With the death of Maria Nowak, France is losing an exceptional economist, who had dedicated her intelligence and her strength to the fight against poverty, and had made microcredit the spearhead of fairer and more inclusive finance.
Born in 1935 in the city of Lviv, now Ukrainian, then Polish, she was barely four years old when her country was invaded by Soviet and then German troops.
Because his family had engaged in the resistance against the Nazis, the child saw his house burnt down by the occupiers, his father, his mother and his sister taken away for deportation, his two teenage cousins killed during the Warsaw uprising . Maria moved from one foster home to another, and found hope only with exile, when the end of the war signaled the release of her parents. Persona non grata in Lviv, where the Soviet regime took a dim view of its resistance past, the Nowak family moved to Paris, rue des Écoles, without resources, and without speaking a word of French. So the first years in Paris were difficult; but the young girl obtained a scholarship, which allowed her to study at Sciences Po Paris and at the London School of Economics.
She, whose childhood had been darkened by precariousness, dedicated her life to fighting it. After her study trip to Guinea and her thesis on the rural economy, she cut her teeth at the Caisse centrale de coopération économique, the future French Development Agency.
It was then that she made a decisive encounter, that of Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and “banker for the poor”, who in 2006 received the Nobel Peace Prize. Maria Nowak is convinced of this: this large-scale micro-credit system has its place in France. In 1989, she founded Adie, the association for the right to economic initiative, to allow those excluded from the traditional banking system, recipients of social minima and unemployed, to create their own business thanks to supported microcredit. Two years later, she was seconded to the World Bank in Washington to extend this system to all of central Europe. Aware that a loan, even a modest one, can open doors, redraw trajectories, restore future prospects, she founded and chaired two microfinance networks: the Center de la Microfinance (1996), for Europe and Central Asia, and the European Microfinance Network (2003) which covers the member countries of the European Union.
For her, the notion of capital had three components, “human, natural and financial”, and there was no question of cutting back on the first two for the benefit of the third. She carried this conviction throughout her life, including at the Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry, as special adviser to Laurent Fabius from 2000 to 2002.
The President of the Republic salutes the career of a woman of heart and head who brought to life equal opportunities in the finance sector, and thwarted economic and social determinism. He sends his sincere condolences to those close to him, as well as to all those to whom she gave one day the concrete means of realizing their dream.