The Nobel Peace Prize-winner and economist drinks a glass of water and talks about microcredit
This is awkward: I am about to sit down to lunch with a man who has just told me he does not want to eat anything with me.
Nothing personal, you understand. It is just that Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bangladeshi economist famed for starting the global microcredit movement, has already eaten when he arrives for Lunch with the FT, an interview whose essential feature over its 20-year history has been the sharing of a meal.
Yunus, who has spent a lifetime fearlessly challenging much bigger social conventions than this, confesses ignorance of the FT’s tradition and seems by his silence disinterested in it. He is a busy man, constantly travelling, and I suspect that somewhere along the way an aide failed to brief him on the proposed nature of our encounter.
He is in New York for UN General Assembly week, when politicians, statesmen and development panjandrums descend on the city for a whirl of speechifying and networking. Yunus is a revered figure in this world, with a very packed schedule – indeed, so tight that he arrives more than half an hour late for our 2pm appointment in the luxury Four Seasons Hotel’s Garden restaurant, by which time it has closed for lunch.
Since he is not eating, and his aides seem to have chosen the venue purely as a convenient Midtown meeting point, this matters little. Hotel staff steer us to a lounge where music tinkles and snacks are served.
Is it unusual for him to have such a packed week? “No, everywhere I go this happens.” People, he says, want to use every minute they can with him. He says he often misses out on meals because he has to talk while everyone else at a meeting is eating. Not today, clearly.
As befits one of the most celebrated thinkers, and doers, in the world of poverty alleviation, he gives off an aura of quiet, charismatic charm and a mind focused on higher things than lunch. He has a full head of grey hair and an open face that defaults to a benign smile. His clothing is simple: a tan-coloured tunic, beige trousers, and a trademark collarless, blue checked shirt, handmade by Bangladeshi weavers. He has, he jokes, become a fashion model for the industry.
Aged 73, he projects the physical and mental energy of a much younger man. And how he must need it: he tells me that this year he will spend 60 per cent of his time out of Bangladesh, travelling the world to promote his ideas and projects.