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Yunus Hopes to See Poverty Museums

Most economics professors contribute to society by adding to the body of theoretical knowledge in their field, hoping that their theories can eventually be put into practice, but not Muhammad Yunus.  Nobel Peace Prize winner Yunus, speaking as the Goodrich C. White Lecturer Wednesday night at Emory University’s Glenn Memorial Auditorium, revolutionized how we think about the poor, by bending the rules of economics in order to fit their situation- not the other way around.

Yunus admits to being familiar with Emory since his days as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt.  Recently, he has been working with the University’s Health department to help solve public health issues in Bangladesh’s large poor population.

After a brief period teaching at Middle Tennessee State, Yunus returned to Bangladesh soon after hearing of their independence.  Although his country was finally free, poverty and famine were still big problems.  He recollects feeling like the classical theories he was teaching in the classroom were somewhat empty when poverty was raging outside. 

He says he decided to go into a local village “out of desperation” to offer what help he could.  That was when he discovered the loan sharks charging exorbitant interest rates on loans to the village’s poor.  After investigating further, Yunus discovered that forty-two people had borrowed from the sharks.  The total amount owed? $27 dollars.

Yunus was appalled that such a small sum of money could keep these people imprisoned in poverty.  He immediately took the exact amount out of his own pocket and gave it to the people to pay off the sharks.  They were amazed that such a windfall could happen to them.

As Yunus puts it, “It’s really about building people up.  The loan gives them hope.”

Encouraged by the results, Yunus decided to start his own organization: The Grameen Bank.  Whereas traditional banks deemed the poor not credit-worthy, Yunus deems these banks not people-worthy, saying “All I had to do was look at what the banks were doing and do the opposite.”

Wildly successful at leveraging the entrepreneurial spirit of the poor, The Grameen Bank now gives over $100 million dollars in microloans every month and has spread across the globe.  In fact, Yunus’ most recent project involves over 2,000 microcredit borrowers in the Queens and Brooklyn areas of NY and will soon spread to Omaha and San Francisco. To Catch a Dollar, a documentary of Grameen America Aired at the recent Sundance Film Festival, and can be found at www.tocatchadollar.com.

Yunus recalls visiting a former borrower 15 years later.  In addition to the woman who borrowed from him, who is now well-off, he also got to meet her daughter.  Thinking that she, too, would be working in the store that her mom started with a Grameen loan, Yunus was surprised to find that the daughter is now a doctor in a nearby city.  “Things like that make me feel really good,” says Yunus.

Building on the success of the Grameen Bank, Yunus also started building businesses that served a social, rather than economic, purpose.  Some examples of these social businesses include a mosquito net producer, a partnership with Danon to provide nutritious yogurt, and a chemical venture that treats water to remove the arsenic.  All of these businesses sell a product and recover their costs; they don’t just make a profit.  While this business style contradicts the profit-maximizing mindset that dominates Western thought, it is also different from our idea of charity. 

Yunus stresses that anyone can get involved in helping the poor.  He challenges the young, the retired, and even business executives, to do their part in ending poverty.  It can be a goal as simple as getting five people off of welfare.  Once that is accomplished it can be repeated again and again until there is no longer anyone on welfare.  Yunus offered the example of starting a corner grocery store to employ the five people you are trying to help.  “It can work if you are willing to give up the profit motive,” he says.  The benefit to you is simply the feeling of having contributed.

The message has struck home with university students, who already devote a large amount of time to charities and service projects.  College sophomore Brent Morel comments on the applicability of the approach, “Yunus illustrates how through seemingly small, innovative approaches, even the most tremendous global problems can be tackled. The grander significance of his work lies not just in repaying loan sharks or founding a micro-lending bank, but rather in the demonstration that it takes creative ideas of individuals familiar with local problems to best solve the most exigent issues of the 21st century.”  In other words, students can have a profound effect on their local community by initiating small, localized projects.

Yunus claims the only unusual thing about his work, is that he knew nothing about banking when he first started.  He just had the audacity to try something that was unfamiliar to him.  Yunus hopes to see a world in which people stop relying on the government to solve societal problems and start doing something about it themselves.  Only then will it be possible to put poverty wear it belongs- in a museum.

The lecture can be found online on the Emory University website as well as on iTunes U.  

-Ryan Gains ’12

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