Purpose, poverty, pitfalls and redemption

RESULTS founder Sam Daley-Harris gave the following speech in Princeton, New Jersey earlier this month. He begins by telling the story of what led him to start RESULTS, and later the Microcredit Summit Campaign, as well as how the transformative effect of microfinance has returned him to his original mission.

Purpose, Poverty, Pitfalls and Redemption

Thank you to Adnan Shamsi and everyone at TED-X New Jersey Libraries for this wonderful opportunity.

I want to talk with you today about purpose, poverty, pitfalls and redemption—how committing my life to the end of poverty has given my life purpose, the pitfalls I have faced along the way, especially now, and how seeing redemption in the work I support has returned me to my original vision and commitment.

Let me begin with two quotes that have guided my life and point to the “purpose and poverty” dimension of my talk.

The first is from retired Republican Senator Mark Hatfield who said:

We stand by as children starve by the millions because we lack the will to eliminate hunger.  Yet we have found the will to develop missiles capable of flying over the polar cap and landing within a few hundred feet of their target.  This is not innovation it is a profound distortion of humanity’s purpose on earth.

Please let that sink in.

It’s time for us to consider the question, ‘What is humanity’s purpose on earth?’

Inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller said:

The things to do are the things that need doing.  That you see need to be done and that no one else seems to see need to be done.

You’ll see Fuller’s words at work when I tell my story and that of one of my heroes Muhammad Yunus.

Here’s my story.  I went from having degrees in music and playing percussion instruments in the Miami Philharmonic orchestra for 12 years to devoting my life to ending poverty first through founding RESULTS, the citizens lobby on ending global poverty and then founding the Microcredit Summit Campaign.

That’s quite a shift and I’ve been asked what motivates me.  When I look back through my life, two of the events that stand out are the following.  In 1964, I played tympani in the orchestra at my high school graduation.

Before the ceremony started, one of the flute players came back to the percussion section and told me that a high school fraternity brother of mine, one year younger than I, had died the day before in a tractor-trailer accident in Georgia.  I was 17 at the time.  When I was 17 I thought I had forever.  But as I went through my friend’s funeral, the days of mourning, and went with his younger brother after the funeral to pick up his report card from his homeroom teacher, I realized that maybe I had 17 more minutes, or 17 more months, or 17 more years. It was then, at the age of 17, that I began asking myself, “Why am I here?  What am I here to do? What is my purpose?”  No answers, just the questions.

Four years later, on college graduation day in 1968, Robert Kennedy died.  There were more questions about purpose.  Why am I here, what am I here to do? No real answers, just the questions, more and more clearly.

Ten years later I went to a presentation on The Hunger Project focused on ending world hunger.  Up until that point I hadn’t thought about world hunger much.  Actually I was oblivious.  But if you lifted up the oblivious–right underneath I felt hopeless.  I was quite sure that hunger was inevitable, mostly because there were no solutions.  It had to be that way, because if there were solutions, somebody would have done something about it by then.

But at the presentation it became clear that there was no mystery to growing food, or becoming literate or gaining access to clean water or basic health.  When I looked at it honestly, I realized that I wasn’t hopeless about the perceived lack of solutions.  What I felt hopeless about was human nature!  People would just never get around to doing the things that could be done to end hunger.  I also realized that there was one human nature that I had control over — my own — and of course I had these pent-up questions: why am I here—what is my purpose?

So I got involved.  Between 1978 and 1979 I spoke to 7,000 high school students about ending world hunger—in Miami where I lived and Los Angeles where I moved.  Before I went into the first classroom I read statements from the US National Academy of Sciences and others calling for the “political will” to end hunger.

So I asked 7,000 high school students for the name of their member of Congress.  I didn’t want to know if they had written them or met them, just the name. Do you want to guess the number of students out of 7,000 who knew the name of their member of Congress?

200 knew the name of their member of Congress (fewer than 3 percent) and 6,800 didn’t know the name.  RESULTS was started out of that gap—the calls for the political will to end hunger on the one hand and the lack of basic information on who represented us in Washington on the other.

