It was the havoc wrought by a devastating famine in Bangladesh in 1974 that changed the thinking of a Bangladeshi economics professor named Muhammad Yunus.
When Yunus saw the disaster's crippling effect during a university field trip, he felt that classroom economic theories were simply not doing enough to address the needs of those living in desperate poverty.
Soon after, Yunus handed out loans as small as 27 dollars to a group of women in a village near the southern port city of Chittagong. His plan was simple: give the poorest of the poor money to begin income-generating projects that will help them support themselves. Yunus said he was convinced that people could take care of themselves, if they had just a little help.
The sweeping success of his experiment led him to start the Grameen Bank, or the Bank of Villages, in 1976. It lends small sums of money to the poor, without collateral, and most of the loans go to women.
The women use the money for simple projects, such as starting a tiny roadside stall, raising poultry, cropping a small piece of land, or running phone booths in villages. Such businesses are far too small for most banks to bother with, so although the women needed only a tiny amount of money, they were not eligible for loans - until Muhammad Yunus came along.
Earlier this year, Yunus explained to students at Tufts University, in the American city of Boston, why he aims his loans at women. He said, "We focused on women as a kind of reaction... The conventional banking is unjust. How can a financial system reject two-thirds of the world population? Something is wrong… We have to design a financial system that is inclusive, where nobody is rejected. Credit should be accepted as a human right."
Yunus and his bank soon became a household word in Bangladesh, helping to transform the lives of millions of families in one of the world's poorest nations. His ideas spread beyond his own country, prompting institutions like the Asian Development Bank to adopt the model in many poor countries. Ashok Sharma, South Asia head of microfinance at the Asian Development Bank in Manila, explains that Yunus and his bank threw out all the conventional rules of banking, and succeeded in making people view poverty from a different perspective. Sharma said , "It was a great inspiration, because Dr. Yunus enabled everybody to see banking from a different light… Before he pioneered microfinance, the general perception was that poor can only be helped by doles, grants, etc.… He also had to get over the long-standing prejudice that poor are not bankable. He had to really prove something wrong, and then prove that not only what he is saying is right, but that it is easily applicable."
The Grameen Bank now disburses tens-of-millions of dollars a month to more than six-million borrowers, and has branches across much of Bangladesh.