Paying attention to problems
A Nobel laureate says social enterprises work with our capacities as human beings.
It was less than the cost of a cup of coffee but it was enough for a young Bangladeshi woman to buy bamboo to make some stools, avoid loan sharks amd start a small business that would pull her out of poverty.
In 1983, Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist, Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of microfinance organisation the Grameen Bank, agreed to lend money to a group of women with no collateral or creditworthiness.
“Everyone said, if you give poor people money, the first thing they will do is eat,” he says, on the phone from Paris. “And if they eat, they will not be able to pay you back. I said, ‘People are smart, they see paying back as a way to kick the door open for future money. If they use the money properly, then they will have the income to eat.’”
Today, the Grameen Bank lends morre than US$2.5 billion a year to poor women, enjoying a repayment rate of just under 99% and challenging orthodox economics. As he writes in his new book A World of Three Zeros, “Many of us were raised to believe in the slogan ‘Economic growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats’. The saying ignores the plight of the millions who are clinging to leaky rafts – or who have no boats at all.”
For Yunus, social business is that boat, providing the means for the poor, the unemployed and the disempowered to develop self-sustaining businesses that can help attain the three zeros of his book’s title: zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero net carbon emissions.
“If we can turn unemployment into entrepreneurship, the amount of human creativity, talent and productivity we will unleash is almost beyond measuring,” he writes. “Even more important, we can save hundreds of millions of people from a state of dependency and the unhappiness human beings suffer when they have been deemed unnecessary and useless.” The bank has set up a programme to provide seed money and mentoring to help would-be entrepreneurs turn their dreams into financially sustainable realities. Once successful, they sell the investment shares back and the money is used to help another social business. Universities – including, this year, Lincoln University – are also supporting the social enterprise cause in establishing Yunus Social Business Centres to teach courses, do research and act as clearing houses for social business ideas.
Governments, too, have a role, fostering leadership through the creation of social business funds that provide opportunities for unemployed people to use their creative ideas and new technologies to put their talents to use.
To get more people on board,
Yunus urges the young to look at the problems in their country, city and neighbourhood. “Choose one you want to do something about and come up with a business idea to solve it in a social business way. The problems you see around you are not insurmountable; it is simply we haven’t paid attention to them. The moment we pay attention, we start the process of eliminating that problem. That is the capacity of the human being.”
A WORLD OF THREE ZEROS: THE NEW ECONOMICS OF ZERO POVERTY, ZERO UNEMPLOYMENT, AND ZERO CARBON EMISSIONS by Muhammad Yunus (Scribe, $38)