WORLD renowned Bangladeshi economist, Professor Muhammad Yunus, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in a joyous and glittering ceremony on April 17. The occasion took place in the large hall beneath the Dome, or the Rotunda, in the Unites States Capitol building in Washington DC. Democratic and the Republican leaders were present, along with a large number of distinguished personalities and ordinary citizens — all admirers of Prof. Yunus and his life work in alleviating poverty in his home, Bangladesh, and globally. Adding to the occasion, his daughter, Monica Yunus, sang the famous song “A beautiful dreamer.”
Former speaker Nancy Pelosi said that Prof. Yunus was not only one of very few who had won the US President’s Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and the Nobel Prize, he was also the first Muslim to win the Congressional Gold Medal. The Medal’s antecedents go back to the American Revolution, when George Washington became the first person to be honoured with this award in 1776.
With his family and friends watching, Prof Yunus humbly accepted the award on behalf of the 160 million citizens of Bangladesh. He said he could hardly contain his tears of joy and felt immensely blessed for the honour.
A number of congressional leaders spoke glowingly of Prof. Yunus’s work. Senator Durbin said that anyone could come with a complicated model, but only a genius like Yunus could come up with a simple idea that would change the lives of millions. A speaker said that Prof. Yunus was more than just a dreamer, he was a doer and a man of action. Another speaker described him as a banker and a revolutionary — two words that seldom go together. His ideas are so revolutionary that they have caused a tsunami of positive change, and the world is better for this change. Senator Reed described him as a unique businessman, one who was not interested in profits, but in lifting people out of poverty.
What was amazing was that these leaders, with very different ideologies and ideas on the role of government and free markets, found many praiseworthy aspects of
microcredit and social business — the two ideas Prof. Yunus is best known for. While democrats tended to emphasise the positive impact on women, and the notion that capitalism did not have to make only a few businessman rich, rather it could very well be an agent for social change, the Republicans spoke of microcredit’s role in creating entrepreneurs, strengthening free markets, and changing individual lives, and thus the world.
What an occasion! I found that the security was tight, as expected, but the staff and the guards were friendly. Even though the lines were long on this beautiful spring morning sporting cherry blossoms and trees full of flowers in the nation’s capital, the mood was festive. I spoke to a number of guests who had travelled from Texas, California and New York. We all eagerly exchanged stories connecting the man and his work. The ceremony started with prayers offered by the Chaplain, who prayed movingly for the honouree’s long life and continued success.
In the audience I spotted the former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, among other dignitaries. Also present were a large number of Bangladeshi Americans, staff members of the Grameen Bank who had travelled with Dr. Yunus, his family members, friends and admirers. The colours and dresses were beautiful and global — women in saris, some with scarves, men in suits, a few in punjabi and kurta as sported by Prof. Yunus, along with men in the army, navy and air force uniforms.
Congressman Rush Holt, a long time supporter, has worked with members of RESULTS, a citizen’s advocacy group which has worked passionately over the years to introduce Prof. Yunus and microcredit to the Senators and Congressmen, making this day possible. Mr. Holt said that the good professor had been confounding pundits for years and critics still disbelieved him. He has demonstrated that his ideas work since he has produced uncommon results, but many still fail to take his ideas seriously. Senator Durbin of Illinois, a co-sponsor of the Bill in the Senate, spoke of his visits to villages in Uganda and other countries, where women told him personal stories of how microfinance had empowered them to overthrow the shackles of tradition. Microcredit has been a game changer for millions of poor women.
Minority leader Nancy Pelosi focused her remarks on the importance of microcredit and social business on women’s liberation and emancipation. She said the highest compliment she could give Prof. Yunus was that he was a “disruptor,” someone whose ideas and work have completely upended the status quo. His ideas and work have revolutionised and disrupted the traditional old fashioned conventional wisdom, for the greater good. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, spoke of how Prof. Yunus’ work had created millions of women entrepreneurs, and freed many from the “prison of poverty.” The host, Speaker John Boehner, said that the professor’s ideas had allowed people to take their lives in their own hands, instead of looking up to the government for handouts. He pointed out that microfinance was now a cornerstone of US international aid policies.
In his acceptance speech, Prof. Yunus thanked the American legislators for the high honour bestowed upon him, and accepted the award as an honour not just for him as an individual, but also for all of Bangladesh. He spoke of his first visit to this historic building nearly forty two years ago when Bangladesh was in the throes of a violent liberation struggle. Leaving his job as a university professor, he had come here as a complete novice to plead the case of the people of Bangladesh with the legislators, and to oppose Pakistan’s military regime that had unleashed death and destruction on the people. The legislators were very understanding, even through the official US policy at the time was not in favour of the Bangladeshi struggle.
Now he had returned as a proud citizen of Bangladesh — a nation that was once given up as a “basket case,” but one that has confounded all predictions and is well positioned to achieve the UN Millennium Development goals by 2015.
He thanked his family and supporters, and ended with a resounding call for action. The motto “we will send poverty to the museum,” that is engraved in Bengali on the back of the gold medal, reflects an endorsement by the US Congress, he later joked. However, he was serious when he concluded that poverty was created not by the poor but by the system we had built and if we could change the system, we could do away with poverty and unemployment. He urged all to join the struggle as much work remained to be done.
The writer teaches economics and is Dean of the Business School in Texas. He is also President of Bangladesh Development Initiative (BDI), a non partisan research and advocacy body based in the United States.
Source: The Daily Star