(Photo: AFP via BBC News)
It's been a long time coming for Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. I would venture to say that many people who knew about Mr. Yunus's work felt that it was only a matter of time before the Grameen Bank founder and microcredit pioneer became a Nobel Laureate. He had already received numerous other awards, including the the 1994 World Food Prize, the 1998 Sydney (AUS) Peace Prize, the 2006 Seoul Peace Prize, and many other awards (listed on his Wikipedia entry).
I traveled to Bangladesh a few years ago as part of a one-month research program that split time between Dhaka, the capital city, and a rural village. In the village we witnessed first-hand the involvement of Grameen Bank and other microfinance NGOs such as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). It wasn't perfect. One villager we talked with was deep in debt with a high interest rate from a loan he used to refurbish his small home's roof and pay for his son's wedding (non-capital expenses). There were also some reports of husbands taking over the decision-making process from their wives once the loan payments had been handed out. But overall the presence of Grameen Bank seemed to be a huge asset to the village's community development prospects.
From the meetings we attended, we found out that over 90% of participants met their installment payments. It was inspiring to see women taking charge, scrutinizing their ledger books and conversing with the loan officer. We talked to villagers who bought animals, improved their crop production, or did other useful things with their loans. Mr. Yunus's legacy was alive in the small sense of control the villagers who took part in microcredit programs had to improve their well-being.
The promise of this legacy made it no shocker that Mr. Yunus was thus honored. The somewhat surprising thing is not that he and his organization won a Nobel Prize, but that he won the Peace Prize, instead of the Prize for Economics: surprising, not in the sense that he did not deserve the Peace award (I think he did), but that economics is the primary avenue of his work, though it has important ripple effects in women's empowerment, community development, democracy, health, and peace throughout the developing world. A Nobel Prize in Economics would have better amplified the notion that small-scale, grassroots-based programs are more effective and more democratic in alleviating poverty than large-scale "structural adjustment"-type programs commonly implemented by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
As this BBC article notes, the face of the Nobel Peace Prize has been changing in recent years to include possible candidates who are not directly involved in peace work, but whose actions still indirectly help bring about peace and empowerment. One example is Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Laureate from Kenya, whose work involved human rights and equality but primarily concerned environmental stewardship. Making the connection between sustainability and peace is vital, and Maathai's recognition is a valuable example of this.
Mr. Yunus and Grameen Bank certainly qualify under this broadened window of the Peace Prize. But his work's value is that it provides a new economic model for the developing world. Granted, the Prize in Economics, sponsored by the Bank of Sweden, seems more targeted towards scholars, its criteria certainly fit Mr. Yunus's contributions:
When considering what should be regarded as a "worthy" contribution, it is probably correct to say that the selection Committee has looked, in particular, at the originality of the contribution, its scientific and practical importance, and its impact on scientific work. (Source)He didn't achieve recognition by writing a seminal journal article, but what better example is there of originality and practical importance than Mr. Yunus's work? This is probably why Mr. Yunus has "more than once [been] recommended for the Nobel Prize for peace or economics" (Source).
The most important thing, however, was that Mr. Yunus finally received the award he deserved, which will not only further support his microfinance programs (He plans to use at least some of the cash award "to 'find more innovative ways' to help the poor launch businesses [Source: original BBC article].), but will also raise the international profile of microfinance and its role in improving the lives of millions of people around the world.