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Pakistani philanthropist runs one-of-a-kind bank

Akhuwat founder Muhammad Amjad Saqib is breaking fresh ground in the fight against poverty

Pakistani philanthropist runs one-of-a-kind bank

Akhuwat founder Muhammad Amjad Saqib with transgender people, whom he says are the poorest community in Pakistan. (Photo: Ramon Magsaysay Foundation)

"Bhagwan Bank" in southern Pakistan's Sindh province uses places of worship for loan disbursements. Last week its founder received Asia’s premier prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

While 50 million Pakistanis still live below the national poverty line, Akhuwat (brotherhood or sisterhood) and its founder Muhammad Amjad Saqib, 64, are breaking fresh ground in the fight against poverty.

The largest microfinance institution in Pakistan offers a package of loans for the poor. The bank has distributed 4.8 million interest-free loans to some three million people, the equivalent of US$900 million.

Saqib was one of the five recipients of the Magsaysay Award announced at a virtual event organized by the board of trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation on Aug. 31.

According to a press release, Saqib was recognized for “his intelligence and compassion that enabled him to create the largest microfinance institution in Pakistan; his inspiring belief that human goodness and solidarity will find ways to eradicate poverty; and his determination to stay with a mission that has already helped millions of Pakistani families.”

Saqib calls it a gift for Pakistan and its people. “Christians are invited to mosques and likewise Muslims visit churches for disbursements. Although poverty has no religion, we often prefer poor Christians over Muslims. However, the poorest of them are the transgenders,” he told UCA News.

We support followers of all religions beyond any discrimination

“Islam teaches the best in conduct. The Bible also teaches us to love our neighbors. We support followers of all religions beyond any discrimination. Locals in Tharparkar, the only Hindu-majority district in Pakistan, named the microfinance after their deity. We are all the family of God. The loan repayment rate is 99.9 percent.”

In February, Akhuwat collaborated with Pak Mission Society for the Christian Business Competition. It offered interest-free loans of 200,000 rupees ($1,190) to the top 10 participants. Last year it partnered with Akhuwat for ration distribution all over the country.

The society congratulated Saqib on its Facebook page.

In 2001, Saqib invited a group of friends — all successful professionals and businessmen — to present to them his plan for a first-of-its-kind, interest-free microfinance program, offering to design, organize and implement it. Funds were raised to capitalize the project. Two years later, Akhuwat was formed and its first branch opened in Lahore.

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The organization now runs a health services program, helping hundreds of thousands of patients; a clothes bank that has distributed more than three million garments to the needy; and a program of economic, health and psycho-social services for the marginalized khwaja sira (transgender) community. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Akhuwat responded with emergency loans and grants, food relief and other assistance in over 100 cities in Pakistan.

It has also “adopted” hundreds of neglected and non-functioning public schools and established four residential colleges (one of them for women), and soon a university, for poor and deserving students.

“Akhuwat is an approach to poverty alleviation based on the values of the Islamic tradition of Mawakhat that has at its core the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching: that if one has a loaf of bread, half of it rightly belongs to a person who has none. Related to this is the idea that charging interest on a loan is un-Islamic,” said Saqib, who has worked as a consultant on social development for Pakistan’s government and international development organizations.

“Hence the practice of the ‘benevolent loan’ was already there in early human societies. We just institutionalized it. I embraced the work of helping the poor as a call to faith. Empathy and optimism in human goodness are central to this work. It is a story of hope.

Established in 1958, the Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia’s premier prize and highest honor

“People were skeptical about the sustainability of a no-interest, no-collateral loan program — one that only asks a borrower for a $1.26 application fee and an optional mutual support contribution of 1 percent of the loan amount. As long as there is an element of good and empathy in society, Akhuwat will continue.”

Established in 1958, the Ramon Magsaysay Award is Asia’s premier prize and highest honor. It celebrates the memory and leadership example of the seventh Philippine president after whom the award is named, and is given every year to individuals or organizations in Asia who manifest the same selfless service and transformative influence that ruled the life of the late Filipino leader.

This year’s Magsaysay Award winners will each receive a certificate, a medallion bearing the likeness of the late president and a cash prize. They will be formally conferred the Magsaysay Award during a presentation ceremony on Nov. 28 at the Ramon Magsaysay Center in Manila.

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