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Concept for world's poor aids richest nation on earth

  • Story Highlights
  • The Grameen Bank, which began in Bangladesh, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize
  • Now the bank has set its sights on helping the poverty-stricken in America
  • Founder says credit is a basic human right
  • 97 percent of bank's borrowers are women
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- A bank operating on a concept that has lifted thousands of people out of grinding poverty in the developing world has set its sights on helping the poverty-stricken in America.

The Grameen Bank rose from humble origins in the impoverished South Asian country of Bangladesh to win the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. It offers small loans to let poor people start their own businesses, a concept known as microlending.

With the threat of a looming recession, the subprime mortgage meltdown and tougher standards by lenders, poor Americans deemed unworthy of credit by commercial banks now have somewhere to turn.

The bank's concept is simple. Credit is a basic human right, says founder Muhammad Yunus. Offer even a small credit and a person will work out how to best use it to break free of poverty. Video Watch how Yunus attacks poverty »

Last month, Grameen Bank opened a branch in New York City's Jackson Heights, an immigrant enclave just miles from the global center of finance, Wall Street.

It hopes to expand it to other parts of the country soon.

"People will say this can work any place -- in any city in the United States -- if it worked right here in New York City," Yunus said.

It certainly helped Elizabeth Tordoya, a Bolivian immigrant, who opened a store last year but needed an additional $3,000 to add to her inventory.

Because of her weak credit score and limited English skills, she had trouble securing a traditional bank loan.

"Our customers are really people who are the unbanked in the United States," said Ritu Chattree, vice president of Grameen America. "There are about 25 million people in the U.S. with no relationship with a conventional bank. And so the only access they can get to credit are predatory loans at rates of 300 to 400 percent a year."

Judged by gross domestic product, the United States is the world's richest nation, according to World Bank figures. Its $13.1 billion in GDP -- the value of all goods and services a country produces -- is nearly three times as much as the second-richest nation, Japan.

Yet 36 million Americans live in poverty, according to U.S. census figures from 2005.

Grameen charges borrowers like Tordoya about 15 percent a year and does not require collateral. It does not make its borrowers sign a legally enforceable contract, but rather models its business on trust.

But the bank demands something else: Borrowers are required to put a part of the money in savings. And they can't simply mail in payments.

Instead, they commit to weekly group meetings, with each member helping the other meet their payment goals.

"We do the same as we do in Bangladesh," Yunus said. "Five-member groups, weekly meeting. We show support for each other, help each other to stay afloat, work on the problems that you face together."

The bank said its recovery rate is more than 96 per cent.

The loans range from $500 to $3,000. By mid-April, Grameen said it had loaned out more than $350,000 to more than 165 borrowers in New York.

Yunus' pioneering microlending concept began about three decades ago when the American-educated economist returned home.

While touring of villages on the outskirts of the university where he taught, he talked to villagers who told him that they had borrowed from money-lenders -- but found themselves unable to climb out from under a mountain of debt because of high interest rates.

Yunus realized that the sum they needed was minuscule -- sometimes less than $30. Half of Bangladesh's 133 million people live on less than $2 a day.

He lent $27 to 42 villagers out of his pocket to help them buy tools and equipment to start their own businesses. They promptly repaid him.

Emboldened, Yunus began Grameen Bank ("rural bank"). The concept caught fire. The model has been replicated in more than 60 countries.

More than $6.5 billion in microloans have been disbursed to 7 million poor people across the globe, the bank says. Ninety-seven percent of the borrowers are women.

Experience has shown that women are more likely to repay loans, the bank says. They are also likely to direct earnings toward their family's needs, rather than their own.

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For their efforts "to create economic and social development from below," the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Yunus and the Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

"Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways to break out of poverty," the Nobel citation said. " Microcredit is one such means."

CNN's Richard Roth in New York and Saeed Ahmed in Atlanta contributed to this report

All About Grameen Bank Ltd.MicrocreditBangladeshNobel Peace Prize

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