Notes from the Field

Meeting Muhammad Yunus

November 19, 2008

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of attending a special dinner where Dr. Muhammad Yunus discussed topics ranging from the current global economic crisis to recommendations for the Obama administration. Yunus, the world-renowned founder of Grameen Bank, Grameen America, and recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, was accepting an award for excellence in the community from the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Dr. Yunus said the award was important for its ability to bring attention to the problem of global poverty.  He first recognized his former students from Chittagong University who worked with him to reduce poverty in Bangladesh at a grassroots level. Yunus’s mission began with giving microloans, but he has expanded his work to improve the health and education systems in his homeland. He said, while these kinds of efforts can improve the lives of many the worlds’ poor, policy change is the key to making a widespread, sustainable difference.

I find his approach to alleviating poverty to be pragmatic, innovative, and flexible. He said initially his method was trial-and-error, embodied in his ideal that “you should at least try, because you won’t know unless you try.”  Along with Dr. Yunus, entrepreneurial microfinance nonprofits based in the Bay Area such as Kiva, MicroPlace, and Micro Credit Enterprises were recognized for their innovative leveraging of the microfinance concept.  Each group has considerably deepened and broadened the impact microfinance has had across the globe.

Yunus highlighted the importance of women in international development.  The Grameen Bank changed the culture of lending so that women would make up the majority of their borrowers. While Yunus began with a goal of having 50% women borrowers, it is now at nearly 97%.  He recognized that women contribute more to the family when they earn income (which earned him an eruption of applause from the audience).

Leaving the dinner, I felt inspired and optimistic that by setting clear goals and keeping a strong commitment to addressing global issues, one could create real change. I saw Dr. Yunus’s message and approach as in concert with those of The Asia Foundation’s, especially with regard to empowering women through efforts such as micro-credit loans, professional training, and helping them participate in government decision-making to promote long-term policy change.

Sarah Wan is a Junior Associate in The Asia Foundation’s San Francisco headquarters.

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