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Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, the 'Banker to the Poor,' on Atlanta visit

By: Mahadev Desai
October 2010
Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, the 'Banker to the Poor,' on Atlanta visit During the last week of August Atlantans were privileged to hear Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the 70-year-old Nobel Laureate from Bangladesh, speak at a number of events around town. “This [visit] is very special,” Yunus said: “When I go to a city, I hardly spend half a day, so this one is very special.”

On Wednesday, August 25, the Decatur Book Festival and Coca Cola cosponsored an event with Agnes Scott College: Dr. Yunus spoke in beautiful Presser Hall and signed his new book, Building Social Business, for attendees. Dr. Elizabeth Kiss, president of Agnes Scott, said, “Dr. Yunus has helped empower millions of poor people, especially women, around the world. We are so excited that Agnes Scott students, and members of the Decatur and Atlanta communities, will have a chance to meet this living legend.”

The next day he appeared at both Georgia Tech and Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, where 16 percent of the university’s 5,500 students are international students, including eight from Bangladesh.

On Friday Dr. Yunus spoke at the Atlanta University Center, where the historically black colleges and universities (Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Spelman) sponsored his visit. On Friday evening he was hosted by the Bangladesh Association of Georgia (BAG) at Lucky Shoals Park, Norcross.

And finally, on Saturday morning, just before his flight out, Dr. Yunus spoke at a breakfast hosted by the India American Cultural Association (IACA) and cosponsored by the Gandhi Foundation of USA (GFUSA) and two Bengali associations, Pujari and the Bengali Association of Greater Atlanta (BAGA). GFUSA Board member John Naugle noted that, incredibly, Dr. Yunus was in our midst at IACA exactly on the 47th anniversary day of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’

Dr. Yunus was on a whirlwind tour, giving examples of how businesses, small to large, can think differently and make a difference. Worldwide, even in the U.S., the poor have a difficult time handling money. If they need a loan, banks don’t lend without collateral. If they go to payday lenders, interest rates are huge. If they want to save small sums, banks don’t make it easy: there are minimum deposits, activity requirements, fees, etc. If they receive a check, they can’t cash it at a bank without an account, so go to check-cashing services and pay to cash out their own money. Pawn shops and car title loans are also symbols of the system that does not serve the poor, but rather, exploits them. In fact, two-thirds of the world’s population does not have access to the banking system.

When he saw the problems that started him on the Grameen Bank idea, Dr. Yunus explains, he thought of reversing the situation: loan to the poor, to women, have few rules, no paperwork, and no lawyers. It was not smooth sailing. He and his colleagues were accused by leftists of importing American capitalism while rightists accused them of spreading socialism. Conservative clergy were unhappy with women being empowered.

But Dr. Yunus and his colleagues soon found that money going to families through women was greater and had greater benefit than money going to families through men, because women put money towards children first and then towards the future, whereas men put money towards pleasure and things for the present. So now 97% of the Grameen (“Village”) Bank loans have been made to women.

He explains that poverty is not natural, but has been created by the system. We need to change the system, for example by creating an inclusive banking system. Banking is just one of the examples of the “social business” model that he has been advocating.

He also created other companies, not to make money, but to solve problems. Current economic theory teaches that the purpose of business is to make money, but “human beings are not money-making machines,” he said. People are selfish and selfless, too. We must build business on selflessness—this is “social business,” delinked from profit and linked to solving social problems.

His social businesses have excelled. Dr. Yunus cited a few examples.
Example 1: There are 150 million people in Bangladesh; 50% of the children are severely malnourished, physically and mentally stunted. Dannon joined him in putting micronutrients in yogurt and making it cheap. With just two cups per week over 9 months, a malnourished child becomes healthy. The business is sustainable; owners get their principal back slowly, but they do not get rich on the business—that is not the purpose.

Example 2: Adidas asked him how they could help. He replied, make shoes affordable to all. They were shocked—but asked him how inexpensive the shoes should be. He replied, less than 1 euro. The executive said, “You’re a hard man!” He said, no, poverty is hard. After 2 years of working on the project, Adidas told him they will provide 5 thousand shoes to Bangladesh, to see if the design, materials, pricing, etc., is right. If so, the project will expand.

Example 3: In Ghana women gather shea nuts for very little money. They are ultimately bought by cosmetics manufacturers like L’Oreal for a lot of money because shea butter products are expensive and profits are high. His company has stepped in to buy nuts from the women and deliver L’Oreal’s money, cutting out the middlemen.

