October 17, 2006
Nobel Prize Links Microfinance to Peace
by Bill Baue
The granting of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank breaks new ground by
explicitly linking economic development to peace development.
The announcement late last week that microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank received the 2006 Nobel Peace
Prize carries significant implications for microfinance and socially responsible investing
(SRI). Beyond shining the world spotlight on the success of microfinance, the Prize helps validate
the use of financial mechanisms to promote social causes such as poverty alleviation--and peace.
"The one message that we are trying to promote all the time, that poverty in the
world is an artificial creation," said Professor Yunus told the Nobel Committee upon learning he
had won the Prize. "It doesn't belong to human civilization, and we can change that, we can make
people come out of poverty and have the real state of affairs."
"So the only thing we have
to do is to redesign our institutions and policies, and there will be no people who will be
suffering from poverty," he continued on the phone from Bangladesh. "So I would hope that this
award will make this message heard many times, and in a kind of forceful way, so that people start
believing that we can create a poverty-free world."
The origins of the Grameen Bank date
back to 1976. The famine then plaguing Bangladesh inspired Prof. Yunus to strike out from his
economics teachings at Chittagong University in order to address the economic realities surrounding
him first-hand. In the nearby village of Jobra, he met a group of women yearning to start their
own businesses but lacking the capital or collateral for a traditional bank loan. Prof. Yunus
calculated the amount the group of 43 women said they needed--a mere $27, which he immediately lent
out of his own pocket.
Microfinance rests on this foundation of making very small loans
collateralized by support groups--mostly women--who jointly commit to repay. Microfinance has
become established as a financial tool increasingly supported by mainstream investors such as
Citigroup (ticker: C) and Deutsche Bank (DB). However, the
fact that Mr. Yunus did not receive a Nobel Prize in Economics but a Nobel Peace Prize represents a
"The Nobel Committee is expanding the traditional
understanding of peace advocacy and has taken a new step in honoring someone for using economic
activity to bring about peace," said Terry Mollner, a founder of the Calvert Group and board member
of several of its SRI mutual funds. "There's no question that microfinance helps poor people pull
themselves up by their bootstraps in a way that is sustainable, but to say it also advances peace
is a bold and powerful assertion."
In the late 1980s, Calvert invited Muhammad Yunus to
serve on the board of the World Values International Fund (ticker: CWVGX), which he did until the
"We wanted him to bring his microfinance expertise to the board, but it also
brought him from Bangledesh to the US four times a year, where he continued his work of spreading
the word on microfinance," Dr. Mollner explained. "This helped Muhammad incubate microfinance
The relationship was symbiotic, as Calvert helped push the expansion of
microfinance and community investment across the SRI field. There are now ten mutual funds, five
institutional investors, and more than twenty financial advisers and money managers committing
$19.6 billion to community investing in the Social Investment Forum's "One Percent or More" campaign.
Almost a quarter of the $100 million portfolio of the Calvert Foundation, established in 1995 as a nonprofit
independent of the Calvert Group to implement community investment, is invested across 42
microfinance institutions (MFIs), according to its executive director Shari Berenbach.
the long run, we see that microfinance is helping the community investment field to grow--as more
people learn about microfinance and come to recognize that you can use investment as a tool to end
poverty," Ms. Berenbach told SocialFunds.com.
The shift of microfinance from a niche
market practiced primarily by SRI to a mainstream practice does not come without challenges. The
Nobel Prize now opens the gates for even more assets to flood into microfinance, posing great
opportunities but also more challenges.
"On this day of great celebration, we urge
caution," wrote David Satterthwaite, CEO of Prisma MicroFinance, on MicroCapital.org in response to the Nobel Prize
announcement. "[M]icro-banks currently lack the institutional strength to become large (“scaled”)
organizations due to unprofessional management, opaque governance, and meager balance sheets."
"Poverty continues to dwarf micro-banks," he continued. "Broad and deep institutional
capacity is required to deliver credit as a human right."
On the other hand, microfinance
has outgrown subsidization by charitable donations and subsidies.
"Now that microfinance
has turned the corner, such donations and subsidies wreck progress by distorting competition and
retarding the institutional capacity of emerging micro-banks," Mr. Satterthwaite wrote. "Now that
the flood gates have opened, we will soon start to see melt-downs of microfinance sectors in
specific countries due to over-investment, be it investments for a return on capital, or subsidies,
or donations which continue to flow contrary to established best-practices."