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Jay Evensen: Muhammed Yunus still saving people one at a time

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 7:25 p.m. MDT

When he arrived in Minnesota — his last stop before coming to Utah this week — Muhammad Yunus came face-to-face with Fahmida Zaman.

I imagine it would have been similar to if Henry Ford had met the children of farmers liberated from isolation by the automobile, or if Thomas Edison had looked out an airplane window at the millions of twinkling electric lights of Los Angeles after dark.

Economists aren't supposed to have experiences like this.

Zaman is a student at St. Catherine University in Minnesota, but she is a native of Bangladesh. Years ago, her hopelessly impoverished mother received her first tiny unsecured loan from Yunus' Grameen Bank, which was her first step out of squalor.

Now the daughter is on track to earn graduate degrees in politics and economics, after which she hopes to return to Bangladesh and become politically active. The children of microcredit, as the loan her mother received is known, will magnify its legacy.

Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for giving millions of such loans to poor people and helping them use the money to make more, spoke about the encounter during his Utah visit, but not as someone who might boast. It was just another example of how Yunus, a self-described average person, likes to find problems and then solve them through business.

This was not Yunus' first trip to Utah. He has been here several times, which means I have been blessed to meet with him repeatedly since 1997. He owes his good eyesight to cataracts surgery performed at Alta View Hospital. The board chairman of Results, the organization that lobbies on behalf of programs such as microcredit, is Scott Leckman, a Salt Lake surgeon. Yunus' vision of an entrepreneurial road out of squalor resonates well with the bootstrap worldviews of Utahns and other people in the vast Western United States.

But that doesn't mean his vision won't make a Western capitalist squirm. Listen closely to what he says, and it's clear he is preaching something other than what's taught at MBA programs.

People, he said, are motivated by money, but that's not all.

"Ask yourself, why do people climb Mount Everest? Many people do this, even some who are blind or crippled. They risk their lives to do it. Are there stacks of money up there they need to go and get?"

People, he believes, can be motivated also by the rewards of helping other people.

"If I make money for myself, I am happy. If I make other people happy, I am super happy," he said. "You can do both."

It stands to reason that people who change the world won't do it by operating the way the rest of the world operates. The profit motive alone won't help the world's poorest people, who survive on pennies a day. But if companies combine two goals — covering their costs and providing products those poor people can afford — the poor can be lifted.

The list of companies Yunus has established — "social businesses," he calls them — is long. He partnered with Dannon to provide a tasty and nutrient-rich yogurt for pennies a cup and is working on an edible container. He partnered with Adidas to provide shoes that cost less than one Euro. He started a solar power company that brought electricity to more than 1 million homes in Bangladesh for roughly the price of kerosene. He found a way to provide vegetables that ended the common plague of night blindness, and on and on. Each company sustains itself, but investors get only their money back and a sense of that "super happiness." Forget about shareholder dividends or huge profit margins.

All of these businesses are collateral to the microloans and microsavings programs that led Fahmida Zaman to Minnesota instead of to subsistence farming or hard labor.

Yunus doesn't talk about it, but the Bangladeshi government has expelled him from his bank and tried to discredit his work. Power does not always embrace real progress.

And yet his message remains as clear as it was back in 1997. Just find a way to help five people out of unemployment, he challenges his Utah audience. If you succeed, do more of it. You might change the world.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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