CRESCO, Iowa – When you picture a famous humanitarian and their work and legacy around the globe, the first image that comes to mind is probably not that of a farmer pensively grazing the golden rows of an Iowa cornfield. However, among the ranks of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. stands Norman Borlaug, who got his humble beginnings in the American Midwest and went on to become an internationally acclaimed humanitarian. Borlaug joins this list of five famous humanitarians about whom you may not know, including Oskar Schindler, Henry Dunant, Muhammad Yunus and John Rucyahana.
1. Norman Borlaug – Born in 1914, Borlaug was an agronomist from the plains of Iowa. He developed a strand of wheat that was both disease-resistant and produced much higher yields than traditional varieties. This discovery propelled an agricultural revolution in the 1940’s and 1950’s and saved the lives of millions around the world. In fact, by 1956, Mexico became self-sufficient on Borlaug’s strain of wheat. Borlaug also worked to advance cultivation practices and was one of the thought leaders of the Green Revolution. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
2. Oskar Schindler – You have probably heard of the Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List,: and this is the heroic man behind that tragic story. Born in 1908, Schindler was a German industrialist living in Poland during World War II. He acquired a large factory in 1939. Schindler employed local Jews and used “his power and the factory’s importance to shield his workers from numerous Gestapo raids and threats of deportation,” says AllThatIsInteresting.com. Schindler saved more than 1,000 lives.
3. Henry Dunant – Dunant was born in 1828 into a wealthy Swiss family. In his late twenties, he entered the business world and, while on a mission to acquire water rights from the Emperor Napoleon for his latest business scheme, witness one of Napoleon’s bloodiest battles. This event sparked and idea and plan, as recorded in his biography on the Nobel Prize website: “The nations of the world should form relief societies to provide care for the wartime wounded.” Thus, Dunant, along with the cooperation of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, founded the Red Cross. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.
4. Muhammad Yunus – Another Nobel Peace Prize awardee (2006,) Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. After a career as an economics professor, a deathly famine in 1974 inspired Yunus to do something more for the poor. Through Grameen Bank, he gave long-term loans to individuals wanting to start their own small businesses in Bangladesh as a way to escape poverty. According to PBS, “the bank has provided $4.7 billion dollars to 4.4 million families in rural Bangladesh” and now more than 250 other banks and institutions around the globe follow the Grameen model.
5. John Rucyahana – Rucyahana played a large role in assisting humanitarian efforts during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. Not only did he provide food and shelter for those in need, he also has continued to renovate health centers and schools and lead advocacy efforts throughout Rwanda’s prisons. Rucyahana received the William Wilberforce Award, which is given to individuals who make “a significant impact on the social ills of the day [and]…combat… injustice, even to the point of willingness to sacrifice personal comfort, career and reputation,” says The New Times Rwanda. Rucyahana is the Chairman of Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission.
As this list of individuals demonstrates, humanitarian leaders come from all locations, all situations, and all walks of life. Whether it is developing an accessible micro-finance system for rural Bangladesh, cultivating a new strand of wheat or reconciling the atrocities of others in the face of genocide, all acts that seek to help humanity are worthy of celebration.
– Mallory Thayer