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Nobel Peace Laureate Yunus Speaks at BU Saturday

A Q & A with the Grameen Bank founder

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When he first loaned $27 to a small group of poor Bangladeshi women in 1974, Muhammad Yunus didn’t have an inkling that he was building a worldwide model for lifting struggling people out of poverty. But as those kinds of loans increased, Yunus proved the viability of microlending to the poor in developing countries, and Grameen Bank, which he founded in Bangladesh, has gone on to loan some $6 billion to more than seven million people in his country. Most of those loans have been for less than $200, helping small-scale entrepreneurs — 97 percent of them female — build better lives for themselves and their families.

Yunus, who shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with the Grameen Bank, will speak about his model of economic development in a lecture titled The End of Poverty: Because Poverty Is the Absence of Every Human Right on Saturday, October 13, at 2:45 p.m. in the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall.

BU Today: What is the future of microcredit in the developing world? Is it becoming more accepted, and if so, do you envision it continually expanding its scope?
Muhammad Yunus: I continue to see evidence that microcredit can work anywhere. People are by nature entrepreneurial. It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a densely or sparsely populated region. Where there are people, there is a community and it will work.

It is expanding its scope. Some programs have the capacity to double or triple in size and just need access to the capital to do so. Some have successfully launched collateral programs for health insurance, basic education, and other services. Microcredit is a good launching point to bring people without any resources into the world economy. It is just the first step, but it is an effective first step. It is not a magic bullet to end poverty. It is a first step.

Most of the borrowers from Grameen Bank are poor women — will its coverage be expanded to others?
We continue to find that giving the loans to women benefit the entire family in a way it has not done when we give the loans to men. That doesn’t mean we don’t or won’t give loans to men, but we will continue to emphasize the benefits of giving the loans to women.

What has been the effect of the Grameen Bank lending to the poor in Bangladesh — has the rate of poverty declined, at least among certain segments of the population?
Oh yes, and a World Bank study shows that not only has poverty declined but other indicators of societal well-being have been affected by the presence of microcredit programs in Bangladesh. Literacy is up, child mortality is down, family size is down and more children are going to school and then on to get advanced degrees. All the children of Grameen Bank borrowers are guaranteed a student loan to go to college and many do. In many families, you will now see parents who are still illiterate but who have children with degrees in law, computer programming, and physics. It just proves that the children of the poor are like everybody else’s children. They just need access to the same resources and will achieve enormously.

How has the Nobel Peace Prize helped in the work that you do?
I have been telling people that before I had to shout about microcredit, now I only have to whisper! Microcredit has now been “pre-certified” as a commendable and legitimate way to make a difference in the world. If it is worthy of the Nobel Institute’s notice and celebration, it must be OK for the rest of us to support it. There has been much more interest in microcredit from leaders in all industries — from banking to communications — to the entertainment industry.

I am on my way to Los Angeles to meet with the heads of the major movie studios. The entertainment industry is the United States second largest export to the rest of the world. I look forward to talking to these industry leaders about way they can be part of the process. A year ago, that meeting would not have been so easy to get!

Is the Grameen Bank working with other banks in developing countries to help them develop their own programs?
The Grameen Trust has as its mission to spread the Grameen methodology to other countries. Under its Grameen Bank Replication Program (GBRP) program, Grameen Trust (GT) supports and promotes poverty focused microcredit programs all over the world. It organizes Dialogue Programs for potential replicators and provides training and technical assistance to replication projects. It provides funding to selected projects and monitors their performance. To date, it has provided support to 138 replication partners in 37 countries of the world. We are happy to work with both NGOs and the banking community in these countries.

What will be the focus of your talk on Saturday?
I will be talking about some new programs at Grameen Bank, namely the Beggars’ Program. We started this program in response to claims that microcredit would not work for the really poorest — the beggars. We were told they would have no entrepreneurial skills, but we learned differently.

I will also talk about social business enterprises. Many of the problems in the world remain unresolved because we continue to interpret capitalism too narrowly. In this narrow interpretation, we create a one-dimensional human being to play the role of entrepreneur. We insulate him from other dimensions of life, such as religious, emotional, and political dimensions. He is dedicated to one mission in his business life — to maximize profit. But we are not one-dimensional and there is another way to look at good business — that business that not only sustains itself financially but makes a difference in the community it serves.

Muhammad Yunus’ lecture on Saturday, October 13, at 2:45 p.m. at the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall is cosponsored by the Bangladeshi Students Association, the International Students Consortium, the Student Union, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Boston Area College Housing Association RA Conference, and the MIT Bangladeshi Students Association. The lecture is free. For more information, contact the Student Activities Office at 617-353-3635.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.