It was announced in October that Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank which he founded would receive the Nobel Peace prize. Since then I have been contemplating a post on his achievements. A few days ago the ceremony for the award was held and I should no longer put off comment.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to an individual and organization focused on the social consequences of economic development is fantastic. The Nobel committee’s announcement summarizes the achievement while highlighting its undeniable importance:
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006, divided into two equal parts, to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.
The link between economics and peace is evidenced by the debilitating effects of poverty. Many of the personal and societal tragedies which swamp daily newscasts take root in the absence of or collapse of positive communities. Positive communities deteriorate as individuals fail to gain a sense of belonging, balance or purpose. With the possible exception of prejudice, poverty is the greatest global barrier to creating well balanced communities. Poverty fractures positive communities into unbalanced pieces and can cause negative communities to grow. Hatred, vengeance, and the trampling of human rights thrive outside of positive communities. Peace has difficulty taking hold in environments fueled by poverty.
The global anti-poverty campaign is spearheaded by organizations, politicians and celebrities who seek to lobby governments, sway cultures and bring the struggle against poverty into the media and entertainment world. These large scale efforts have a place, but greater recognition for the type of work Muhammad Yunus carries out is long overdue. Rather than fight to “change the system”, or go on a media frenzied tour of impoverished regions, or hold a celebrity fundraising concert, Yunnus makes a difference at the individual level. More specifically, and more importantly, his work allows individuals to help themselves, help their neighbours, and thereby build positive communities.
Business, loans, marketing, profits, production. These words can conjure images of greed or “evil capitalism”. Admittedly, they often do just that in my mind. But Yunnus’ efforts make clear that individuals can engage in the world of these terms and be free of greed. Business, loans, marketing, profits and production can be combined with social development to help individuals find a role, become a member of a positive community and make peace a reality.
The results of what Yunnus began some thirty years ago are remarkable. In the mid seventies he took $27 from his pocket and lent it to a group of villagers in his native Bangladesh who were trapped in a cycle of insurmountable debt. They were able to establish a production that gave them meaningful income, and pay the loan back in full. By 1976 he had started the Grameen Bank which has loaned out more than $5 billion US to more than 5.3 million people. Money is only lent to groups of people, promoting accountability and a sense of community. Borrowers boast a 97% repayment record (1). The overwhelming success in Bangladesh has inspired micro-credit initiatives across the world, from Africa to South America. Yunnus even inspired micro-loans and similar collective assistance programs to begin in the bastion of capitalism that is the United States.
While peace is a global effort, it takes individuals to make it a reality. I cannot think of more worthy recipients for this year’s Nobel Peace prize. While there is nobility in and a necessity for the work done to change corrupt systems and alter national and global economies, these top-down strategies are cumbersome. Yunnus and all those like him work to make a difference at the level of the individual. Peace, human rights and balance cannot take hold at a global or national level if individuals are consumed by poverty. When individuals break free from poverty they can build positive communities that in turn can influence peace locally, nationally and hopefully even globally. Peace can be grown up, it does not have to be pushed down, as this year’s Nobel Prize rightly recognizes.
Not to forget:
-I am aware that “positive” and “negative communities” are not well defined here. Perhaps another time.
– Interestingly enough Yunnus is also the recipient of the 2006 Seoul Peace Prize
1. Answers Corp. – Encyclopedia of Company Histories. http://www.answers.com/topic/grameen-bank