On Friday, all of us at the UN Foundation were delighted to hear that our Board member Muhammad and the Grameen Bank, had won the Nobel Peace Prize for their pioneering work on microcredit.
It's not hard to appreciate the beauty of Professor Yunus's breakthrough idea: small loans and a measure of trust can help people written off by old-fashioned thinking, lift themselves out of poverty. But I didn't fully appreciate the impact of microcredit or Professor Yunus until last year, when I joined him and the UN Foundation Board on a trip to Bangladesh.
To get a better understanding of microcredit, we had planned a meeting with actual borrowers in a village called Joymontop, a few hours outside of Dhaka. After a lengthy car ride, we arrived at the village outdoor center meeting where we were met by a room full of women. It wasn't an accident: women make up 97% of all recipients of Grameen's micro loans and even in countries where women are not always embraced as equal partners in society, they are entrusted to run households and raise families.
Microcredit works because it recognizes the key role of women in society. At the village we visited, woman after woman stood to sharestories of how their modest economic gains had translated into broader gains: their children had graduated from high school and college; their husbands and sons had come to respect them more; and their villages and towns had accepted them into positions of responsibility. What is true of the borrowers is also true of the Bank: women play key roles at every level of the Grameen Bank, including its Board of Directors.
At another meeting, we listened to a group of beggars, who had become borrowers instead. Few of them were educated, many had injuries or severe afflictions, and all of them had been destitutes. But with a small loan, they bought and peddled snacks and sundry items, bought tools that allowed them to build and repair things, and found other ways to become productive members of society. All of this progress for a loan of just a few dollars paid back in full, with interest from people who banks and society at large had assumed were unable to contribute, or unworthy of a chance.
What I learned about microcredit was matched by what I learned about Professor Yunus. Those who meet Professor Yunus are struck by nickname among our Board members is "The Saint". But seeing him in his home country was like seeing a skilled surgeon at work, or a professional chef in the kitchen: he was truly in his element. He was, in Bangladesh, larger than life; a bright star in a country beset by problems. And yet he was just a man, in the place he loved, doing what he loved. At the village, women and men total strangers, often illiterate or impoverished were put at ease by a sincere smile or a simple gesture. He transformed them, and they transformed him. Before my trip, I had thought of microcredit as an innovative economic approach; I now see it as the story of women and the poor, and what they can do when we empower them. Microcredit is more than just a business idea. It is a deeply powerful belief: that investing trust is as important as investing money; that people can do amazing things when given the opportunity; and that every person deserves to be a full partner in our economy, our society, and their destiny.