Letter to the editor reflects on experiences at Yunus Center

Sanjay Paul April 3, 2014 0

We reach Dhaka airport at 2 a.m. Our flight is at 5 a.m., so we have plenty of time to check in, clear security and board the plane to Abu Dhabi (en route to Washington D.C.). Our group moves toward the Etihad Airways’ counters.

It has been an exhilarating week in Bangladesh, a country that fought a war of liberation in 1971 and has since vacillated between democracy and military rule. But the country has much going for it: a vibrant civil society, a rich cultural and literary tradition, newspapers.

And it has Dr. Muhammad Yunus. In 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Yunus and Grameen Bank, the organization he created to serve unmet banking needs in villages — and promote entrepreneurship among low-income women. Yunus’ model of microfinance — giving small loans to groups of borrowers to help them set up small businesses — has been adopted in several developing countries and also in rich countries; Grameen America provides microloans in cities here.

Elizabethtown College’s relationship with Yunus began in 2012 when he delivered the Ware and Carper lectures at the College. Some students in attendance, including Salman Habib, were sufficiently inspired to explore how the relationship could be further strengthened. Working with interested faculty, they invited officers of the Yunus Centre to the campus last year. The visitors offered a workshop on social business and met with President Carl Strikwerda. During the visit, the students made a presentation, complete with benefits to students and costs to the College, on a new course that would include a study tour to the Yunus Centre in Dhaka.

The two-credit course, “Seminar on Social and Economic Development in Developing Countries,” was offered for the first time this spring. It focuses on Bangladesh and explores the role of microfinance and social business in addressing issues of poverty, women’s empowerment and the digital divide. The study tour to Dhaka during spring break was an integral part of that course.

We spent a week visiting Yunus Centre businesses, including Grameen Bank (the original microfinance institution), Grameen Danone (yogurt with extra nutrients to combat childhood disease), Grameen Shakti (solar power for villagers) and Grameen-Intel (technology for farmers and healthcare). We also visited other Grameen enterprises: an Industrial Park, Nursing College, Eye-care Hospital, Telemedicine Clinic and Grameen Communications.

We were received warmly; the officers at our briefing sessions were engaging, professional and quite willing to answer questions from our students. Most of our time was spent visiting production facilities and offices in Dhaka, but we also had the opportunity to visit villages and a town some four hours away from the capital city. We met a number of people who benefited directly from the activities of the Grameen institutions, including a group of low-income women who had taken out loans from Grameen Bank to start small businesses and a group of blind workers in a book-bindery shop nestled in the basement garage of an auto dealership.

On the final day, we met with Yunus, who had just flown in from a visit abroad.

Yunus normally meets with visiting groups for 10 to 15 minutes, mostly for pictures, but in our case, he visited for about 90 minutes and engaged in a vigorous exchange about the work of the Yunus Centre and possibilities for collaboration. We noted that it was his visit to Etown two years ago that sparked the idea of a study-tour to Bangladesh. He didn’t neglect the pictures.

Our collaboration with the Yunus Centre has borne fruit in other ways. Senior Stephen Brill, an economics student, will be completing a three-month internship in Dhaka in the summer. Yunus Center will help with arranging his program and accommodations, and thanks to funding from the College’s 2014 IGO/NGO Summer Internship Financial Support Program, Brill’s travel, lodging and meals are fully covered.

So as the group moved toward the airline counters in the Dhaka airport, we felt good. A successful study tour, replete with numerous learning experiences (about Grameen certainly, but also about life in Dhaka), was drawing to a close.

But an Etihad official gave us disturbing news. Due to technical problems at the airport in Abu Dhabi, the flight from Dhaka was canceled. We were given a choice: wait at the airport until the matter was resolved, or go to a nearby five-star hotel and wait there. If we chose the latter option, the airline would arrange transportation and pay for our rooms and meals.

The group went to the hotel. The problems in Abu Dhabi must have been fairly extensive, because Etihad Airways kept us in Dhaka for two days before finally putting us on a flight. During our unexpected stay, we arranged a tour of the hotel and a briefing from an executive on the workings of a luxury hotel and the competition it faced in the Dhaka market.

When we finally returned to the airport to board our much-delayed flight, a pleasant surprise awaited us. To soothe our ruffled feelings over the delay, Etihad upgraded us to business class on the Dhaka-Abu Dhabi leg of the journey. So, for the four-hour flight, life was heavenly — the joy of flying in a seat that reclines all the way back and leaves you perfectly horizontal is simply hard to describe.

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