(Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus, former President Bill Clinton, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton; UN Foundation Dinner, 19 Nov 2006, photo credit: Jennifer Willis)
Last night, Washington's political stars turned out to pay homage to the banker who started in 1976 lending $27 to 42 people in one village in Bangladesh.
Muhammad Yunus and many of his colleagues from the Grameen Bank were feted at an extraordinary reception and dinner gathering -- on a Sunday night -- at the Willard Hotel in Washington and hosted by the United Nations Foundation.
(Blogger Steven Clemons, Muhammad Yunus, and Ted Turner, 19 Nov 2006, photo credit: Jennifer Willis)
Among the guests were former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Congressman and Mrs. Tom Udall, Senator and Mrs. Paul Sarbanes, Pew Research executive and former Washington Post "Outlook" Editor Jodie Allen, Ted Turner and his companion Kathy Leach, Bruce and Hattie Babbitt, former Senator and UN Foundation President Timothy & Wren Wirth, former State Department Legal Adviser William Howard Taft IV, former Senator Donald Riegle, Ashoka founder William Dreyton, Kathy Bushkin, Kenneth Adelman, John Cochran, Diane Rehm, John Henry and Ann Crittendon, and many others.
(Former US Trade Representative Carla Hills and New America Foundation/American Strategy Program director Steven Clemons -- Muhammad Yunus Dinner, 19 Nov 2006, photo credit: Jennifer Willis)
I sat next to and had a fascinating political and trade policy discussion with Bush 41 US Trade Representative Carla Hills (who told me that former Ambassador and Boeing Executive Thomas Pickering was joining her firm, Hills & Co.)
It was also Ted Turner's birthday. Tim Wirth shared with us that when America was more than $1 billion in arrears on its UN dues, many worked to get that debt paid -- and when the last gap was $31 million, and the US government would not close it, Turner wrote a personal check to the US treasury for $31 million to apply to America's UN obligations.
Turner was impressive last night and started the dinner off noting that it was rare to see "so many do-gooders" in one place, "no one who wanted to go do someone harm." Neocon fellow traveler Kenneth Adelman was in the room last night and continued to stand by the mea culpas he had been offering for his "Iraq would be a cake walk" comments -- and unlike Joshua Muravchik was not advocating bombing anyone, at least last night.
Yunus's impressive and charming daughter, Monica, was at his side most of the evening. She sings operas at the Met in New York.
(New America Foundation American Strategy Program Director Steve Clemons and former President Bill Clinton, UN Foundation Dinner, 19 Nov 2006, photo credit: Jennifer Willis)
But the night was not about gossip about Washington's most well-heeled. It was about the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank for their hard work and magic in bringing economic opportunity to the world's poorest and lifting so many out of poverty -- not through grants but through micro-lending and banking.
I mentioned to Muhammad Yunus that when the Nobel Committee announced that he had won the Peace Prize, I was with George Soros in Tokyo. Soros instantly said that it was "an excellent choice." And last evening, Yunus confided that Soros had really helped provide critical support for the Grameen operation and had always supported them.
Yunus and the Grameen Bank are what transformational diplomacy ought to look like -- and Soros, Yunus, Turner, Carla Hills, Tim Wirth and others there last night are the world's real transformational diplomats.
One of the interesting tidbits Yunus conveyed last night is that while micro-lending in a single village began in 1976, the program in Bangladesh now covers more than 80% of impoverished families in that country.
The Grameen Bank was founded in 1983, and In 1986, then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton invited Yunus to Little Rock and together they helped establish a Grameen micro-lending operation in Arkansas, which Hillary Rodham Clinton chaired. Yunus said that people would start asking "What is this Grameen?" And when told that it was a bank operating in Bangladesh, they'd say "What is Bangladesh?" Sadly, one can still imagining that happening today -- but perhaps less so after the awarding of the Nobel.
Yunus' most important comments last night explored the links between poverty and peace. He said that "there is no military solution to terrorism," that "poverty is a threat to peace" and "poverty fuels feelings of humiliation and injustice, which feeds terrorism."
He said that the world's biggest problems -- whether "real or imagined injustices" -- were driven by economics. He said that the best way to turn around those factors that fueled the hopelessness that terror masters exploited was to give people an opportunity at entrepreneurship. Yunus said that if society got out of the way, "all human beings are entrepreneurs."
It was an uplifting, fascinating evening.
Yunus completed his remarks by committing Bangladesh to build the first "poverty museum" when there was no poverty any more and people needed to look back and remember what poverty once looked and felt like.
He reported that 58% of Grameen families had crossed over the poverty line and that 100% of their children were being educated.
Uplifting, noble -- clearly, much left to do -- and Yunus acknowledged that.
But as Ted Turner said, it felt great to be in a room of "do-gooders" whose results were in the black.
Norway's Ambassador to the United States Knut Vollebaek told us that the December 10th Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize will be aired live over the internet for the first time ever. And following up, Bangladesh's Ambassador to the United States Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury said that the embassy would be having a huge gathering that night to watch the award presentations live.
-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note