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In our opinion: Ending poverty

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 9:40 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this March 3, 2011 file photo, Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus smiles as he arrives at the High Court in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Just before the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Yunus came to the U.S. to do just about the last thing any mainstream economist would have advised — he set up a bank for the poor.  (Zia Islam, File, Associated Press) FILE - In this March 3, 2011 file photo, Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus smiles as he arrives at the High Court in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Just before the global financial crisis struck in 2008, Yunus came to the U.S. to do just about the last thing any mainstream economist would have advised — he set up a bank for the poor. (Zia Islam, File, Associated Press)

Some time today, Muhammad Yunus will become only the seventh person in history to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The fact that his gold medal today breezed through both houses of Congress, one of the few examples lately of bipartisan agreement, speaks volumes.

Yunus is one of the genuine heroes of our age — a man who continues to seek for solutions to the world's most vexing problems, and who transcends charity by teaching people how to permanently rise above poverty.

Yunus has been a frequent visitor to Utah, where he has forged bonds and inspired people to action. His most recent visit came in March, when he captivated local audiences by speaking about his innovations regarding "social businesses."

People familiar with this humble Bangladeshi know him best as the father of microcredit. This is the concept of loaning tiny amounts of money to the world's poorest people, then helping them to retire the loan through their own entrepreneurial efforts.

He established the Grameen Bank specifically to make such loans, defying all skeptics who said there was too much risk involved in lending uncollateralized amounts to poor people. But once the bank's clients paid back the original loan, Grameen would lend them progressively more money to build their enterprises. Today an estimated 140 million people worldwide have access to such loans and millions of them are safely out of poverty.

Before coming to Utah, Yunus met a young woman in Minnesota who is pursuing a higher education and whose mother was at one time an impoverished recipient of microcredit — a shining example of what happens when people achieve self-sufficiency and then can provide educational opportunities to their children.

His message to Utahns was that they should look for ways to solve the world's problems by investing in business ventures that are self-sustaining but that promise investors little more than their money back and a great deal of satisfaction. This type of "social business" can create products and services at prices within reach of the world's poorest communities.

Yunus has formed at least 20 such companies providing everything from nutrition-laden yogurt to cell phones, apparel, solar power and health care. His efforts have helped make common diseases rare in Bangladesh and have raised living standards and opportunity levels for millions.

Along the way, he dispelled myths about poor people, such as that they are lazy, helpless, incapable of making informed decisions or bad credit risks.

But in proving those assumptions wrong, he also raised awareness about the real reasons for extreme poverty, and that has put him at odds with his own government. Bangladeshi authorities have expelled him from leadership of his own bank. This, however, has not deterred him.

Utahns should be grateful for their associations with Yunus, who in particular has forged a bond with local surgeon Scott Leckman, the board chairman for Results, a group that advocates for solutions to poverty.

His efforts have given Utahns a way to effectively fight poverty worldwide and to solve problems closer to home, as well. During his visit, Yunus challenged Utahns to come up with enterprises along his social business model to confront problems here.

The Congressional Gold Medal represents the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievement and contribution. Not only is it well-deserved, it will help ensure that Yunus continues to receive the publicity he needs so that his work can continue in spite of his own nation's reluctance.

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