In 1974, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus began making tiny loans to the rural poor. The success of his charity led him to found Grameen Bank, pioneering microcredit. Yunus spoke to TIME's Ishaan Tharoor last week, moments before learning he and Grameen had won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
When did the microcredit idea dawn on you?
In 1974, there was a famine in the country. I felt empty because my knowledge in economics meant little to the people suffering. Villagers had to borrow from loan sharks on terrible conditions--some even becoming slave labor for the moneylenders. I made a list of 42 people most seriously in debt who, all together, owed no more than $27. I went around the village according to the list, giving each of them the money they owed with no conditions other than that they concentrate on their work and repay me when they could.
About 97% of Grameen members are women. Why?
The main challenge for a poor woman was overcoming the fear in her, which was holding her back. We found that, compared with men, who spent money more freely, women benefited their families much more.
In a heavily Muslim society, did this trigger opposition?
Of course. The first opposition came from the husbands, who thought we were insulting them. Second were the mullahs, who started preaching that taking money from Grameen Bank was against the religion. We told them that in Islamic history, women had been warriors and businessmen--look at the Prophet's first wife!
What singular achievement do you take most pride in?
I would say that I did something that challenged the banking world. Conventional banks look for the rich; we look for the absolutely poor. All people are entrepreneurs, but many don't have the opportunity to find that out.
You said a decade ago that our grandchildren will have to go to museums to see poverty. Do you still think that?
Absolutely--58% of the poor who borrowed from Grameen are now out of poverty. There are over 100 million people now involved with microcredit schemes. At the rate we're heading, we'll halve total poverty by 2015. We'll create a poverty museum in 2030.