Fatema Begun does not spin theories on poverty. It's her constant companion and foe. Fatema was born into a poor family in Dhaluarchar, Bangladesh, a country with an annual per capita income of $300. She was married at the age of 12 and had given birth to two children by the time she was 15. Her husband had no skilled trade, work was scarce, so Fatema wove palm-leaf mats to keep her own family afloat.
In 1986, Fatema made her first deposit of 30 cents in the Grameen Bank, whose mission is to offer credit to "the poorest of the poor." Its clients are 94 percent women; its repayment rate is 95 percent. Using the collateral of her deposit, Fatema was able to borrow $80, which she promptly invested in a neighbor's business. Twelve years later she had made enough money on her investment to open a shop in her own home. In 1998, Fatema took out an additional loan for $400 to buy a cellular phone from GrameenPhone, a spin-off of the bank. Fatema now runs a mobile phone service in Dhaluarchar, and her income exceeds $700 a year.
Fatema's story does not fit neatly into either the conservative or liberal set of ideologies that dominate political thinking at the turn of the century. Liberals, or so-called progressives, typically distrust market mechanisms to lead poor people out of economic bondage. Here's their logic: Since capitalism intrinsically breeds poverty, groups or individuals who do prosper by leveraging capital, however small, must be winning at the expense of their neighbors. Call it an economy of limited good.