Doing the Impossibilities: Lessons from Mohamed Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Muhammed Yunus receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006

“Banker to the Poorest of the Poor” is how Muhammad Yunus is famously known. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate was awarded the prize as the founder of Grameen Bank and for “their efforts to create economic and social development from below”. A radical changemaker, Yunus, the Bangladeshi national is renowned as the founder of the micro-credit bank concept that has helped millions of vulnerable households to lift themselves from poverty.

Yunus’ rise to the coveted peace prize is just as remarkable owing to his humble beginnings in rural Bangladesh.

Born in Bathua village, Chittagong, in Bangladesh on June 28, 1940, to a Bengali Muslim family, Yunus later moved to the city in Chittagong and gained admission to the famous Chittagong Collegiate School soon after. He went on to complete his Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Economics at Dhaka University in 1960 and 1961 respectively. He began a career as a lecturer in economics at Chittagong but soon left and obtained his PhD in Economics at Vanderbilt University, the United States of America in 1971. As Assistant Professor of Economics at Middle Tennessee State University from 1969–1972, he actively worked with other Bangladeshis in the diaspora to start the Bangladesh Information Center in 1971 and the publication of the Bangladesh Newsletter during the 1971 Bangladesh Civil War. Upon his return home, he joined the Chittagong University as Professor of Economics. Yunus witnessed the devastating effect of the 1974 famine on his people in Bangladeshi and realized that poor people could be uplifted by providing long-term loans to kickstart their businesses. He developed this idea and launched the Grameen Bank in 1983. He provided small loans to the poor who did not have collaterals and were unable to get loans from traditional banks. The loans were to support entrepreneurial pursuits and raise the loan holders out of poverty. Grameen Bank reports that these loans have been very successful with repayment rates as high as 95–98%.

Yunus’s innovative work has made him a recipient of several other awards. These include the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.

Yunus’ life and times inspire us peacebuilders in the following ways:

  1. Derive innovative ways to fight poverty- Rather than concede to the popular notion that poverty is present in every society, Yunus sought for new ways to fight the menace. He did not wait for highly placed government officials or policymakers to make a change. He took the initiative and introduced the micro-credit idea that has now become a feature of development strategies in developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Innovation to fight poverty is particularly important for peacebuilders in this age of COVID-19 which has deepened inequalities and deprivation. Look around your community and consider how you can change the financial circumstances of vulnerable people around you. One opportunity that comes to mind is remote work and the use of digital technologies. Could you teach or provide these opportunities to people in your community to ensure another source of income?
  2. Let people drive your peacebuilding solutions- Grameen Bank emerged due to the severe impact of the famine on the Bangladeshi people. Yunus studied it carefully and determined the solution that could meet the needs of his immediate environment. He did not just bring a preconceived solution and force it on the people he sought to serve. Likewise, as peacebuilders, carry out needs assessments before your interventions to be sure people need them. Then, involve the community in the design and implementation of your projects. This way, your intervention is most impactful.
  3. Scale up your solutions- Be willing to share your innovation to help people outside your local community. You can change the world one step at a time. Yunus took his idea globally and now billions of people around the world are benefiting from his innovation. Start local but go global. Microcredit is widely used around the world and praised as having “enormous potential as a tool for poverty alleviation.”
  4. People over profit- As leaders, it is important to put people’s interest far over selfish gains. Yunus priority was to lift his people out of poverty and not to sniff profits out of his peoples’ predicament. After observing the famine of 1974 and visiting several poor communities in his country, Yunus made up his mind to focus on poverty eradication interventions. In 1976, Yunus discovered that very small loans could make a disproportionate difference to a poor person.

Before him, microloans to poor people without any financial security appeared to be an impossible idea. Yunus made it possible and his people are happy for it. Be like Yunus and do the impossible.

Written by:

Allwell Akhigbe.
Research Director,
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation.

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Building Blocks for Peace Foundation

Building Blocks for Peace Foundation (BBFORPEACE) is a youth-led NGO working on conflict prevention, peacebuilding and sustainable development in Nigeria.