As we sprung forward into daylight saving time last spring, and lamp lighting was given a one-hour reprieve, I was admiring the still-bright stars early one morning and thinking about their luminance and how lucky many of us are.
These thoughts stayed with me as I traveled into Boston on a cold and damp morning. Getting close to Cambridge, I saw the usual collection of men who congregated in a particular area, each holding up placards that described their situations. On that morning the driver ahead of me was slowing down for the red light with his car window open and his arm outstretched. In his fist was a wad of money.
Both our cars stopped at the red light. None of the men saw the cash in his hand. The man began waiving his arm to attract their attention. Finally, a blond man whose worn-out face was clean-shaven and who was dressed in a shabby green pea coat walked towards the outstretched arm and reached for the money. As he took it, I saw on his face a profound look of sadness and shame.
The man who had given him the money kept his hand out as if to shake the man’s hand. The homeless man didn’t notice the still outstretched hand, he was looking at the bills within his cupped hand and his head was bowed. The light turned green and the car ahead of me started to move.
The man finally looked up and saw the still outstretched hand. Rather than reaching out for the hand, he ducked. In that brief instant, I saw the reflex movement of a dejected man, a man who perhaps was used to being hit, a man for whom an outstretched arm usually meant pain. His movement reminded me of a dog who has been beaten down; cowering and fearful of any outstretched hand. I thought about this man’s face all that day; it is a face I shall not soon forget.
While this country struggles to emerge from the recession that continues to stranglehold our economy, other countries are drowning in the tsunami of our debacle. Our crisis has become the world’s crisis and its fallout continues to impact foreign markets and economies around the globe.
Even with all this disaster in the wind, we need to be reminded of the daily suffering of the poorest of those that share our planet. Those whose children die from hunger, those who sleep on dirt floors, those who will never in their lifetime feel the hope that their lives can and will get better.
The World Bank counts that 500 million people live in absolute poverty.
Each year 15 million people will die of hunger. Malnutrition is the leading cause of child deaths worldwide, a percentage unmatched by any infectious disease since the Black Death. One out of eight children in this country goes to bed hungry.
For the price of one missile, a school full of children could eat lunch every day for five years. One in four people (or 1.3 billion) live on less than $1 per day. Three billion struggle to survive on $2 per day.
According to UNICEF, the world’s billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of the countries that contain 45 percent of the world’s people.
To satisfy the world’s sanitation and food requirements would cost only $13 billion U.S. dollars. This is the amount that the United States and the European Union spend on perfume each year.
For too long many of us read these statistics and feel helpless. We wait for others to do something to help. We need not wait any longer.
In 1976 Professor Muhammad Yunos did extensive research to examine ways to loan very small amounts of money to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh. Based on his research, the Grameen Bank, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, was born in 1983. (Grameen means rural or village.)
It is here that the word and idea of microcredit was born, and the Grameen Bank provides un-collateralized loans for the poorest of the poor. These loans represent tiny sums; yet these sums finance major changes in the lives of these poor and formerly hopeless people. Most of the recipients had never even touched money. Since its founding Grameen has lent $9 billion in small amounts to 8 million in Bangladesh.
This new form of “banking” has morphed into becoming microfinance with savings plans, insurance, home mortgages, and scholarships. Grameen does not charge interest nor accept donations — nor does it function as a charity. Its paybacks are close to 99 percent and it actually earns millions in profits.
The code that Yunos had cracked after his painstaking research was that even though the poor have no collateral, they have something more important; their reputation in their villages. Using all he had learned, the Grameen Bank was able to create the model for a totally different kind of bank — a bank that functioned completely opposite from every other bank in the world.
We may not be able to fund a bank that can provide microloans, but we can do two things. Stop spending money on needless things and put that money aside. Pass over high-priced fragrances for inexpensive ones. Retire next year’s holiday lights and donate the money saved on electrical bills. Let the glow of the night sky and the starry firmament light the way for accomplishing extraordinary things, one saved dollar at a time.
Take one hour to find those charities whose percentage of giving to those in need is the highest, whose staff salaries are the lowest, whose offices are the most barebones. Imagine what change 1 million households can make if they each save and then donate $50 a year on just two things. That, my friend, is the sweet smell of success.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
— Marianne Williamson