In 1974 Bangladesh was struck by a major famine which eventually killed over 1.5 million people. Throughout the country people were dying like fleas. Soon city streets become full of starving people, lying there waiting to die. By all account, the problem was compounded by mismanagement of food distribution.
Dr Yunus felt intense anger and frustration at the Government for not managing the situation better. The only problem was the government was led by the powerful Awami League and its charismatic leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Jathir Jonok (Father of Nation). Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal), as Sheikh Mujib was lovingly referred to, had demi-god status following his phenomenal rise to power during and after the 1971 Sangram (Civil War with Pakistan). Very few people - if any - dared to question his leadership and governance.
Dr Yunus was one such man.
Dr Yunus approached Chittagong University's vice-chancellor Abul Fazal and asked him to make a statement to press condemning the lack of action by the government. However, the highly respected vice-chancellor convinced Dr Yunus to write the statement instead and signed the document along with other members of the university. Dr Yunus's passionate plea was presented in all the major newspapers and inspired others to come out and publicly criticise the government for its mismanagement.
By this stage of his career Dr Yunus had decided he needed to change his approach radically and become more hands-on. He wanted to see for himself what the poor were experiencing and understand their real needs as opposed to just learning from books and classrooms. With that began Muhammad Yunus's lifelong quest to fight poverty and eradicate it for good.
I became involved in the poverty issue not as a policymaker or a researcher. I became involved because poverty was all around me, and I could not turn away from it. In 1974, I found it difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the university classroom, in the backdrop of a terrible famine in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I felt the emptiness of those theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty.
I wanted to do something immediate to help people around me, even if it was just one human being, to get through another day with a little more ease. That brought me face to face with poor people's struggle to find the tiniest amounts of money to support their efforts to eke out a living.
The Bangladesh famine of 1974 focused all Dr Yunus's efforts on farming. Throughout his distinguished career Dr Yunus would be responsible for many innovative programs benefiting the rural poor. However, it was a chance meeting with a poor village woman which would give birth to his greatest creation and catapult his profile to the international stage.
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