Grameen Pioneers: They Knew Professor Yunus When…

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GF supporter and actress Yeardley Smith (voice of “Lisa Simpson” on the popular TV show The Simpsons) and President and CEO Alex Counts traveled to Bangladesh in late July 2010. They visited Grameen Bank and some of the other enterprises Professor Yunus has launched to accelerate poverty reduction. This is Alex’s first blog post chronicling their visit.

Yeardley’s and my flight arrived at Dhaka’s International airport one hour late, after which we had the pleasure of navigating Dhaka’s ever-worsening traffic to get to our hotel. During lunch, I prepared her for the days to come, explaining that this trip would be different from the time we spent in May 2009 witnessing microfinance in Haiti. We then started for the Grameen Complex in Mirpur—traffic stretched a usually short trip to 45 minutes.

To get a sense of Grameen’s 30-year history, we met with three individuals who were with Professor Yunus during the organization’s nascent years in the mid-1970s.

In her new role as General Manager, Jannat Quanine oversees all of Grameen Bank’s international programs. She receives and provides exposure and training to a delegation of foreigners—from senior government officials to curious students—who want to learn about Grameen. As we sat with her, she received a call about two ministers from India who wanted to visit the following week. (I suspected that in the days ahead, she’d have her hands full preparing for that one visit.)

Jannat explained to Yeardley what it was like during the early years with Professor Yunus—before the worldwide acclaim for his achievements in reducing poverty, which spawned a global financial services industry for poor women. She also explained the itinerary for our six days in Bangladesh—her team had worked out every detail.

After meeting with Jannat, we visited Nurjahan Begum, Grameen’s Deputy Managing Director and Grameen Foundation Board member. She told us about Grameen Bank’s recent growth and talked about its sister organization, Grameen Shikkha. (Shikkha means “education” in Bengali.) Nurjahan is the organization’s nonsalaried CEO. She’s barely five feet tall, but pound for pound, she’s the most potent force for poverty reduction and women’s empowerment I’ve ever met!

Finally, we spent 45 minutes with Professor H. I. Latifee, the Managing Director of Grameen Trust. Among other achievements, he’s created MFIs from scratch in challenging environments spanning Burma, Kosovo, Guatemala, Turkey and more. Professor Latifee and Professor Yunus were members of the Chittagong University economics faculty while Jannat and Nurjahan were students there. The four of them, and several others, endured laborious cycles of dialogue and trial and error, setting them the path to create Grameen Bank. Yeardley was impressed by their modesty and how they credited most of the success to Professor Yunus, even though each added their unique talents and perspectives.

Yeardley and I then toured a small exhibit commemorating the awarding of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Professor Yunus and Grameen Bank. I was fortunate enough to be in Oslo for the ceremony, and I can attest that this memorial captures the emotion of those chilly, overcast, and miraculous days in December 2006. Yeardley and I barely spoke as we walked through the photos, captions, newspaper clippings, and narration. The highlight of the exhibit was Professor Yunus’ acceptance speech, called the “Nobel Lecture”.

Back at the hotel, we had a quick dinner and turned in early to rest up for our field trip to Tangail district the next morning. I wondered what Yeardley thought when the people we met that day seemed to know hardly anything about The Simpsons. I wondered if that would be consistent throughout our visit.

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