Muham­mad Yunus

AQ: Australian Quarterly - - FRONT PAGE - AR­TI­CLE BY: KATE VINEN

“Hu­man be­ings are not born to work for any­body else,” Muham­mad Yunus tells me, words tum­bling out in a near stream-of-con­scious­ness.

“For mil­lions of years that we were on the planet, we never worked for any­body,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “We are go-get­ters. We are farm­ers. We are hunters. We lived in caves and we found our own food, we didn’t send job ap­pli­ca­tions.”

Pro­fes­sor Muham­mad Yunus is a man that gen­uinely cares about hu­man be­ings and their ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing. He be­lieves we are all born en­trepreneur­s, not mere work­ers and cer­tainly not just ‘con­sumers.' He be­lieves that our mod­ern eco­nomic sys­tem mis­un­der­stands hu­man na­ture—sells it short— and that this is the cause of many of the prob­lems fac­ing our eco­nomic sys­tem. And he be­lieves that ev­ery per­son should have ac­cess to credit as a fun­da­men­tal hu­man right.

The No­bel Peace Prize-win­ning Bangladesh­i econ­o­mist who pi­o­neered the con­cept of mi­cro­cre­dit, de­scribes him­self as “fun­da­men­tally op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture.” And sit­ting down with Pro­fes­sor Yunus at the 2018 Ro­tary In­ter­na­tional Pres­i­den­tial Peace Con­fer­ence, it is im­me­di­ately ev­i­dent just how much faith he has in peo­ple, and how deeply he dis­agrees with cap­i­tal­ism.

It's a pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion of be­liefs, which are ex­plored in depth in his lat­est book A World of Three Ze­roes: The New Eco­nomics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unem­ploy­ment and Zero Car­bon Emis­sions.

Mi­cro­fi­nance for a peace­ful so­ci­ety

Pro­fes­sor Yunus is most fa­mous for be­ing the founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, a fi­nan­cial lender built upon a self-sus­tain­ing model of mi­cro-loan pro­grams. Grameen bank pi­o­neered the use of small loans, made at af­ford­able in­ter­est rates, to trans­form the lives of im­pov­er­ished peo­ple – more than 94% of those peo­ple be­ing women, who suf­fer dis­pro­por­tion­ately from poverty and who are more likely than men to de­vote their earn­ings to their fam­i­lies.

The idea was in­spired in 1974, af­ter Bangladesh had ex­pe­ri­enced dev­as­tat­ing floods fol­lowed by a se­ri­ous famine. In a vil­lage near the univer­sity where he taught, a group of poor women had been mak­ing bas­kets from bam­boo but were forced to sell them at a loss. When they ran out of cap­i­tal to buy the raw ma­te­ri­als for the bas­kets, Yunus loaned them $27 so they could restart their busi­ness.

He re­alised that peo­ple like these women were locked out of the tra­di­tional bank­ing sys­tem by be­ing re­fused small loans at rea­son­able in­ter­est, due to a per­ceived high risk of de­fault. It was his be­lief that, given the chance, the poor would re­pay the money and that mi­cro­cre­dit could be­come a vi­able busi­ness model. In 1976, Grameen Bank was born (Grameen is Ben­gali for "Ru­ral" or "Vil­lage").

He would en­counter everything from vi­o­lent rad­i­cals, to con­ser­va­tive clergy who told women they would be de­nied a Mus­lim burial if they bor­rowed money from Grameen. Yet by July 2007, Grameen had is­sued US$6.38 bil­lion to 7.4 mil­lion bor­row­ers.

“We give mi­cro­cre­dit for in­come gen­er­at­ing ac­tiv­ity, so that peo­ple can start earn­ing money. This money has to be used as cap­i­tal for in­vest­ment, to start cre­at­ing more money.”

And Pro­fes­sor Yunus is proud to share that Grameen Bank's pay­back rate is 95%. The model has proved to be a rev­o­lu­tion, open­ing up valu­able op­por­tu­nity for poor cit­i­zens in over 100 devel­oped and de­vel­op­ing coun­tries around the world, in­clud­ing the United States.

