Microfinance solution

Microfinance solution

A visit to a Nobel Peace Prize winner's bank project gave Hongkongers a new view of poverty


Clockwise from top left: Sunnie Chiu, Mok Kwanling, Garleon Cheng
Clockwise from top left: Sunnie Chiu, Mok Kwanling, Garleon Cheng
Photo: Thomas Yau/SCMP
When Mok Kwan-ling and Garleon Cheng flew to Bangladesh before Christmas, they said they had two questions on their minds: "What does it mean to be poor?" and "How can we help them?"

Mok and Cheng, two University of Hong Kong students, were among a 10-member team taking part in an eight-day trip to the poor South Asian country in a programme organised by Education for Good Community Interest Company (EFG), an educational initiative of the Hong Kong Social Entrepreneurship Forum.

A highlight of the trip was a meeting with the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Professor Muhammad Yunus. They also visited his famous social enterprises.

Muhammad Yunus believes we are all part of a solution. Photo: Edward Wong/SCMP

Yunus is a pioneer of microfinance who started the Grameen Bank Project in 1976. He believes that with some seed money, even the poorest can create small businesses to earn a living. His "Bank for the Poor" has since provided small loans to more than eight million Bangladeshis, mostly women, through its 2,564 branches in more than 80,000 villages.

"I've always been interested in the subject of poverty," says Mok, 22, a comparative literature student. "I signed up for the trip to see how Yunus' model helps to take people out of poverty."

Cheng, a postgraduate student in psychology, met Yunus for the first time at an HKU seminar in July. "He's very charismatic," Cheng says. "He told us that people can be both selfish and selfless. But we all have the instinct to be selfless. I believe helping others is the way to a happier life."

No sooner had they landed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, than Cheng was struck by the reality of eyesore poverty - of a kind unknown here.

"There were flies and mosquitoes everywhere," he says. "There were no basic facilities - no clean water, no electricity, no resources. I'd never seen anything like it."

The team visited Yunus' Grameen Bank. "Each woman [applicant] presented her case to the staff and explained why she needed the loan," Mok explains. "Some needed the money to buy bamboo to make baskets; others needed it to make jewellery.

"There were others who reported on their progress of repayment. The staff would listen and discuss their ideas with the villagers, like social workers."

The villagers are trusted to repay the loans so the money can be used to help others. "It's all about trust and motivation," Mok says.

Yet there are some strings attached, notes Sunnie Chiu Tung, EFG programme officer and leader of the study trip. "To get the money, they have to agree to make '16 Decisions'. These include bringing prosperity to their family; growing vegetables to feed their family before selling the produce to others; planning a smaller family; and sending children to school."

For Mok and Cheng, it was an eye-opening journey. "To solve poverty, we all - the government, the business sector, NGOs - should play a role," says Mok.

Cheng adds: "Yunus told us all local problems are global problems, and all global issues are local ones. We can't turn everything around overnight, but we can start small.

"The moment we try to tackle a social problem, we become part of the solution."

Visit www.education-for-good.com for details of upcoming EFG trips

Women meet to discuss their businesses.



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