Monday, November 13, 2006

Being Universally Beloved Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

A bit of advice for anyone who values his or her sanity: Try to avoid winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I spent Sunday afternoon watching Muhammad Yunus receiving the well-deserved accolades of the world--and especially of his colleagues in the global microcredit movement--at the summit meeting in Halifax, and frankly I have no idea how he manages to retain his sweet smile and friendly disposition. He is being treated like a rock star. Everywhere he goes a crowd of people trails him ("like flies on flypaper," as one of his assistants remarked), and he can't turn around without being importuned for a photo, an autograph, a handshake, a favor.

I attended a presentation by Christopher Dunford, president of Freedom from Hunger, about a meta-research study into the current evidence concerning the impact on poverty of microcredit programs in countries around the world. It was a scholarly analysis that deserved, and received, a thoughtful response from the panelists who attended the session, including Jonathan Morduch, a professor of public policy at NYU; Carmen Velasco, executive director of ProMujer, a well-known microcredit organization in Bolivia; and Professor Yunus. But when the floor was opened to questions from the audience, many people lined up at the microphone not to discuss Dunford's paper but to address Yunus--with questions, compliments, suggestions, and, in one case, a ten-minute harangue about global poverty policy that the program chair was unable to cut off until the rest of audience began clapping. It seems that, in his new role as the global face of microcredit, Yunus is now expected to personally solve every problem, resolve every dispute, and endorse every worthwhile initiative in the world of anti-poverty efforts.

Once the program ended, it was more photos, handshakes, questions, and autographs for Yunus. And when he was finally finished greeting every well-wisher and was heading for dinner--exhausted, I'm sure, though still smiling--he was waylaid by a young woman. She had in tow a small mustachioed man with a microphone whom she introduced as "a reporter for the most important newspaper in Ecuador. Can he just ask a question or two?" Of course, Yunus smiled and complied, patiently answering the same banal questions ("Is microcredit becoming an important movement in the world?") he must have answered two hundred times since waking up that morning.

People sometimes refer to Nobel Peace Prize winners as "living saints." Now I see why. It's not because of their good works but because they manage to put up with the rest of us without resorting to violence.

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