Eid came early to Bangladesh this year, with the Nobel Peace Prize going at long last to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. Bangladeshis were ecstatic but not surprised by the news. Ever since Bill Clinton wrote in My Life that Mr. Yunus should have received the award long ago, it was just a matter of when not if.
Coincidentally, I have been reading Banker to the Poor, the autobiography of Mr. Yunus, lately. It is a highly readable book distinguished by humble candor. Mr. Yunus lovingly talks about growing up in rural and urban Bangladesh in the 1940s and 50s, traveling the world in his teens as a boy scout, living through the political and social turmoil of the era, pursuing higher education in the U.S. in the 60s, falling in love with a Russian-American and marrying her, returning to the newly independent Bangladesh, struggling professionally and personally immensely in his war-ravaged country, the latter because his foreigner wife simply could not adjust. Of course, during this period he also began to think about ways to address the acute poverty he saw around his Chittagong University campus, where he taught Economics.
I find the book a good read more for the social observations than the success story of Mr. Yunus or the Grameen Bank. Particularly compelling is the section on the initial difficulties of getting micro credit going, when rural women just wouldn't come out of their houses to talk about money, and how they could not believe their eyes when they received their first loan as they had never handled cash before. What happens to the same women in mere months is as good an example of empowerment as it gets.
On a rather sour note amid the jubilation, the Economist has come up with an article claiming that the Nobel Peace Prize has lost its way, and that Grameen was not an appropriate choice as micro-credit is not exactly "peacemaking." I find the article characterized by intellectual hubris. Even a cursory look at the list of past winners would reveal that the award has been about humanitarianism, which encompasses a larger and deeper idea than peacemaking. Hence the Nobel has been given to missionaries (Mother Teresa, 1979 and Albert Schweitzer, 1953), an agriculture scientist (Norman Bourlaug, 1970), and a writer (Elie Wiesel, 1986). Did the Economist object to those awards as well?
That this year's prize went to an institution and individual who have done wonders for poor women's financial and social conditions in a predominantly Muslim society underscores the Nobel Committee's impeccable sense of timing. In these troubled times when ominous beliefs like "clash of civilizations" are taking hold, it is deeply heartening to see an idea that aims to lift the downtrodden transcend cultures and civilizations, and receive global recognition.