Feature: Cover Story
By Samai Haider
Published in ICE Today – Issue: October 2005
Photos: Samai Haider
Professor Muhammad Yunus: Making Poverty History
1974. The country is ravaged by famine. A conscientious man at Chittagong University noticed that the people were giving up everything for a little scrap of food. He tried to get to the root of the problem, only to find that the poor were the hardest hit. The local moneylenders refused to give them credit, while institutional credit was extremely limited. So he diced to carry out a survey to see how much people were giving up. The forty-two people on his list were striving to take out a loan of Tk. 856. He then decided to pay the money himself. Inspired to make arrangements to provide loanable funds in the future, Yunus approached the local branch of the Janata bank. Unwilling to extend credit to the poor, fearing that they would be unable to pay back, the bank refused. The intense argument that ensued with the manager, led Yunus to take out a loan himself and lend out the money. One thing led to another, and Grameen Bank was born. Today, it has crossed the five million member mark and boasts US$5 billion in cumulative loans disbursed. Owned by the borrowers, the bank functions on its own deposits. Neither the government, nor the international agencies have a hand at provifing the funds. 99% of the loans are returned. Grameen Bank’s program reaches out to the poor, extending to household and student loans for the underprivileged, as well as towards subjugated women and beggars to help them become more enterprising. Grameen Bank has put Bangladesh on the map. Professor Yunus, nominated for the Nobel Prize this year, is hailed the world over as the brainchild of microcredit. World leaders look to him for inspiration; the needy salute him as their savior.
‘The biggest challenge,’ says Professor Yunus, ‘was to free the people from their mindset. Till date, getting rid of the notion that lending to the poor is inconvenient is hard.’ ‘The decision to refuse funding from outside was one of our turning points,’ says Professor Yunus, a decision he would have liked to have taken earlier.
Professor Yunus believes that a person can get out of the poverty trap if he is determined to. Professor Yunus comments, ‘Take away the obstacles that surround the poverty stricken, so they can stand up on their own feet.’ He deems the financial institutions as being unfair to the poor, taking advantage of their handicap. He believes that opening the doors to banking, education, information technology and healthcare can help the poor work towards a better living. It’s owing to the creation of such obstacles that the poor have fallen into the poverty trap. ‘We want poverty in the museum, not in the society,’ says Prof. Yunus wisely. The rich and the poor have the same capabilities, only one has the opportunity to express it, while the other has been shrouded by hurdles.
His advice to others: if you have faith in yourself and in what you are doing go for it. ‘Never be deterred by what others say.’
Md. Zafar Iqbal: Man of many aliases
Scientist, author, professor, mentor – Md. Zafar Iqbal is a man of many aliases. His astronomical talents in all fields have earned him celebrity status. There is no end to his list of awards, nor is there a finish line to the number of activities he races to uphold. His students hold him in the deepest regard; his fans place him on the highest pedestal.
Zafar’s decision to return to Bangladesh has given him a new lease on life – it’s now more meaningful and entails much more fun. He found time for writing and he relishes the fact that little children love his work and they love him for the books he has written. “I am always scared that I will not be able to repay what I got from them,” admits Zafar. He believes that no one should miss out on reading books. “We never got to meet Tagore or Hemingway or Feynman, but if we read their books we can actually spend time with them. It’s so much fun!” says Zafar.
On commenting on mistakes Zafar says, “I have a lot of them and most of them are benign, and not worth discussing. You make a lot of mistakes if you want to try to do a lot of things, so, I think mistakes are important for your life – you suffer and you learn, and you call it experience.” He pinpoints a common societal norm, prevalent in most, regardless of class, creed or race, the misconception of society to think that a religion, culture or lifestyle different from their own to be wrong or inferior. He capped off the discussion with the profound statement “Different is not bad different is beautiful.”
When asked if there was one thing he could have done differently, Zafar ponders and replies that there is nothing that he would change except maybe his moustache. “I probably shouldn’t have grown my moustache. It turns gray too early!” replies Zafar, with characteristic humor.
Zafar launches into a narration of an incident that happened about eight years back and still manages to bring a smile to his face. An elderly man, wearing an awestruck expression, walked up to him on campus, and said “I heard you were here so I came from a long distance just to meet you!” Zafar was quite embarrassed as the man went on, “I am so lucky that I finally found you. Can I hold your hand for a moment?” Out of politeness Zafar extended his hand towards him which the man quickly grabbed and pulling towards his chest, said in a voice thick with emotion, “Oh my God! I can’t believe my luck! I am holding the hand of Humayun Ahmed’s own brother!”
He values his children, who he misses terribly, as they are both studying abroad. His advice to all is not to waste precious time. “You have only one life, and it has only a limited number of hours and minutes and seconds. Don’t waste them- use every second, you will be amazed how much you can achieve in one lifetime.”