panic, and to draw from oneself sufficient strength and lucidity to climb the slope and give one's life a fresh start. Most of the business creators did not feel they had the strength.

They could have given up, but they chose to do battle with themselves. They dispelled their doubts and fears with the energy of those who have the conviction of giving it their all.

Little by little they were able to free themselves from the links that chained them to their past, to learn to have new confidence and to make of their experience a force put entirely at the service of their project.

Why? Because for them to create a business represented much more than an economic necessity. It was a personal need, deep-seated in them: that of proving that they could come out of their predicament and to show those around them that they were capable of doing so.

Q: Can you give us some examples?

Petit: There are many, but I am thinking in particular of Mariama Schumann's career. Last January, this 51-year-old woman realized her dream, by opening a ready-to-wear boutique in Paris.

Mariama has been deaf since childhood. But about 30 years ago, she met an employer who gave her a chance, by employing her as a stylist. That man became her friend.

When he died, Mariama found herself again without a job. For years she searched in vain for employment. Her handicap was enough for her to be refused everywhere. But in remembrance of that man who had taught her everything, Mariama refused to give up her passion for sewing.

She battled with the elements to stay alive. And she succeeded! Today she dreams of giving a chance to a young person who is hard of hearing, by sharing her knowledge with him, as her friend did with her.

I could also mention Michčle Gautrot. A few years ago, this woman who was passionate about horses had to close the equestrian center she ran with her husband and daughter in Loire-Atlantique, because it no longer met the standards.

Michčle found herself without a roof and without resources. But because she refused to see her three granddaughters, whose father had died, sink into misery, she decided to do battle, creating a parcel transport company. Today, at 54, Michčle crisscrosses the routes of Europe, at the wheel of her van. Thanks to her, her granddaughters lack nothing. The careers of both of these women are lessons of courage and life.

Q: Is the solidarity shown by the persons who supported these creators of businesses an expression of their faith?

Petit: In some cases, yes. Bruno Tesson, director general of the Entreprendre network, explains that thanks to his mission in the network he was able to accomplish his passion: "to help others to succeed and to see the success of their projects.... It is what has guided my life for so many years, without my knowing it." Those are his words.

The foundational values of the network are those he always had in him. "The gratuitousness [of our aid] is an expression of charity, in the sense that it excludes each one being for himself. Reciprocity implies fraternity and love of the other," explained Bruno Tesson. In all of them, these principles are due to their faith.

But for others, solidarity is not the expression of their belief in God. In the book, we let Yvette, a 52-year-old woman, speak. For years, Yvette endured the abuse of a violent husband. She did not confide her Calvary except to one of her friends.

This man helped her to address the hell she lived in. When this friend, who was without means, decided to turn to her [for help], Yvette did not hesitate. She loaned him the meager savings she had. Because for her, it was simply obvious. She "couldn't not do so."

Yvette and Bruno Tesson are guided by the same values, even if the latter acknowledged himself openly to be Christian and the former not. Despite their differences, they are united by the love and confidence they give others.


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Petit, Bank, Money, Solidarity, Yanus, Nobel, Grameen

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