Yunus: A Champion of Yes We Can

When President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to 16 distinguished American and international “agents of change” in August, one of the honorees linked Mr. Obama to both his past and to the future he is so committed to creating.

Among the 16 leaders who received America’s highest civilian honor was Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which makes tiny loans for self-employment to some of the poorest people in that country. Professor Yunus is also one of the world’s most effective champions of the “yes, we can” spirit.

Decades ago, the economics professor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate described his search for new bank clients as a process of “looking for the most timid.” He wasn’t looking for the villagers who were the first to step forward to ask for a microloan of less than $10. He was looking for those who were last to come forward and who trusted their abilities the least. To those villagers, he and his staff would say, “Yes you can.”

Thirty-three years later, nearly 8 million members of Grameen Bank (a total of 40 million when you count their family members) are saying “yes, we can” to the whole world. Since its inception, Grameen Bank has lent more than $8 billion to the poor in Bangladesh.

So how does one start an enterprise that reaches nearly 40 million people in one’s own country and touches the lives of tens of millions more in replications around the world?

Dr. Yunus had his own “yes, we can” moment as a young economics professor, when he faced an agonizing famine that left him doubting his value as a teacher and as a human being.

He was so shaken by the sight of people dying of starvation that when he set foot in Jobra, the village next to his campus, all he wanted to do was to see if he could be of use to one person for one day — not 40 million people, just one.

It was in that village that he met a stool-maker who horrified him when she explained that she earned only 2 cents a day for her beautiful craftsmanship. With no money to buy the bamboo she needed, Sufia Khatun was forced to borrow from a lender who demanded that she sell her finished stools back to him at a price he set — a price so low that she made only 2 cents a day profit.

When Dr. Yunus asked whether she could earn more if she were freed from the lender, she told him, “Yes, I can.”

Professor Yunus had a student look for other villagers who were in the same dilemma. The student found 42 people who needed a total of $27 to pay off the lender, buy their raw materials and sell their wares to the highest bidder.

That’s right; all they needed was an average of 68 cents each. With her loan of less than $1, the stool-maker’s profits soared from two cents a day to $1.25 a day.

Now Professor Yunus has set his sights on titans of business and industry with his social business concept. The chairmen of Dannon Inc., Intel Corp. and BASF are beating a “yes, we can” path to his door to create new nonprofit businesses that have as their sole goal improving people’s lives. The corporations can recover their initial investments in the social businesses, but all profits are plowed back into these new companies.

They include a joint venture with Dannon producing nutritionally fortified yogurt for malnourished villagers; another with BASF producing chemically treated bed-nets to protect people from mosquitoes carrying malaria; and still another with Intel bringing information technology solutions to rural villages.

When the president shook the hand of the Bangladeshi micro-banker at the White House ceremony, Mr. Obama touched his own past and the microfinance work his mother did in Indonesia.

And when Professor Yunus opens the Microcredit Summit next April in Nairobi, Kenya, the microbanker from Bangladesh will launch the next phase of microfinance in the birthplace of Mr. Obama’s father and throughout the continent.

President Obama should accompany Muhammad Yunus to that Summit in Kenya to join in the microbanker’s most inspiring appeal — a daring call to put poverty in the museums where it belongs.

Yes, we can!

Sam Daley-Harris is founder RESULTS a citizens' lobby on ending global poverty and of the Microcredit Summit Campaign which seeks to reach 175 million of the world's poorest families with microloans by 2015.

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