Friday, February 16, 2007

Peace & Poverty

Yusuf Islam performed live at the Nobel Peace Prize 2006 Award.

It is without exaggeration that I say that watching it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
I can tell from the video that it moved thousands of the people in the audience there too.
When I was in primary and secondary school, Cat Stevens was the greatest pop singer in the world.
He was known by everyone.
His music was not trashy commercialism, but thoughtful and contained the message of gentleness and peace, and that was why he struck a chord with the youth of the time, in the midst of the drugs and rock and roll music of the crazy 70s.
When he dropped out of the pop music scene, the whole tenor of pop music changed.

Suddenly now, 30 years later, to our surprise, he appears on stage.
He sings, and his voice has not changed at all since the 70s.
He sings, and at the Nobel Peace Prize Award ceremony, as the quiet troubadour of peace that he always was.
Thousands of the people in the audience are clearly Western people who are of the age that grew up on his music and remember loving him then.
And now he is back.
Like a brother who disappeared without a trace when you were a kid who suddenly comes back to your door today.

That day was a special event.
In my measure two of the greatest Muslims of the world in the same place - both of whom have done more for more people that we can imagine - one empowering the poorest of the poor to break their chains of despondency, the other illuminating the hearts of the lost and wandering to find their way to everlasting Love and Happiness.

'I feel right about making music and singing about life in this fragile world again,' Yusuf says of his return to the pop music world. 'It is important for me to be able to help bridge the cultural gaps others are sometimes frightened to cross.'

Next point - who won the Nobel Peace Prize that is so great that Yusuf comes out of singing retirement to sing for?
He is, to me, the probably greatest Muslim to be walking the Earth at this moment.
He made it possible for millions of people in the poorest countries of the world climb out of hopeless poverty, without riches to himself, without hogging the headlines.
He is Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh.
God bless this man!

Read his acceptance speech here.

How he started this immmense (and I would say unimaginable) project he describes like this :

I became involved in the poverty issue not as a policymaker or a researcher. I became involved because poverty was all around me, and I could not turn away from it. In 1974, I found it difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the university classroom, in the backdrop of a terrible famine in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I felt the emptiness of those theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty. I wanted to do something immediate to help people around me, even if it was just one human being, to get through another day with a little more ease. That brought me face to face with poor people's struggle to find the tiniest amounts of money to support their efforts to eke out a living. I was shocked to discover a woman in the village, borrowing less than a dollar from the money-lender, on the condition that he would have the exclusive right to buy all she produces at the price he decides. This, to me, was a way of recruiting slave labor.

I decided to make a list of the victims of this money-lending "business" in the village next door to our campus.

When my list was done, it had the names of 42 victims who borrowed a total amount of US $27. I offered US $27 from my own pocket to get these victims out of the clutches of those money-lenders. The excitement that was created among the people by this small action got me further involved in it. If I could make so many people so happy with such a tiny amount of money, why not do more of it?

That is what I have been trying to do ever since. The first thing I did was to try to persuade the bank located in the campus to lend money to the poor. But that did not work. The bank said that the poor were not creditworthy. After all my efforts, over several months, failed I offered to become a guarantor for the loans to the poor. I was stunned by the result. The poor paid back their loans, on time, every time! But still I kept confronting difficulties in expanding the program through the existing banks. That was when I decided to create a separate bank for the poor, and in 1983, I finally succeeded in doing that. I named it Grameen Bank or Village bank.

I believe that we can create a poverty-free world because poverty is not created by poor people. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social system that we have designed for ourselves; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies that we pursue.
Today, Grameen Bank gives loans to nearly 7.0 million poor people, 97 per cent of whom are women, in 73,000 villages in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank gives collateral-free income generating, housing, student and micro-enterprise loans to the poor families and offers a host of attractive savings, pension funds and insurance products for its members. Since it introduced them in 1984, housing loans have been used to construct 640,000 houses. The legal ownership of these houses belongs to the women themselves. We focused on women because we found giving loans to women always brought more benefits to the family.

In a cumulative way the bank has given out loans totaling about US $6.0 billion. The repayment rate is 99%. Grameen Bank routinely makes profit. Financially, it is self-reliant and has not taken donor money since 1995. Deposits and own resources of Grameen Bank today amount to 143 per cent of all outstanding loans. According to Grameen Bank's internal survey, 58 per cent of our borrowers have crossed the poverty line.

Grameen Bank was born as a tiny homegrown project run with the help of several of my students, all local girls and boys. Three of these students are still with me in Grameen Bank, after all these years, as its topmost executives. They are here today to receive this honour you give us.

This idea, which began in Jobra, a small village in Bangladesh, has spread around the world and there are now Grameen type programs in almost every country.

A human being is born into this world fully equipped not only to take care of him or herself, but also to contribute to enlarging the well being of the world as a whole. Some get the chance to explore their potential to some degree, but many others never get any opportunity, during their lifetime, to unwrap the wonderful gift they were born with. They die unexplored and the world remains deprived of their creativity, and their contribution.

All I can surmise at the end of this is this - this man, with his sincere intentions and added to it sincere devotion and love for others, is aided only by the Divine, for only by miracle did he succeed as he did - to help others. In an age where we marvel at accomplishments in terms of how lavish, how expensive, how luxurious, how bloody they are, here is an accomplishment which places all the others in the shade.

Our Master the Beloved Prophet of God said, "None of you are true believers unless and until you love for your brother what you would love for yourselves.".

It is so fitting that Yusuf Islam sang the most appropriate of his songs, so beautifully at this event.

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