Tuesday, January 27, 2009

From Oprah to Tattered Cover in LoDo Denver: My (Emotional) Meeting with Dr Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize Laureate

By Rebecca Ilham

Two minutes into his very brief remark at Tattered Cover Bookstore in LoDo Denver, I was fighting back tears. Dr Muhammad Yunus, a Fulbright scholar in Vanderbilt University (and a summer alum of CU Boulder) and founder of Grameen Bank ("grameen" means village), a pioneer in micro-lending scheme around the world, reminded me of my beloved Uncle Wan.

Both are very humble, modest human beings who would go the distance to help those in needs even if that meant they have to fork out the financial expenses out of their own pockets. Uncle Wan is like a second father to me, my aunt (his wife) took care of me when I was an infant because my parents were working in different cities during the first three years of their marriage. I haven't seen him for almost two years and he isn't a talker over the phone (most men in my life aren't apart from my eldest cousin, Abang Lan) so meeting Dr Yunus felt like homecoming, at least for a little bit.

Melancholy aside, meeting Dr Yunus was a dream comes true. I have heard about him, Grameen Bank and the Nobel Peace Prize they have been awarded to in 2006 a few years ago but it was during the summer of 2007 (the last time I was home from college) when I was lounging in my parents' living room after lunch, watching Oprah on cable that I was truly touched by what he has accomplished and still strives to do. Dr Yunus was a guest of Oprah in that particular episode and I choked back tears when I explained about his cause to my mom when she joined me a few minutes later. So braving the chilly Sunday morning after a 4-hour sleep was nothing for this chance of a lifetime.

Dr Yunus was frustrated with capitalism and all the fancy, perfect economics theories (I am an economics minor so I can attest to all the perfections in the textbooks) that he preached daily in class so he decided to take his students on a field trip to the adjacent village to the Chittagong University campus. While he was there, he spoke to the villagers and was appalled at the fact that how poverty among these poor people of Bangladesh was actually caused by the system of money lending. To borrow money requires collateral, and it comes at a price - the interest. People who wanted borrow money to bring themselves out of poverty were rejected by banks because they did not have collateral so they turned to loan sharks who were literally, well, sharks. That day, Dr Yunus lent his own money ($27) to 42 villagers (most of them women) , without collateral or any legal bindings, and interest-free so they can start some home-based business to feed their families and eventually pay the loans. Thus, Grameen Bank was born. Yes, in the slums of Bangladesh, not in some fancy conference room in a big city.

Dr Yunus doesn't believe in charity. Loans, he said, give people dignities, while charityn would only make people sink futrher into poverty. And there is nothing stronger than trust. Therefore, based on this two principles, Grameen Bank gives out loans to beggars. Yes, BEGGARS, so they would be door-to-door salespersons instead of door-to-door charity cases. And there is no time limit to their interest-free loans.

You might ask: so how that would ensure them to pay the loans back?

The answer is simple, Dr Yunus pointed out, give them incentives in form of larger loans instead of punishing them with high interest rate. This has been proven to work; so far 11 000 of beggars have graduated from this program and become regular borrowers of the bank.

Dr Yunus also spoke about the concept of social business, which is formation of businesses to fulfill social responsibility instead of making profits. For instance, Grameen Bank has a joint venture project with Danone to produce and distribute special yogurts to malnourished children in Bangladesh. Imagine how the world would be if all major corporations take their social responsibility seriously. However, they treated it as obligations and do whatever they can to push it aside.

It was one very short remark as Dr Yunus was due to give a keynote address at the American Librarian Association Convention but it was worth sacrificing my usual lazy routine on Sunday mornings.

The event ended with book-signing, and I had him signed a copy of Banker to the Poor for myself (To Rebecca) and a copy of Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism for my dad.

I told him "Thank you for doing what you're doing" and he asked where I am from. I answered him to which he replied that he has had a lot of pleasant experience working with Malaysians.

And from a Malaysian, it was a pleasure meeting him as well. How could it not be so? Dr Yunus is the embodiment of what Malek Ben Nabi said about analyzing "social problems" and coming up with "social solutions." If there was no one taking up the cause in one's society, is it not mandatory for a Muslim (fardhu 'ain) to do so? But even if it was a fardhu kifayah, why not we all strive to make a difference?

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