Muhammad Yunus is visionary economist and Noble Peace Prize winner who believes in the essential goodness of humanity. Stepping down from the ivory tower of academia, Yunus visited the poorest villages of Bangladesh in 1976 and made a personal loan of $27 to 42 women in the village so they could build and sell bamboo furniture. The loan was paid back with interest, and the women took out a larger loan. Thus microfinance was born. In the past 30 years, microcredit has spread to every continent and has benefited over 100 million people. Yunus’ Grameen Bank (literally “village bank”) has loaned money to 1 out of 1,000 people on earth, at 98% repayment rate.

In Bonsai People, The Vision of Muhammad Yunus, Holly Mosher follows the founding of a Grameen Bank branch and several of the women aided by loans. We see  successes and failure, personal and natural disasters as Mosher interweaves their stories with that of Grameen’s growth. There are obstacles in getting the bank branch off the ground: In strict Muslim society, women are not allowed to speak with men outside their family. The sincere bank manager at first begins discussions with the husbands, and gradually gains the trust of the women and their families. He must also get local businesses to participate in the bank by opening accounts. The women take out loans and form support groups to encourage each other. Cows are bought, homes are built, small businesses are started, health care and education are provided through the Grameen.

Grameen also makes interest free loans to beggar women, allowing them to buy and resell vegetables, making a small profit that allows them enough to eat regularly and live better lives, with the goal of eventually being able to take out entrepreneurship loans. The women are taught the 16 Principles which cover every thing from discipline, unity, and hard work; planting fruits and vegetables for the home, and selling the surplus; basic sanitation; stopping abuse; and ending the custom of child marriages and dowries.  The result: A stronger, more  stable society.

Yunus says he chose to make loans to women because they are the household managers, they are able to make do, to have long term vision; and thus, Grameen has been successful both in financial and social goals. Women are able to pay back their loans and take out larger ones to create and complete projects. Grameen’s influence has lowered the birth rate and increased longevity, while creating a more literate and educated society. Villagers learn how to create and use solar power and bio-gas (in a country with so many cows, bio-gas is a useful and viable energy form) to create electricity, and are thus able to have cell phones (life saving in floods and storms) as well as electric rice threshers, lighting and cooling.

Some of Grameen’s social programs are simple: Providing day care/kindergarten for young children, scholarships for older ones, and colleges loans. Others are incredibly visionary:  Seeing that children were malnourished, Grameen partnered with a yogurt manufacturer to make a nutrient rich yogurt that can be sold door to door. The plant is powered by solar and bio-gas and employs locals. Neither Grameen nor the dairy company make dividends from the yogurt. This model has spread to other industries, with Grameem now involved in dozens of manufacturing concerns around the globe.

With half the population of the world existing on $2 a day, something needs to change. And while Grameen was loaning money, helping women grow businesses, a huge mosque was built in their village. While faith in a god can be good for social order, it doesn’t always help people directly. What would have happened if the government of Saudi Arabia, which had built that mosque, had instead loaned the same money to farmers for seed crops or animals, or to women for goods to resell? The village could have built a mosque themselves with the profits…

Yunus says:

We are not guests on this planet, we are not plunders. This is our home, we have to make it beautiful.

Microcredit in its purest, most altruistic form can help do that. Bonsai People shows us that Muhammad Yunus’ vision, one of optimism and belief in the human spirit, can make positive change in the world.