The US Congress yesterday bestowed the country’s top civilian award on microfinance pioneer Mohammed Yunus, in a rousing show of support to a man who is under fire in his native Bangladesh.
Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank which provides small loans to poor people usually excluded from the banking system, became the first Muslim to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Leaders of America’s two main parties took a break from a tense day for the ceremony in the rotunda under the US Capitol’s dome, where House Speaker John Boehner said he was presenting the award “with awe and gratitude.”
“Professor Yunus set out to do what may be the biggest thing of all, and that is liberating people to seek a better life,” Boehner said.
Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, who belongs to President Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, hailed Yunus as “a man who has shown most of us to be wrong” in their views of how economics work.
“Banker, revolutionary and visionary are not words that are commonly associated with each other,” Holt said.
“Yet millions of times, Dr. Yunus has demonstrated with facts, evidence and accomplishment that grand social goals can be pursued one person at a time by using practices that are completely contrary to what businesses have practiced, for ages.” Yunus and Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, with the award committee crediting his decades of efforts with lifting from dire poverty millions of people in Bangladesh and elsewhere—particularly women.
However, Yunus has faced pressure in Bangladesh where the government has increased control over Grameen Bank—a move critics say is aimed at keeping the banker in check if he bids to enter the nation’s deeply polarised politics.
A visibly moved Yunus said he first visited the Capitol when he was teaching at Middle Tennessee State University. He said he came to Washington in 1971 to lobby the United States—unsuccessfully—to support Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan.
He thanked Congress for the “wonderful honor,” saying it was an endorsement of his microfinance ideas.
“I am receiving it not for me but for all these women who have worked so hard to make you convinced they can take care of themselves given the financial institutional support—not charity,” he said.
Yunus has dedicated the Congressional Gold Medal to the Yunus Center in Dhaka.
He has become the seventh person to have received the Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the Center quoted John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, as informing an august gathering of all lawmakers in Washington. Dr Yunus is the first Muslim and the first Bengali to have received all these three awards.
More than 100 Congressmen and Senators of both houses were present at the function. They were joined by top functionaries of the Obama administration and scores of others dealing in micro-credit and the social sector.
Speaker Boehner said that the Congressional Medal awarded to Yunus had to be redesigned on the Nobel Laureate’s request to include an inscription in Bengali on one side of the medal. Literally translated, the Bengali inscription reads “We have sent poverty to the museum”.
“This is a unique way of showing love and attachment for his mother tongue,” Boehner said.
Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his contribution to the cause of global peace through his poverty alleviation efforts through micro-credit.
In 2009, he received the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ from US President Barack Obama. The year after, the US Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill to award Yunus the Congressional Gold Medal for “his tireless efforts to serve the cause of humanity by poverty alleviation efforts through micro-credit”.
Obama signed the bill immediately but the delay in awarding Yunus the Congressional Medal was warranted by the change of design.
“This is not an individual achievement. This is an achievement for the people of Bangladesh,” Yunus told newsmen after receiving the Congressional Medal.
“The micro-credit model has received global acceptance because people in Bangladesh gave it all-out support.” “I dedicated this honour to the 160mn Bangladeshis.”
The award ceremony, that lasted 90 minutes, was attended by micro-credit practitioners, human rights organisers, social workers, journalists, academics, cultural personalities and expatriate Bangladeshis.
This is the first time that a Bangladeshi has been honoured by both the Senate and the US House of Representatives.
Congressman Rush Holt and Congresswoman Ileana Ros- Lethinen were joined by Senators Michael Enzi and Richard J Durbin in recounting Mohammed Yunus’ achievements in lifting 100mn people in 30 countries out of poverty through micro-credit.
Yunus’ unique achievements also drew praise from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (leader of Democratic Party in House of Representatives) senator Mitch McConnel (leader of Republican Party in the Senate), senator Harry Reid (leader of Democratic Party in Senate) and House of Representative’s speaker John Boehner.
None of them referred to the Grameen Bank created by Muhammad Yunus – or to the controversy surrounding his removal from it. Yunus also did not raise the issue during his speech after receiving the honour.
The Nobel laureate recounted his US experience as a student trying to mobilise support for the cause of Bangladesh’s independence during the 1971 Liberation War.
“That was the beginning. Since then, I have worked ceaselessly for the cause of humanity,” Yunus said.
Yunus did refer to removal from the Grameen Bank during the luncheon hosted in his honour at the House of Representatives. But he was far from being critical of the government.
“Those who are running the Grameen Bank after I was removed are working in the right direction amidst much adversity. I wish them all the success.”
His American daughter Monika Yunus sang the Beautiful Dreamer at the ceremony, which was attended, among others, by the Yunus family , Grameen’s US functionaries, UN under-secretary Amira Huq, Bangladesh ambassdor to US Akramul Qader, former Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry chief Abdul Awal Minto and New Jersey councilman and Bangabandhu Parishad’s US chapter chief Nur Nabi.