Just a few days after his Atlanta visit, Dr. Yunus was awarded the SolarWorld Einstein Award 2010 at the 25th European Photovoltaic Conference in Spain, for the work of “Grameen Shakti,” a company he founded in 1996 for providing solar energy to rural homes in Bangladesh. And big business is becoming interested

Dr. Yunus stressed that businesses can use money to solve problems. “If we remove the hurdles that people face, they will rise and poverty will be no more. We will take our children to ‘poverty museums’ to learn about the poverty of the past, just as we take them today to museums to learn about dinosaurs!”

At the IACA event, to the about 225 who came to see him early on Saturday morning, Dr. Yunus offered advice for the challenging economic times. Not charity but public-private partnership to foster entrepreneurship is the need of the hour, he stressed. He suggested a social stock market where people can invest in corporations that promote social values.

Today, more than 250 institutions in nearly 100 countries, including India and the U.S., operate microcredit programs based on the Grameen Bank model. Sounding a positive note, he said, “The scope is endless for those with ‘I can do it’ spirit.”

In his introduction, Viren Mayani of IACA had noted, that he had met Dr. Yunus in New York at the inauguration of a Grameen Bank branch in Jackson Heights, after which Viren had lobbied him to open a branch in Atlanta. “Dear Dada,” Viren said on Saturday, “now you can see for yourself the love and respect this great city has for you, and I formally declare my reengagement of lobbying for a Grameen Bank branch in Atlanta, today!” Dr. Yunus assured Viren that if all the variables were made available including money, a core team of interested people, and a sincere desire to help, he could not see why Atlanta could not be the beneficiary of a Grameen branch.

[For more on Dr. Yunus, please see his exclusive interview with Khabar elsewhere in this issue]

- Suzanne Sen and Mahadev Desai

Gujarat’s Golden Jubilee celebrated by Gujarati Samaj

“Villager” delights audience and fellow volunteers with his singing and ektara. (Photo: Krish Photography)

Padma Shree Dr. Sudhir Parikh tries out a hookah with Ramjibhai Desai, who is acting the part of a village leader to show the new generation what Gujarati villages were like. (Photo: Krish Photography)

On September 11-12, 2010, the Gujarati Samaj of Atlanta (GSA) organized a Golden Jubilee “Swarnim Gujarat” Celebration for the 50th Anniversary of Gujarat State. Close to 2500 people attended the event at the Sardar Patel Bhavan, home of Gujarati Samaj, in Tucker. Messages conveying best wishes were received from the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi; Minister Nitin Patel; Gujarat Vidhansabha speaker Ashok Bhatt, and Executive Chairman of Swarnim Gujarat Celebrations, I.K. Jadeja.

On the sunny Saturday morning, Jayantibhai Patel of BAPs Shree Swaminarayan Mandir arrived with the commemorative swarna kalash sent from Gujarat by Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Coordinator Ramesh Pandya described the Chharodi Gurukul run by Swami Madhavpriyadasji, and his other award-winning humanitarian services. Swamiji exhorted all to join in offering salutations to Gujarat in the famous words of poet Narmad, “Jai Jai Garvi Gujarat.” Gujaratis are known for making money, but also for their acts of philanthropy. It is the land of two Mohans: Dwarika’s Lord Krishna and Porbandar’s Mahatma Gandhi.

After a flag hoisting ceremony and a moment of silence for the 9/11 victims, the U.S. and Indian national anthems were sung, and special guests spoke.

Dr. Sudhir Parikh is the only Indian American to receive three significant awards: the Ellis Island Medal of Honor; the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, and the Padma Shri. A video clip highlighted his medical career, community service, philanthropy, and his work for enhancing Indo-US relations. Dr Parikh said “Today is a day of pride for us?. Gujarat is a land of Gandhi, Ravishanker Maharaj, Morarji Desai, Sardar Patel, Dadabhai Navrojee, Vikram Sarabhai, Dhirubhai Ambani, Narsi Mehta and Kavi Narmad, to name a few.” As Chairman and Publisher of Parikh Worldwide Media Inc., he stressed the importance of promoting Gujarati culture and language, and appealed to the audience not only to read the Gujarat Times but also to contribute articles and poems.

