In the year 1974, world was looking at president Richard Nixon resigning in the wake of Watergate while on an US tv channel a new show called Happy days was launched. Meanwhile a severe famine hit the newborn country of Bangladesh, in south Asia, next to India. It was not the first one, sadly. In 1944, during World War II, the region faced a severe food crisis.The 70’s Bangladesh famine, though, is considered one of the worst in the entire world during the 20th century: massive flooding along the Brahmaputra River, following a civil war, led to a humanitarian tragedy: some 1,5 million people are believed to have died.
Bengali Refugees 1971 photographed by Raghu Rai
THE SOCIAL BANKER
All that glitters ain’t gold, goes the proverb. On reverse, all the evil is not always bad: 1974 turned out to be also a focal point for Muhammad Yunus. He believed decades ago, as he still believes now at the age of 81, that dying of starvation is the most unacceptable way of departing this life. At the time, Yunus was a young professor, almost unknown: today is the most prominent “social banker” in the world. He invented a revolutionary way of banking, based on a simple principle: human life shouldn’t lack dignity or respect just. Yunus is the “guardian angel” of the secluded and marginalised: a job that earned him the “banker of the poor” title and, besides, the 2006 Noble peace prize.
Making money is happiness. And that's a great incentive. Making other people happy is super-happiness
A POOR COUNTRY
Bangladesh is, today, one of the most populated countries in the world with a predominantly Muslim society. Once under the control and ruling of British India and known as Bengal, it acquired its independence only in 1971 through a bloody conflict known as the “Bangladesh Liberation War” which subsequently led the Country in an economic crisis. Three years later, one of the worst famines the world had ever seen took over and brought the already exhausted nation to its knees.
The famine started in the north of the South Asian Country. However, it quickly branched out like the delta of the river Ganges - the holy Hinduist river that flows down from the Himalayan Mountains all the way south across the “Land of Bengals” and down, to softly merge into the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.
A YOUNG PROFESSOR
In 1974, Muhammad Yunus is a university professor, head of the economics department at the University of Chittagong, located in the southeast area of the territory. Muhammad hailed from a large wealthy family and spent his childhood and teenage years studying and travelling abroad (to Pakistan and Canada). By the age of 21, he had obtained his BA and a MA in economy at the University of Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh. Still very young, he went on to obtain a Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Always a pro-independence, Muhammad fought with other intellectuals (who were based abroad) to reach the Bangladeshi masses with powerful messages of freedom.
Bangladesh was finally free when the Liberation War ceased in December 1971 as the West Pakistan military armed forces surrendered.
Yunus went back to his native land that same year. He came back to a changed country, both politically and in spirit. The government was trying to suppress civil disobedience, trying to form and keep alliances with the USSR (Cold War), and trying to avoid an inevitable and disastrous economic crisis.
Bangladesh Muhammad Yunus
The economic crisis led the country to horrific depression, poverty, and starvation. As a reaction, Yunus, in his early 30s, following his dreams of socialism and equality, envisaged a hitherto radical economic theory: microcredit. It’s basically a banking business model for customers who normally would be excluded by lenders, because they are unable to refund their loans. Eventually, Microcredit would redefine economic programs, setting out to help the "poorest of the poor" by applying the concept of poverty reduction to economic models and plans, creating a new world of possibilities for a class of people, the impoverished, that was, until then, ignored or abandoned from regular bank and business models. The young professor found inspiration in the streets of big cities as well as dilapidated alleys of run-down rural areas. He visits, he observes and, most importantly, he sits down and listens to poor people, recording stories of life struggle, of women and men that earned as little as 2 pence per day, to feed a whole family with. At the end of the research, he decides it’s time to change the future.
A REVOLUTIONARY PROJECT
Three years after the famine, Yunus starts the Grameen Bank Project. It’s a microcredit institution helping the poor get small amounts of money that would go towards starting their own business or rising to a better quality of life. The “bank for the unbanked” started in 1976 and through the years has served over seven millions people in desperate need, across tenth of thousands of small villages throughout the country. Most of them are women. 30 years after, in 2006, Yunus got international spotlight and recognition.
After the release his first biography book “Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty”, Yunus and Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for their efforts to improve social and economic development. He is the first bangladeshi citizen to obtain such an award. He is also the first banker ever to get a Nobel prize, while banking is more often associated with greed and over-abundant compensation packages.
HELL IS AROUND THE CORNER
The world, together with former US President Bill Clinton, rejoiced at the efforts of a single man embarked on a life-long journey to alleviate poverty and misery. Hell was around the corner, tough. Yunus went directly from hagiography to the most infamous accusations, without ever really falling into the dust but even without recovering, at the same time, that aura of mighty holiness he had. The Dakka Government took a decision to remove him from Grameen’s management. The official reason was he had reached age limit for the role: Yunus had turned 70 at the time, ten more than the threshold set for retirement. This did not convince his supporters: they claimed government was only looking for an excuse to get its hands on a profitable, powerful and world-famous bank.
SAINT OR DEVIL?
At the time, Grameen had nearly 1,5 billion $ in deposits and outstanding credits for the equivalent of 955 million greenbacks. With over 23.000 employees and 83.000 villages reached, the bank boasted a very low rate of default on loans: 2.5%. In April 2011, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh rejected the Nobel’s latest appeal against the act. Nemo propheta in patria (nobody can be a prophet in his homeland), is a two millennia old latin pun. A motto that perfectly fits the banker of the poor.
I went to the bank and proposed that they lend money to the poor people. The bankers almost fell over.
A PRIZE FROM MIDDLE AGES
Three year ago Yunus spoke from the Basilica of Assisi, the worldwide famous catholic cathedral, in Umbria: this is the place of Saint Francis, the “poor man” of the Middle Ages, such a hero of modern church that even the Pope took his name. For Yunus it was a sort of a late reward for his life spent with the marginalized people of the planet.
(additional reporting by Marianna Civitillo)