I moved to Washington, DC in 1985 as the first staff member of RESULTS and we lobbied on behalf of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) a small UN agency based in Rome.  IFAD sent us videos of three groups they had invested in. One was a Dutch documentary of a little bank in  Bangladesh with 42,000 borrowers called the Grameen Bank.  Usually I would say that as we learned more, it took our breath away.  But now I would say that we were touched by the unleashing of the human spirit, by redemption, people’s honor and worth being restored.

During 1985 the 50 RESULTS chapters in 27 states would watch the video on Grameen Bank and then write their member of Congress.  In 1986 we had legislation introduced supporting microenterprise as it was known then.  Over a one-year period the volunteers in RESULTS generated 100 editorials on the microenterprise legislation.  In 1987 Muhammad Yunus came to our office and spoke by conference phone to editorial writers in 28 cities.  In 1988 Muhammad Yunus joined the RESULTS Board.  Eighteen years later he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Meeting Muhammad Yunus, who has become a dear friend, has been a critical part my life and my work for the last 23 years.  Let me tell you the story of how he started Grameen Bank, but in a way I’ve never told it.  Let me tell you with the spiritual transformation at the center.

After getting a PhD in economics at Vanderbilt in Tennessee, Muhammad Yunus returned to his newly independent country Bangladesh and taught at a university.  There was a famine in the country and here is what I usually stress, ‘Prof. Yunus said the economic theories in my text book are very elegant, but they aren’t working in the village next to my campus.  I am going to go into the village and learn economics from the villagers.

The piece that I usually leave out is the fact that this young professor of economics was having a spiritual crisis.   With starving people virtually at the doorstep of his university he wondered about the value of all the fancy theories he was teaching.  He said he started to dread his own lectures and their elegant theories.

So in 1976 he went into the village next to his campus to see if he could be of use to even one person for one day. In the village of Jobra, Prof. Yunus met Sofia Khartum who made bamboo stools. She became his new teacher.

He asked her how much profit she made each day.

“Two cents” she replied.

He was shocked and asked why she only made two pennies profit for such a beautiful stool.  She told him that she didn’t have the money to buy the bamboo so she borrowed the money from a trader, a money lender on the condition that she sell the finished product back to him at a price he set.  The moneylender’s price barely covered the cost of the bamboo, leaving her with a two-penny return on her hard work.

“If you could sell the stools to anyone, could you make more?” Prof. Yunus asked.

“I could,” she replied, “but I don’t have the money to buy the bamboo so I have to keep borrowing it from the money lender.”

Prof. Yunus had a student go around the village to see who else borrowed from the moneylender. The student found 42 people who needed a grand total of $27 to free themselves from this debt trap, less than $1 each.

He lent the 42 people $27 from his pocket allowing them to pay off the money-lender, buy their raw materials, make their products and sell them to the highest bidder.  Sofia Khartum’s profits soared from two cents a day to $1.25 a day.  Those 42 people were the first borrowers of what became Grameen Bank, which means village bank.  It now has more than 8 million borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women and it affects the lives of more than 40 million family members.

Another glimpse of the revolution he promulgated came years later when he would be asked what his strategy was in forming Grameen Bank.  Here’s how he would reply: “I didn’t have a strategy, I just kept doing what was next.  But when I look back, my strategy was, whatever banks did, I did the opposite.  If banks lent to the rich, I lent to the poor.  If banks lent to men, I lent to women.  If banks made large loans, I made small ones.  If banks required collateral, my loans were collateral free.  If banks required a lot of paperwork, my loans were illiterate friendly.  If you had to go to the bank, my bank went to the village.  Yes, that was my strategy.  Whatever banks did, I did the opposite.” [End of quote.]  Do you see the revolution here—the rule breaking?

This should have been warning of what was to come when microfinance institutions began to run more like commercial banks and what that might do to the soul of microfinance.