Mr. Chandu K.Patel (CK) is president of Vishwa Umiya Patidar Parivar, president of National Federation of Indian-American Associations (NFIA), and founder of the Southern California Hotel-Motel Association. Patel said, “Gujarat’s 65% population lives in its 18,000 villages. When I saw the impressive model village in the exhibition section, it brought back memories of my early days in my small village in Gujarat. I applaud Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the rapid and progressive transformation of Gujarat’s villages in the past ten years. To give one example, through Jyotigram Yojana, all the villages have now been electrified with a 24 hour electricity supply. But a lot remains to be done. It is our duty to help the villages.”

Dr.Vithalbhai Dhaduk, Senior Vice President and Founding Partner of Core Pharma and a neurologist at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, continued, “I strongly urge you to adopt a village or a worthy village project and extend your help. Recently when I met Narendra Modi, he commended Gujarati Samaj for honoring Sardar Patel by installing his bust. He also [announced that there will be] a Police Unity Tour in Gujarat in 2011 when 50 Senior Police Officers from the U.S. and India will show their solidarity in the fight against terrorism by riding their bikes from Karamsad, the birthplace of Sardar Patel, to the BAPS Mandir in Gandhinagar.”

Arvindbhai Joshi is the Founder of the Academy of Indian Culture in Los Angeles, which has trained more than 1,000 artists in light, folk and devotional music and drama. He stressed the need to preserve and nourish Gujarati language and traditions. He recited a poem ‘Dil ma divo karo (Light a lamp in your hearts).’

Kanjibhai Patel, member of Rajya Sabha, a former minister in Gujarat, and in the National Executive Committee of BJP, lauded Narendra Modi’s leadership and his role in enhancing Gujarat’s stature.

The President of Gujarati Samaj, Vipul Patel said, “Gujarat has emerged as a model state in many ways. Its progress and achievements are envious to even some developed nations!” “Today’s Gujarat is tomorrow’s India.”

After 29 years, GSA is a robust Samaj with over 1000 family members. It was long time member and dedicated volunteer, Shree Ram Mangaldas Motibhai Patel (Mangalkaka)’s dream to install the bust of Sardar Patel in the Sardar Bhavan, and he has generously sponsored it. In a stirring speech, 88-year-old Mangalkaka paid tribute to the ‘Iron Man of India’ Sardar Patel, who played a major role in India’s struggle for freedom and later in forging a unified India from 565 princely states.

Ramesh Pandya recognized Atlanta’s performing arts promoter Mustafa Ajmeri, who is recovering from a serious illness. Pandya said that it was his dream that Gujarati Samaj ought to organize Golden Jubilee celebrations. Pandya also recognized Girish Patel (Mukhi), Vinod Kaswala and Rasik Bhimani for setting up the educational village exhibits, and past-President of Gujarati Samaj, Vinodbhai Patel, who has attended every event of the Samaj and helped in every possible way.

Two dance items were presented by Kumud and Sandeep Savla of Nritya Natya Kala Academy: the first was choreographed to a prayer by poet Narmad, and the second was a scintillating raas (Gokul aavo Girdhari). Gujarati Samaj ladies then performed a traditional form of garba known as tippani.

Dr. Sudhir Parikh and beaming donor Mangalkaka unveiled the bust of Sardar Patel, garlanding it and showering it with flower petals, to the beat of drums. Vinodbhai Patel and Girish Patel (Mukhi) got the 100 kilo bust by sculptor Dhruv of Ahmedabad to Atlanta. Navinbhai Patel arranged for soil from Sardar’s home to be placed underneath the bust. Gujarati Samaj Atlanta has the honor to be the first among organizations in the U.S.A. to install Sardar’s bust.

The exhibition section featured, on one side, panels displaying original pictures of Gujarat’s scientists, literary figures, saints, researchers, entrepreneurs and patriots, with quotes, poems, and other information underneath. On the other side was a replica of a village with huts, well, ox-cart, cradle, temple, musical instruments, cooking utensils, pots, rope swing, rope charpoy, spinning wheel, etc. Volunteers in costume acted as a tailor, cobbler, barber, etc.

An afternoon entertainment program and video were followed in the evening by Arvind Joshi and his troupe of Kirti Dave, Rekha Dave, Noopur Dave, Kirti Patel, Mayuri Patel, Harsh Thaker, Hemant Ekbote, Darshak Joshi, and Jayshree Gohil presenting a Geet Gurjari musical program with vintage songs, such as, “dhuni re dhakhavi,” “taari aankh no afini,” and “chhanu re chhapnu.”

The organizers at GSA were particularly happy and proud of the free admission for visitors to the entire event including the exhibitions, the meals of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as the entertainment.

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