Thursday, January 24, 2008

In the Presence of Humble Greatness: Muhammed Yunus Comes to Town

Muhammed Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate founder of the Grameen bank, which invented microfinance, looks like a very simple fellow. Droll, avuncular, smallish - you'd never guess he has changed the world in such remarkable ways. In his talk today at the Philadelphia Free Library he explained his impulsive act of loaning $27, split among 42 poor Bangladeshis, 31 years ago. The results were so good that he was hooked. "The idea was chasing me", that he could do even more. More indeed. To date millions of poor women have worked their way out of poverty through small loans backed not by collateral, since they had none, but by coaching, support, and hard work. Now that the Grameen Bank has been in existence for a generation, children of the early borrowers are of age, many of them educated through loans and scholarships provided by the Grameen.
The bank - which really is a social movement - now has 7 million borrowers and is 96% owned by its members, who are 97% women. That's a lot of numbers to throw around, but more meaningful perhaps is a story he shared. He recently met the daughter of one of his first borrowers, illiterate and at the bottom of the social order. Her daughter has recently graduated from Medical School. Wow.
When a selective cheapskate like me (or price-sensitive affluent, if you will) springs for a hardcover book at full price, you know it's something pretty special.... Pictured above is Yunus's new book which was for sale after his talk. He signed books, mine included, before jetting off to Davos to talk to the world top 1000 mucky mucks. (Of course the profit from the book's sale went to the library. The talk was free.) I've no doubt that his manner with those guys is just a sweet and unpresupposing. But don't be fooled. He does not take no for an answer, and seems to bring the best out in people in the process.
I love Cuomo's line about politics being poetry and governing being prose. Yunus speaks like a poet, but the Grameen Bank deals in the most basic nitty gritty prose imaginable, women paying back the equivalent of a few cents at a time. The new book, Creating a World Without Poverty, envisions a new sort of entity, a hybrid between socialist and capitalist - a social business where the bottom line is not profit maximization, but social benefit maximization. He painted a picture of Poverty Museums. Where we'll go when we want to learn what grinding, relentless poverty looked like, since it will be gone from the world.

1 comment:

Poornima said...

I was there at the event too . Mr Yunus's speak was very inspiring. And indeed a truly great man and such simplicity.