Buses and trucks barrel down Mirpur Road, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, blasting their horns and leaving trails of black smoke to settle on rickshaws and oxcarts. By the side of the road a high brick wall encircles four buildings in a compound, one of which is dominated by a tropical garden that opens to the sky. On many afternoons rain falls into the garden, and at their desks accountants can pause to listen to the sound of water slapping leaves. This is the head office of a bank that does its work in the countryside.
Thousands of visitors have traveled to Bangladesh to learn from this bank, and many arrive carrying tape recorders and note pads. When they enter the office, they find no receptionist, no carpets, no elevators, and few telephones. The rooms are equipped with ceiling fans, manual typewriters, paperweights, and stacks of ledgers. Only the computer room, on the fifth floor, is air-conditioned. Here programmers monitor operations and prepare reports, which they love to fill with wild-looking graphs depicting their organization's growth. The graphs all look basically the same: like ski hills, rising slowly at first, and then shooting up at impossibly steep angles toward the sky.
For two decades the Grameen ("Village") Bank has been extending small loans for self-employment purposes to some of the poorest people on earth—landless women in Bangladesh—and its financial performance has never been stronger. The bank's founder, the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, continues to win international honors—the 1992 King Baudouin Development Prize, the 1993 CARE Humanitarian Award for Development, the 1994 World Food Prize—but his bank is hardly a one-man show. Grameen's loans are administered by more than 10,000 university and high school graduates scattered throughout Bangladesh—no small organizational feat in a country notorious for corruption and mismanagement, a country that since its birth, in 1971, has absorbed more than $25 billion in foreign aid and seen the majority of its citizens grow poorer.