GLASSES WITHOUT DOLLAR SIGNS:
“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.
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