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God's Banker
Bangladeshi economist wins Nobel Peace Prize
Bright B. Simons (baronsimon)     Print Article 
Published 2006-10-14 07:02 (KST)   
Apologies if the title brought to mind Roberto Calvi, the brilliant if flawed Italian President of the now defunct Banco Ambrosiano, whose closeness to the Institute of Religious Works, then the Vatican's unofficial Central Bank, earned him the title: God's Banker; and whose staged suicide in London's Blackfriars shocked the world more than two decades ago, providing conspiracy theorists with much fodder to taint the Vatican by speculating links between the Holy State, Freemason lodges and the Sicilian Mafia.

In actual fact, I was, by the above title, referring to Mohammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist whose giant Microcredit scheme has been credited with redeeming millions of destitute Bangladeshi women from abject poverty, empowering them to save whole families from the strangleholds of starvation and disease. Professor Yunus has just been awarded the Nobel Prize. And, say his fans, about time too.

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Perhaps I shouldn't have apologized for calling him God's Banker after all. In an age when religious charities are increasingly more likely to be funding some narrow ideological program than running microcredit schemes for the poor, it is probably acceptable that those who take up the neglected challenge of providing succor to the dispossessed be crowned with semi-religious titles. Not surprisingly, Yunus has been called the Missionary of Microcredit.

But the Nobel Peace Prize -- Aren't they reserved for folks who stop, or intervene in an attempt to stop, wars or something?

Well, not quite. The Prize, the only one amongst the Nobel Prizes whose recipient is determined by the Norwegian, rather than the Swedish, Academy, has a rather eclectic laureate list. There are obvious ones like the 1978 joint recipients: Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, who were clearly peacemakers in the traditional sense. But many more, indeed the vast majority, had won the prize for work and commitments outside the tight confines of conflict resolution. Perhaps in recognition of the axiom: "peace is much more than the absence of war."

In that vein, the laureate alumni includes democracy and civil rights activists such as Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar) and the Reverend Martin Luther King; charitable individuals such as the surgeon Albert Schweitzer, whose leper colony in equatorial Africa became a medical facility of considerable utility; and even a deceased religious figure currently awaiting sanctification (sainthood) by the Church of Rome.(1)

However when organizations win, as they every now and then do, they are usually from a conflict or disaster-prevention background. Last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency was the recipient of the award. The International Committees of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has been thrice a recipient -- the highest on record. Other organizations who have won the approximately 1.4 million dollar award (current figure) include the International Labor Organization and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

Another token to the Prize's conflict-focus in the public's perception is the Committee's habit of declining to make an award in periods of intense global conflict, as for instance during the two World Wars of the last century.

But overall, "peace" has been viewed in very broad terms by the Committee, especially since 1945. Interestingly, since that time nominees selected on the more traditional merits of "peace-making" have been the ones who have stoked most controversy, either immediately after the announcement or subsequently.

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, whose vigorous activism for many years during the Guatemalan Civil War was recognized with the 1992 Prize was later accused of fabricating elements of her official life story, and the Committee was faced with calls to strip her of her laureate status. Other laureates who have incurred a similar kind of attention from critics and sceptics include one-time U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, Yasser Arafat, Gorbachev, David Trimble -- the Northern Ireland Politician -- and Shimon Peres.

While the spread in representation by gender, nationality and creed, has rarely been a focus of critics, some observers still note that, for instance, only five of the 84 or so recipients since the inaugural award in 1901 have been individuals of Black or African descent.

So, what is the track record overall of the Nobel Prize in predicting widespread, sustained, adulation for the recipient? And how does Dr. Yunus measure up with his predecessors?

Both questions have no straightforward answers. Because the Nobel, literally speaking, has no peer, it is difficult to assess, by some arbitrary yardstick, the Prize's ability to "cement glory." What it unquestionably does, though, is to raise the profile of campaigns that may die without the oxygen of positive publicity. Aung San Suu Kyi's relentless push for the restoration of democracy in Myanmar (Burma), and her defiance of the Generals, owe much to the aura the Nobel prize has given her. Furthermore the peace prize, alone amongst the others, does not celebrate "lifetime achievement" and in that regard is as much an impetus to urge and sustain continual change as much as a trophy of recognition.

Now to the second question. Dr. Yunus' eligibility for the prize, given the extension of the criteria beyond Alfred Nobel's stipulations of contributing to "fraternity amongst nations," "reduction in standing armies" and the "promotion of peace congresses," is beyond doubt. He has at least done as much as most previous laureates to transform the lives of many of his fellow human beings, enrich communities and to help spread contentment and feeling of goodwill towards society from those who would otherwise feel most estranged.

Along the way he has encountered adversity. As a U.S. trained economist -- with a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University -- his views of economic empowerment has borrowed much from the concepts of social entrepreneurship which every now and then clash with the more collectivist notions of human and communal development popular elsewhere.

In an interview with the Nightly Business Report, reputed as the most patronized business show in the United States, he said of his Bank, the Grameen's, operations: "this is not a charity. It is a business; a business with a social objective... This is business money; business money is limitless."

Similar sentiments may have led him to approve a joint project with the giant U.S. biotechnology corporation, Mosanto, that will have made available 150,000 dollars for poor Bangladeshi farmers to purchase hybrid seeds. A pragmatic move, but clearly it betrayed a certain amount of insensitivity to fashionable political feeling, and he was forced to pull out of the deal in July 1998, after a huge uproar by environmental groups, many of them based in the West rather than in Bangladesh.

His worst detractors accuse him of an undeclared war against Islam because Grameen focuses on lending to women, precipitating, according to the same people, serious crises in poor households when the economic balance tilts against the heretofore dominant male members.

But serious observers dismiss these more recent criticisms as ad hoc resurrections of past disparagements that have all been debunked. When Grameen started out, armchair "development economists" declared the plan infeasible. Yunus persevered, formulating his lifelong philosophy: the best risk-takers, and therefore entrepreneurs, are those with the least to lose, highly mobile and survival-minded. The "poorest of the poor" ticked all boxes, so he focused his efforts on them and lent them money without collateral.

Soon it became obvious that the tenacity of the "economist with a mission" was showing returns, and with curiosity came support. In 1981, The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) lent US$3.4 million. The next year the Ford Foundation gave $895,000 in cash and guarantees, and in 1983, Grameen was incorporated as a fully-fledged business enterprise, with the farsighted support of the Bangladeshi government.

Those who had thought him some idealist crackpot had never reckoned with his tenacity. They probably didn't know that in March 1971 when the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan begun, Dr. Yunus, then in the United States became an ardent activist in support of Bangladeshi independence, at one stage contemplating joining a government-in-exile. Behind that facade of softness, a heart of steel beats in the breast of Mohammad Yunus.

Which is why, having begun with 27 dollars three decades ago, he has today lent over $5 billion; why, despite anonymous beginnings, his autobiography was co-authored with the heir to the throne of England; and why, as his critics sulk, he is walking away today with his 14th major international prize.

A toast to God's Banker, anyone?
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bright B. Simons

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