Rev­o­lu­tion, how­ever, is a word Yunus

By July 2007, Grameen had is­sued

US$6.38 bil­lion to 7.4 mil­lion bor­row­ers.

is sus­pi­cious of – be­liev­ing that rev­o­lu­tion is no so­lu­tion, and ques­tion­ing what comes af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion. For him, it does not mean a re­turn to com­mu­nism, but cap­i­tal­ism is not the so­lu­tion ei­ther.

So what is the an­swer? Yunus is con­vinced that so­cial busi­nesses are the path for­wards to achiev­ing peace in so­ci­ety.

Born en­trepreneur­s

The the­ory be­hind his multi award­win­ning con­cept of mi­cro­cre­dit is that ev­ery­one is born a nat­u­ral en­trepreneur. His­tor­i­cally, we have considered en­trepreneur­s to be peo­ple who suc­ceeded in a glob­alised fi­nan­cial sys­tem that is rapidly re-es­tab­lish­ing the ex­treme inequaliti­es that 20th cen­tury gov­ern­ments had leg­is­lated to try and limit.

Pro­fes­sor Yunus has a very dif­fer­ent, and re­fresh­ing, idea of what an en­trepreneur is; he be­lieves that hu­man be­ings are em­pow­ered crea­tures that dis­like work­ing for ‘the man' and are ca­pa­ble of ris­ing out of poverty - with a lit­tle as­sis­tance from a small loan and some self-be­lief.

It's not hard to look at what's hap­pen­ing world­wide and agree with Yunus' ob­ser­va­tions that cap­i­tal­ism is fail­ing both mankind and the en­vi­ron­ment. The an­ti­dote, says Yunus, and the way to­wards a health­ier and hap­pier planet, is through a com­bi­na­tion of con­ven­tional and so­cial busi­ness. And, while chang­ing the sta­tus quo might seem daunt­ing, Grameen Bank stands as a re­minder that par­a­digms are there to be shifted.

Yunus cites the oft-quoted statis­tic that one per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion owns 99% of the wealth.

“And it's get­ting worse ev­ery day, which cre­ates a tremen­dous amount of ten­sion be­cause peo­ple are los­ing things, peo­ple don't have any­thing, and everything goes up to the top 1%,” he says.

“That's a tick­ing time bomb. It's an ex­plo­sive sit­u­a­tion. If you let it hap­pen, and con­tinue to do that, the whole of so­ci­ety will fall apart. So it's time to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion and re­verse the process … in­stead of all the wealth go­ing up, the wealth will dis­trib­ute it­self to all the peo­ple that live on this planet.”

While chang­ing the sta­tus quo might seem daunt­ing, Grameen Bank stands as a re­minder that par­a­digms are there to be shifted.

So­cial busi­ness as the new econ­omy

So­cial busi­nesses are com­mer­cial en­deav­ours that have a pos­i­tive so­cial goal baked into their busi­ness model. The growth in their num­ber around the world has been a slow, holis­tic process that Pro­fes­sor Yunus is now con­nect­ing to other se­ri­ous is­sues, such as the en­vi­ron­ment – and speak­ing with him, it be­comes even more ap­par­ent just how con­nected these is­sues are.

“This is some­thing miss­ing from eco­nomic the­ory, and it's what cre­ates all the prob­lems in the world, be­cause you're so fo­cused on mak­ing money for your­self. It's as if you're wear­ing glasses with dol­lar signs and you don't see any­thing be­sides the dol­lar sign.”

“In so­cial busi­ness and con­ven­tional busi­ness, if you com­bine them – it's al­most like wear­ing bi-fo­cal glasses… you can see your­self as a ben­e­fi­ciary of the busi­ness, and in the other part of the glasses see the rest of the world beyond you. You can also use your own tal­ent and cre­ativ­ity to help other peo­ple in the world. So it works to­gether,” he ex­plains.

Tech­nol­ogy could change the world if guided by cre­ativ­ity and a deep un­der­stand­ing of peo­ple’s needs, no mat­ter who they are or how much money they have.

A world where we work to­gether sounds like a peace­ful and kind world in­deed. And it is this op­ti­mism that per­me­ates his ar­gu­ment that a cap­i­tal­ist eco­nomic frame­work, driven purely by per­sonal in­ter­est, is de­fec­tive and must be re­designed so that “both per­sonal and col­lec­tive in­ter­ests are recog­nised, pro­moted, and cel­e­brated.”

