Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and GrameenBank founder Muhammad Yunus discussed his lifelong goal of reducing global poverty and promoting economic and social opportunities Wednesday afternoon.
Speaking to a packed crowd of students and dignitaries — including former President of Kyrgyzstan Roza Otunbayevaand former first lady of South Africa Thobeka Madiba-Zuma — Yunus graced Gaston Hall for the fourth time, shortly after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal for pioneering efforts to reduce global poverty. Yunus is the only person in the world to have received the trifecta of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Since Yunus founded it 30 years ago, Grameen Bank, amicrofinance organization and community development bank based in Bangladesh, has grown to include about 8.4 million borrowers, 96 percent of whom are women, and has a 97 percent return rate. More than 250 institutions and nearly 100 countries now also offermicrocredit services modelled on the Grameen Bank system, which provides loans to individuals and entrepreneurs who are too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans.
Yunus explained his unique approach to poverty eradication, which differs from the work of nonprofit organizations and charities.
“I try to solve the problem by creating a business,” Yunus said.
University President John J. DeGioia praised Yunus’ work and challenged the audience to take up his cause at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Institute for Women, Peace and Security, the Master’s Program for Global Human Development, the Office of the President and the Yunus Centre.
“He reminds us through his words and actions that it is up to us all to enrich and expand the context of those now in poverty to create fertile grounds so [that] they can fulfill their potential and claim their rightful place in the global community,” DeGioia said.
Yunus’ approach inverts the traditional business goal of making money, instead aiming to solve problems by creating social businesses, which are non-dividend companies that reinvest profits to address social needs.
Grameen Bank’s willingness to deal directly with women also diverges from traditional banking practices in Bangladesh, which have prevented women from learning how to handle money.
“When the woman says, ‘I do not know what to do with money; I am afraid of money,’ always remember it is not her voice,” Yunus said. “It is the voice of the history which created the fears of money.”
According to Yunus, vast improvements in women’s health and dropping birthrates in Bangladesh, which have helped put Bangladesh on track to achieve the first United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015, are testaments to Grameen Bank’s success.
“That basket case has now become strong,” Yunus said in reference to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s characterization of Bangladesh as a “basket case.”
Yunus described the powerful cocktail of imagination, ideas and technology as being pivotal to his success.
“All you need to change the world is an idea, not money,” he said. “If you imagine, it will happen.”
The Hilltop Microfinance Initiative, a student group founded in 2008, embraces Yunus’ approach to poverty eradication by providing small business loans and business consulting services to low-income entrepreneurs and immigrants who are ineligible for traditional loans.
HMFI Chief Operating Officer Dawn Chan (SFS ’14) said that Yunus’ work inspired the HMFI’smission.
“Yunus’ theory and what he is pushing for [are] what we are doing now,” she said. “We try to empower people by giving them financial opportunities.”