Eradicating Poverty while Mentoring Changemakers
Muhammad Yunus, PhD
Nobel Peace Prize-Winning Economist and Social Entrepreneur
1965 Fulbright Foreign Student to Vanderbilt University
Dr. Muhammad Yunus set out with a simple but radical idea: “The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world — all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them.” His lifelong dedication to empowering the world’s poor made him one of his generation’s most celebrated economists and the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize (jointly awarded with Grameen Bank) “for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.”
His real impact, however, is not in the number of awards he has won, but the number of people he has empowered. Known as the “Banker to the Poor,” Dr. Yunus is a pioneer in the field of microcredit. This method, which provides small business loans to low-income individuals, was first pioneered by Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1976 by loaning $27 to a group of women to start a bamboo stool business. By providing microloans to groups traditionally excluded from business financing, Dr. Yunus has supported entrepreneurship, alleviated poverty in Bangladeshi communities, and changed the way the world thinks about development economics.
Before microcredit, the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, and countless other honors, Dr. Yunus began his journey towards promoting opportunity for Bangladeshi communities as a 1965 Fulbright Foreign Student, undertaking a Ph.D. in Economic Development. Building on undergraduate and graduate degrees at Dhaka University, Dr. Yunus used his Fulbright to complete his doctoral degree in Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Program in Economic Development (GPED). His Fulbright prepared him to return to a newly independent Bangladesh and apply his global perspective to promote social mobility in local villages, while also teaching the next generation of Bangladeshi economists at Chittagong University.
In 1983, Dr. Yunus’ education, international experience, and on-the-ground work culminated in the founding of Grameen Bank, a microfinance organization and community development bank. Since its creation, Grameen Bank has provided $6.5 billion in collateral-free loans to 7.5 million clients in more than 82,000 villages in Bangladesh, with women making up 97% of its loan recipients. It has inspired similar funding opportunities in other low-, medium-, and high-income countries around the world.
His work did not go unnoticed. Alex Counts, an American undergraduate studying economics at Cornell University, learned of Grameen Bank, and was inspired by Dr. Yunus’ efforts to eradicate poverty. With the encouragement of his professors, Counts became a 1988 Fulbright U.S. Student to Bangladesh, training under Dr. Yunus and working to develop solutions to the complex problems of social mobility and economic development in low-income countries.
Counts reflects on the impact of his Fulbright experience, and Dr. Yunus’ mentorship: “My nine months in Bangladesh were an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime learning and bonding experience. I later returned to Bangladesh and realized my vision of promoting Dr. Yunus’s work globally by starting the Grameen Foundation in 1997 with his support. I ran the foundation for 18 years, before handing it over to a new leadership team that continues to take it in exciting directions.” Dr. Yunus, as Counts’ mentor and collaborator, serves as a founding board member and Director Emeritus.
Dr. Yunus’ influence extends beyond economics: he is closely involved with the United Nations, having served as a UN Secretary General-appointed member of the International Advisory Group for the Fourth World Conference, a member of the UN Expert Group on Women and Finance, and a board member of the United Nations Foundation. Closer to home, he received the Independence Day Award - Bangladesh’s highest honor - in 1987, in recognition of his substantial contributions to rural development.
Dr. Yunus continues to teach, connect, and promote poverty eradication around the world. In a recent talk with students at the University of California, Berkeley, he shared, “Each human being is good enough to change the whole world. So feel that, and make it happen.”
To learn more about Fulbright alumni who have won Nobel Prizes, click here for the full list.