I am fortunate to have been one of the leading advocates for microfinance over the last 25 years.  We have been so successful in our advocacy that the field is out of control and now the profit-maximizers, those who want to make big money from the poor are rushing in.  This leads me from the poverty and purpose part of my talk to the pitfalls and redemption portion.

What are the problems that have become pitfalls?  There are profit maximizers who charge the poor 85% interest, 100% interest, or more.  As Prof. Yunus says, we started microcredit to free people from the money-lenders, not to become the new money lenders.

There are some whose very high interest rates lead to very high profits but the profits are not used for the benefit of the clients.  They are not used to lower interest rates, they are not used to bring new products to the clients, they are not used to provide dividends to the clients.

The largest initial public stock offering (IPO) of the last few years generated tens of millions of dollars in profits for senior managers.  Institutions that invested $1 million walked away with more than $100 million profit each from the IPO.  What did the clients receive from the IPO?  Zilch!  Nada!  Nothing!

I had an epiphany at the Africa-Middle East Regional Microcredit Summit that I coordinated in Nairobi, Kenya last month.  I now see that the spiritual dimension of microfinance, the redemptive dimension of microfinance is central to my vision for the field.  The technical issues are important, but only if they serve the transformational dimension.

Here’s an example of what I mean by microfinance for redemption told to me by another of my heroes, Ingrid Munro of Jamii Bora, a microfinance institution in Kenya.

After the post election violence in Kenya, Jamii Bora received funds to rebuild one of the markets that had been destroyed in the rioting.  They decided they had to find the rioters who burned down the market and engage them in rebuilding it.

I don’t know of any microfinance organization in the world that, if given funds to rebuild a market destroyed in rioting, would say “We have to find the rioters and engage them in rebuilding it.”  And if they said it, I don’t think they could find them.  And if they found them, I don’t think they could convince the rioters to help rebuild what they had destroyed.

But Jamii Bora’s staff are all former members of the program, people who were former slum-dwellers, some of them former beggars, prostitutes, and thieves before they joined the program, so they are close to the ground.

The leader of the gang that destroyed the market was known as “The General.”  Jamii Bora staff talked with him about helping rebuild what they had destroyed.  When the General first met Ingrid he told her he was very upset at her staff when they first talked with him because they didn’t realize how dangerous he was.

But they convinced the General and his gang to help rebuild the market.  They paid the gang to guard the materials at night and paid them to help rebuild with others during the day.

After the market was rebuilt they engaged the General and some of the gang in microfinance.  The general created a business that uses sheet metal to build cases that children use to keep their things in when they go to simple boarding schools.

He came to Ingrid last year and told her that he hadn’t gone to his home village for 13 years because his mother was so ashamed of him.  But he had just gone home and his mother cried for three days because she was so happy about how he had turned his life around.

There are many visions for microfinance including this one: using microfinance for redemption.   The dictionary defines redemption as restoring one’s honor or worth, setting one free.

The world’s poor need this kind of redemption—redemption that restores their honor and worth and sets them free.  Redemption that Prof. Yunus saw with the $27 he lent to 42 people 34 years ago—redemption he and other microfinance leaders around the world have seen over the years.

And here is another kind of transformation the world needs—that we look at people whom we had previously seen as the problem instead as the solution.  The world needs us to change our own thinking rather than writing people off as incapable of transforming their own lives.

Let me close with this quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman:

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature, instead of a selfish, feverish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me, it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Let us work together to ensure that we use our lives for a purpose recognized by ourselves as a mighty one, that we use our lives to bring us closer to the end of poverty or a resolution to any of the problems that confront us.

I thank you.

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2 responses to “Purpose, poverty, pitfalls and redemption

  1. evelynlexo

    Does money really matter? Or is it a marker for something else?
    Despite a pledge to cut the health gap between the richest and poorest, the difference in life expectancy is widening.
    http://yogaspot.wordpress.com/

  2. Pingback: Watch Sam Daley-Harris deliver his talk on ‘Purpose, Poverty, Pitfalls, and Redemption’ « RESULTS UK – News and Views

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