Nobel laureate proposes loans to rural China

By Victoria Shannon (International Herald Tribune)
Updated: 2006-12-04 10:03

HONG KONG: Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said Sunday that he was working with the Chinese government to bring his Grameen Bank lending system to rural China within a year.

Yunus, at a news conference at the opening of the ITU Telecom World gathering, being held for the first time in Asia, said China had invited him to begin a trial of the "microcredit" system, which specializes in making loans of $100 or less, in one of three remote locations. The test could lead to expansion of the program throughout the country.

In Yunus's native Bangladesh, Grameen Bank has provided collateral- free loans to five million people - 96 percent of them women - since 1976. Yunus and Grameen were awarded the Nobel in October for their achievements in reducing poverty. At the same time, Grameen is noted for its loan repayment rate of more than 98 percent.

China already has more than 100 separate microcredit programs, Yunus said, but they have attracted only about 100,000 customers over the past 12 years.

Government officials there recently gave Grameen permission for the market test, and Yunus said he had invited them to select "a difficult spot" so that he could prove the value of the system. He said he expected the Chinese trial to begin with fewer than 50,000 borrowers.

At the telecom event's opening ceremony, Yunus also revealed a partnership with the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, along with Cisco Systems and Qualcomm to start a network combining microcredit and information technology expertise. Cisco committed $1 million to the program.

ITU Telecom World is expected to draw 50,000 to 70,000 people this week, an increase from the 36,000 who attended the previous event, in Geneva in 2003. At that time, the telecommunications industry was still suffering from overbuilding and the dot-com meltdown.

Fernando Lagrana, executive director of the event, said the industry was clearly in better health and spirits than in Geneva but not as robust as at its peak in 1999, when ITU Telecom World was "something galactic" in size. All of the major telecommunications companies that declined to participate in 2003 are back, he said, except for Nokia, which was the main sponsor of a related event last month.

The ITU voted to hold the forum in Hong Kong this year, its first time outside Geneva, largely because of the attraction of the Chinese market, Lagrana said. The event will return to Geneva in 2009.

The trade show will be the largest held in Hong Kong, he said. Among the keynote speakers will be Patricia Russo, chief executive of the newly merged Alcatel-Lucent, and Mark Hurd, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. In addition, more than 50 countries have sent delegations at the ministry level.

PCCW, the mobile phone carrier, is expecting to route 15,000 to 25,000 cellphone calls from the conference simultaneously, depending on the time of day, he said.

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