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97th Commencement: Nobel laureate Yunus addresses grads

By Jocelyn Wright     5/16/10 7:00pm

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus shared with graduates the life experiences that inspired him to found Grameen Bank, which provides microcredit loans in Bangladesh, in his speech at the 97th Commencement on May 15.When Yunus returned to Bangladesh, his home country, after teaching at Middle Tennessee State University in the 1970s, he was shocked by the way villagers were exploited by the money-lending industry. He related the story of a woman who received a loan of five taka ($0.07) on the condition that she sell all her products to her money-lender at the price he decided.

People like this woman inspired Yunus to provide them with money to repay their loans so that they would be free from these unfair conditions. He then asked a local bank to lend money to the poor. The bank refused to do so until Yunus agreed to become a guarantor for these loans. His loans were always repaid, which inspired Yunus to expand by making a bank of his own, Grameen Bank. Today, this bank provides loans to poor people throughout 97 percent of the villages in Bangladesh.

Yunus stressed the differences between a traditional bank and Grameen Bank. While most banks are reluctant to give loans to the poor, especially to women, Grameen Bank's only clients are poor people, and 97 percent of the borrowers are women. Grameen Bank is also different because it is owned by its borrowers; nine of the 13 members of the board of directors are elected by the borrowers. With Grameen Bank, Yunus also strives to provide useful social services to the people, particularly in the realm of education. The bank offers loans to encourage more than 50,000 children to go to school so that they can eventually start their own business with help from the bank.

"We encourage these young people to take a pledge that they will never enter the job market to seek jobs from anybody," Yunus said. "They'll be job givers, not job seekers."

Due to the opportunities afforded them by loans, there are now many illiterate Bangladeshi mothers with sons or daughters who are doctors or engineers. Yunus said the success of these children shows that the mothers could have had similar experiences if they had been provided with the education and resources to do so.

"She has the same capability as her daughter or son," Yunus said. "The only reason she could not unleash her potential was because the society never gave her the chance. She could not even go to school to learn her alphabets."

Yunus said it was important to keep this in mind when addressing the problem of poverty.

"Poverty is not created by the poor people," Yunus said. "It is created by the system we built, institutions that we have designed, the concepts that we have formulated."

Since poverty is created by these systems, Yunus said it is a problem that could also be removed if people change these institutions to be more responsible, to follow the model of Grameen Bank. Yunus said the current financial crisis demonstrates the viability of these programs, since microcredit programs have remained financially viable while bigger banks collapsed.

Yunus said graduates were presented with a unique opportunity to make changes.

"When crisis is at its deepest, it can be utilised as the best of the opportunity," Yunus said. "When things don't work or fall apart, that gives the opportunity to redesign, recast and rebuilt."

Yunus said that with the right approach, poverty could be eradicated. He pointed to the success of social businesses, such as the Grameen Danone Foods company, which provides mineral-rich yogurt to children at an affordable price. Yunus said the unique philosophy of this company is essential to eradicate poverty. The company strives to be self-sustaining, and its owners never take any dividends beyond the amount they invested.

"The success of the company will be judged each year not by the amount of profit they generate, but by the number of children who get out of malnutrition in that particular year," Yunus said.

It is the responsibility of graduates to think about the type of world they would like to see in the future, and think about the steps necessary to create this environment. Yunus said humans 40 or 50 years ago would never have predicted many of the advances made by society today. If people make eradicating poverty a priority for the coming years, Yunus said there is no reason this goal cannot be accomplished. He compared poor people to bonsai trees, saying that when one plants the seed of even the tallest tree in a flower pot, the resulting plant is only inches tall.

"Poor people are bonsai people," Yunus said. "There is nothing wrong in their seeds. Simply, society never gave them the space to grow."

The job of society is to provide the poor with an enabling environment where they can live to their fullest potential, Yunus said.

"Once the poor can unleash his or her energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly," Yunus said.

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