Alex Counts

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January 13, 2010

Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and the author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World” (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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Battling the odds has never been a new concept to the people of Haiti.Fifty-eight percent of the country’s population is undernourished. Fifty-four percent live on less than US$1.25 a day.

[caption id="attachment_365" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Damage from Haiti's 7.0 magnitude earthquake"]Damage from Haiti's 7.0 magnitude earthquake[/caption]

But despite these conditions, Haiti has also had to endure a number of natural disasters—most recently, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Tuesday, January 12, near Port-au-Prince. Damage from the worst earthquake in 250 years has been described as “unimaginable” and “incomprehensible.” All hospitals were leveled by the disaster, and a devastating death toll is expected, potentially in the hundreds of thousands.  The archbishop of Port au Prince is one of those whose lives have been lost, and the offices of the World Bank and InterAmerican Development Bank have been destroyed.

Day Six: Old Friends and Off to the Airport

December 21, 2009

My last day in the country was the beginning of the Bangladeshi weekend – Friday.  That meant somewhat less traffic, a blessing to be sure.  I spent three hours, starting at 10am, with my former research assistant, Abdul Mannan Talukdar.  He is the first Area Manager in the history of Grameen who started as a loan officer (a position now called “center manager”).  He is immensely proud of that, as he should be.  An area manager oversees 8-10 branches, each of which are staffed by about seven staff (almost always including a university-educated branch manager) and serves several thousand clients.  He told me about his journey, culminating in that historic promotion, dating from when I last saw him, in 2006.

Day Five: Back in the Grameen Headquarters

December 21, 2009

I arrived at the Grameen Complex at 10:30am on Thursday, after having visited my old dentist (who does quality work for a fraction of the price charged back home).  Before I began my first meeting, I noticed the almost frenetic activity around me in each office I entered.  My good friend Mir Akhtar Hossain, who heads Dr. Yunus’ person staff, was so busy he could barely catch up with me – much less indulge in our traditional lunch of chicken biryani down the road in Mirpur One.  Even after thirty-three years in existence, complacency has hardly taken root in the Grameen family of companies.

Day Four: Transit Back to Dhaka, and a Reunion

December 21, 2009

I awoke on Wednesday in what we in the U.S. would consider a large tin shed.  As the manager had warned, mice had run amok in the rafters at times during the night.  Fortunately, I was able to tune it out after a while.  Soon I was off to the Zianpur bazaar to say my goodbyes to the local Grameen staff, the teachers at the high school whom I had always been close to, and others in the community.  I felt quite emotional by the time I jumped on the back of a motorcycle and headed to Aricha, where I would get a public bus to Dhaka.

Day Three: Grameen Villages – Back to Kholshi via Narandia

December 17, 2009

[caption id="attachment_314" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Microfinance Client Shaheeda Begum"]Shaheeda Begum[/caption]

After a delicious Bengali breakfast of vegetables and paratha, I began a field trip that would ultimately bring me to Kholshi, where I did most of the research for my book Small Loans, Big Dreams.  But first I asked to see a Grameen Bank center meeting, to see how the process has evolved.  Abdul Malek, the manager, took me to Narandia, a village where there was a borrower meeting that day – this is where loan payments are made, new loans vetted, and other business conducted on a weekly basis.

Malek is still fairly new to this branch, and to driving a motorbike, so our trip through rice fields and the occasional dirt road was a bit of an adventure.  I had visited Narandia a couple of times in the 1990s.  Then as now the dominant force in this center – a federation of ten groups composed of fifty women clients – was Shaheeda Begum.  She was making payments on her two current loans that totaled about $1,000.  Only two other women in the center were able to borrow and invest amounts that large.   To a much greater extent than was true a decade ago, loans are made on the basis of investment capability, and can vary a lot from client to client.  Shaheeda was one of the most savvy businesswomen in the village.  But as she would explain to me over the course of an hour, when she began borrowing from Grameen in 1987 her conditions were much humbler than today.

Day Two: Grameen Power and Moving to the Field

December 16, 2009

[caption id="attachment_303" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Muhammad Yunus and Royston Braganza"]Muhammad Yunus and Royston Braganza[/caption]

Royston and I spent the first few hours on Monday back in the Grameen Complex in Dhaka.  The most exciting meeting was with two retired Grameen Bank officials -- Fazley Rabbi and, briefly, Abser Kamal – both of whom now work with Grameen Shakti (Energy).  Shakti, a sister company of Grameen Bank set up by Dr. Yunus in the early 1990s and that had been led until recently by Dipal Barua, has become a world leader in bringing renewable energy to rural households.  We heard how they had passed 300,000 solar home systems installed, and how they do it profitably and at a rate of 13,000 per month at present.  (The second most successful program of this kind has reached just over 100,000 installations.)

Back in Bangladesh

December 14, 2009

Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and the author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World” (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). Below is Part Two of this journey to assess the state of microfinance with Grameen Foundation partners worldwide.

[caption id="attachment_305" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Muhammad Yunus and Alex Counts"]Muhammad Yunus and Alex Counts[/caption]

After a gap of about two years, on December 13, 2009 I returned to Bangladesh – the birthplace of the modern microfinance movement and the country where I spent six of the first nine years after I graduated college.  I came here initially driven by naïve idealism – that someone (especially at my tender age!) could catalyze the spread Grameen Bank’s approach beyond the borders of Bangladesh, so it could to become a global (rather than simply national) anti-poverty strategy.  As I was to learn, even by the time I arrived in December 1988, that process was under way – a process that was much more complex than I had imagined, and one that has been the focus of Grameen Foundation since it was established in 1997.

Another Wall to Fall

November 09, 2009

Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and the author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World” (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). Below, he recounts his visits to assess the state of microfinance with Grameen Foundation partners worldwide.

[caption id="attachment_273" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Alex Counts"]Alex Counts[/caption]

I am coming to the end of my longest fall trip – it’s been a whirlwind and culminates in an emotional climax tonight.

Today, there will be a massive event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The theme for many will be “another wall to fall,” with the focus on how poverty needs to follow the Cold War into the dustbin of history.  To symbolize this, Professor Yunus will be the final speaker at the event, which will also feature many European heads of government.

My journey began in Miami, where I was attending the board meeting of Fonkoze USA, the U.S. sister organization of the largest microfinance institution in Haiti. We heard Fonkoze’s co-founders, Father Joseph Philippe and Anne Hastings, report about some positive trends in the their organization and also some troubling developments in Haiti, including the fall of the government (i.e., the Prime Minister was forced out by the President) the day before we arrived in Miami – something that could set back many recently announced humanitarian projects, some of which Fonkoze would stand to benefit from.  With Haiti, even at the best of times it seems like two steps forward, one and half steps back – but Fonkoze battles on.   The board of directors of Fonkoze elected me their Chairman, in part due to the great support that they have gotten over the years from Grameen Foundation.  I was honored and humbled.

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