With so­cial busi­ness, Yunus sees a sys­tem that can not only en­rich in­vestors, but also im­prove peo­ple's lives and make the world a bet­ter place.

One of his cur­rent projects fo­cuses on how to rid rivers and oceans of plas­tics.

“The whole ocean is filled up with plas­tic. And that's cre­at­ing a problem be­cause fish are eat­ing the plas­tic, and we are catch­ing the fish. It's cre­at­ing a problem in the food chain.”

Ex­plor­ing and util­is­ing new tech­nolo­gies, Yunus aims to ad­dress the problem in one par­tic­u­lar spot, the Mekong River in Viet­nam, rid­ding it of all plas­tic waste.

“[ We are] try­ing to see how to take this plas­tic away, and re­cy­cle it, so that it comes into use rather than end­ing up as garbage and then in the ocean. We are try­ing to find the tech­nol­ogy to re­cy­cle it and make it [have] long last­ing use… so we can learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence, and use it any­where to get the plas­tic out of wa­ter­ways and turn it from waste into re­cy­clable ma­te­ri­als.”

Tech­nol­ogy and the fu­ture

Tech­nol­ogy is a ma­jor fo­cus of A World of Three Ze­roes, with a chap­ter de­voted to its de­vel­op­ment and the ethics re­quired to en­sure tech­nol­ogy is used for the bet­ter­ment of so­ci­ety. Yunus makes it clear, once again, that it's the bot­tom 99% of peo­ple that lose out as new tech­nol­ogy prod­ucts are launched into richer mar­kets, dis­ad­van­tag­ing poorer coun­tries in the global con­text.

“Tech­nol­ogy is a tremen­dous help to peo­ple but it can work both ways. It can be used to kill peo­ple. Re­mote con­trol killing can be done. Instant killing can be done. Nu­clear weapons. So it's all about our in­ten­tion.”

In­stead of in­vest­ing tril­lions of dol­lars into de­vel­op­ing ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence for mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial pur­pose, Yunus is in­ter­ested in the ways tech­nol­ogy can be devel­oped and ap­plied to over­come the hu­man prob­lems of the world.

“Tech­nol­ogy can re­move peo­ple from jobs…so peo­ple lose their jobs in fac­to­ries. You don't need peo­ple in of­fices be­cause AI can do bet­ter work than you can do. The ques­tion to be asked is ‘What hap­pens to hu­man be­ings? What can they do? What tech­nol­ogy should be al­lowed? What tech­nol­ogy should we not al­low?' We have to be very care­ful about tech­nol­ogy. Make sure we don't cross the bound­ary.”

Through his projects, and phi­los­o­phy, Yunus ques­tions our de­sires, and drives – of­ten bring­ing at­ten­tion to the worst of all hu­man traits, self­ish­ness. He ar­gues that tech­nol­ogy could change the world if guided by cre­ativ­ity and a deep un­der­stand­ing of peo­ple's needs, no mat­ter who they are or how much money they have.

He con­ceives of this as a "dig­i­tal Aladdin's lamp" – a ge­nie comes out and asks “‘What can I do for you, ma'am?' and she says ‘I make these bas­kets but no­body buys them.' And the lamp says 'I will find some­body to buy it.' And the lamp comes back with buy­ers. She doesn't know about a key­board or a com­puter. She just asks ques­tions of the ge­nie."

For Yunus, the fu­ture is a place where ev­ery­one has equal op­por­tu­nity to bet­ter one­self. And it's pos­si­ble, he says, if we look beyond our per­sonal, or com­pany goals for op­por­tu­ni­ties to meet both our own needs, and those of oth­ers in less for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances.

To­gether we can change the sys­tem and solve the is­sues of the world with the hu­man gifts we have been given: in­tel­lect, cre­ativ­ity, op­ti­mism – and a whole lot of heart and hard work.

A World of Three Ze­roes was re­viewed in the April edi­tion of AQ and is avail­able in Aus­tralia through Scribe Pub­li­ca­tions.

ABOVE (TOP): Pro­fes­sor Muham­mad Yunus © Univer­sity of Sal­ford Press-flickr

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