The Defenders

Muhammad Yunus

“Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.”

Muhammad Yunus was born in 1940 in the seaport city of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Yunus studied at Dhaka University in Bangladesh and taught economics at Chittagong University from 1961-1965. He then received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at Vanderbilt University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt in 1969. Returning to Bangladesh, Yunus headed the economics department at Chittagong University. He began studying the economic aspects of poverty as famine swept through Bangladesh in the mid 1970s.

After exploring efforts such as agricultural training to alleviate poverty, Professor Yunus became convinced that a better way to benefit large numbers of landless poor people was to give them access to money that would help them build small businesses. He developed the idea of “micro” loans, a credit system to enable poor Bangladeshis to borrow small amounts of money as part of a peer group, which helped ensure accountability and repayment. Yunus established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983, driven by his belief that credit is a fundamental human right. His objective was to help poor people escape from poverty by providing loans on terms suitable to them and by teaching them basic financial principles so they could protect their personal finances.

The Bangladesh government made the Grameen Bank Project an independent bank in 1983, with the government owning a minority share. The Grameen Bank has since become a major force in the world movement to eradicate poverty through microlending. Replicas of the Grameen Bank model operate in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Professor Yunus has served as an economic advisor to many prominent organizations. From 1993 to 1995, Professor Yunus was a member of the International Advisory Group for the Fourth World Conference on Women, a post to which he was appointed by the UN secretary general. He has served on the Global Commission of Women’s Health, the Advisory Council for Sustainable Economic Development and the UN Expert Group on Women and Finance. Muhammad Yunus has received many rewards for his work and ideas. These include the Independence Day Award, Bangladesh’ highest award, and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.


According to the United Nations Development Programme, one of the best pathways out of poverty in many parts of the world is entrepreneurship. Poor families can support themselves by selling firewood, food or clothing. However, these people often can’t pull together enough money to launch these types of small businesses. Traditional lenders often refused to provide funding to poor people because they lacked property or other collateral to back the loan. Those who were willing to lend money to the poor often charged usurious interest, leaving families with significant debt.

By giving poor people access to small loans, microcredit organizations like the Grameen Bank allow aspiring entrepreneurs to buy the basic supplies they need to get into business. For example, the loan may help a food seller purchase one or more chickens to produce eggs or a refrigerator to keep food cold. Microloans range from an average low of about $200 to nearly $3,000. Since microcredit involves loans, every dollar that is repaid by lenders can be recycled to help many more people.

Microloans aren’t limited to entrepreneurship. They are also being used to help people pay down higher interest debt and to finance major purchases such as a new refrigerator or a new roof. They also help poor people weather challenges such as caring for of a sick family member of losing a job.

In recent years, microcredit has come under scrutiny as economists have sought to quantify its impact. The results of numerous studies indicate that “the results have not been as dramatic as was originally hoped for by many advocates.” While microlending isn’t a silver bullet and there may be room to improve how it is done to increase efficacy, there is no doubt that this form of lending can be a valuable option for many families trying to work their way out of poverty.


  • Read about the Grameen Bank here.
  • Raise awareness about poverty in Bangladesh using data you’ll find here.
  • Learn how you can become a microlender here.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.