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Nobel Peace Prize Winner Yunus Speaks at BU Saturday

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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.

Yunus studied at Dhaka University and earned a Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt University in 1969. Returning to Bangladesh to teach, he was struck by the discrepancy between economic theory and what he saw each day on his way to work: local women borrowing from usurious moneylenders. He decided to become a low-rate lender himself.

He found that lending to impoverished borrowers was not high-risk — they diligently paid back their loans on time — and he tried to interest banks in taking on poor clients. The banks were not receptive, so he eventually founded the Grameen — or Village — Bank, which has gone on to make loans not only to small-scale entrepreneurs, but also more recently to those who want a college degree but can’t afford it. Three years ago Grameen Bank started making interest-free loans to beggars in Bangladesh, who use the money to start modest businesses, selling goods such as snacks or household items; some have managed to stop begging entirely.

As Yunus expanded access to credit in Bangladesh, he traveled the world to promote the economic and social benefits of microloans. Now similar microcredit organizations are operating in more than 100 countries, according to the Nobel Foundation.

“Yunus has shown himself to be a leader who has managed to translate visions into practical action for the benefit of millions of people, not only in Bangladesh, but also in many other countries,” reads his Nobel citation. “Loans to poor people without any financial security had appeared to be an impossible idea. From modest beginnings three decades ago, Yunus has, first and foremost through Grameen Bank, developed micro-credit into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty.”

Shadab Mahmud (ENG’07), cofounder and past president of BU’s Bangladeshi Students Association, was instrumental in coordinating Saturday’s lecture. Mahmud’s father was involved with the Grameen Bank, he says, and is a friend of Yunus’. Still, it took Mahmud almost a year to bring Yunus to campus.

“It wasn’t just one letter we sent — I have been writing at least once a month for almost a year,” he says. “The talk will be on exactly the one-year anniversary of his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.”

“What Yunus did in terms of setting up the Grameen Bank was very innovative in the field of developmental economics and reducing poverty,” adds Syed Afzal Hyat (UNI’08), president of the Bangladeshi Students Association. “So we’re very happy to have him coming to speak.”

Muhammad Yunus’ lecture on Saturday, October 13, at 2:30 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, and the MIT Bangladeshi Students Association; it is free and open to the public. For more information, contact the Student Activities Office at 617-353-3635.

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