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Yunus: Citizens have to fix things themselves

Updated: 12 hours ago


“Corona is an unpleasant example of being global so fast. A happy thing can spread around the world at the same speed. May be even faster”, told us Mohammad Yunus in a written exclusive interview last May focusing the post Covid-19 world.


His confidence grows from the work for which he became renowned and was awarded, together with the Grameen Bank, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts through microcredit to create economic and social development from below“.


The Norwegian Nobel Committee said that “lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty“ and that “across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development“.


It was Yunus who pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance in 1976, personally lending 5,350 US dollars he borrowed from a bank for financing peasant initiatives in Bangladesh. As he had hoped, everything, down to the last cent, was repaid. He repeated the operation, increasing the sums involved, and always obtained the same results.


“Development experts say the poor lack the ability to do business. My reply is that the ability to survive is the basis for deciding the granting of credit”, Yunus said at the time.


In 1974, he was heading the Faculty of Economics in the university of his native city, Chittagong. He was just 34 and his country was in the first throes of one of 20th century’s most relentless periods of starvation. “I was teaching elegant economic theories while the streets were full of walking skeletons”, Yunus recalled time back, soon after creating the Grameen Bank, in 1983.


His first step came through a conversation with a woman who made bamboo objects buying her material with money borrowed from a trader to whom she sold her products at a price fixed by him.


“Would you earn more if you didn’t have to sell to the trader?” Yunus asked her. “Of course, but where would I find the cash to buy my bamboo?” she answered.


Many others found themselves in the same situation. “Access to small capital would increase their earnings. Why don’t the banks give them credit?” he asked. “It’s very risky. The poor have no guarantees. We would never recover our cash if they didn’t give it back,” was the answer of a bank manager.


Yunus’ reflection was: “It was a way of saying the poor are ‘untouchables’. It’s not the poor that create poverty but those who deny them the right opportunity”.


The Grameen Bank was lending money only to the poorest and became the world’s most efficient bank in a key aspect: 98 percent was regularly repaid.


This was not the only surprising statistic: 94 percent of the bank’s customers were women, because they have shown themselves to be the most efficient and trustworthy, explained Yunus.


The Grameen model started spreading throughout the world, including wealthy countries like France and the United States.


Thirty-seven years after


“Yes, initiatives will start small, locally. Almost invisible at the beginning. But if it brings good news, it will be everywhere in no time”, he told CitiPlat today, thirty-seven years after conceiving the microcredit system and nearing his 80th birthday.


He then highlighted what appears as another evidence of his thought: “Greta [Thunberg] has given face to the conscious young generation. They were there. But nobody knew that they existed. Greta made them visible. Suddenly we see them everywhere”.


Perhaps out of his own stubbornness, Yunus warned the youth: “Stay visible. Don’t allow yourselves to go out of sight again…Existing system is very good in putting pressing demands to sleep by grand assurances. Be aware of that”.


He added that the visible part of the younger generation is only the tip of the iceberg. “Don’t stop there,” he urged, “make the whole iceberg visible. That’s a hard work. But don’t give up. Otherwise the large invisible portion of your generation will pull the small visible part of your generation down to invisibility”.


It is surely the lessons that come from spending his entire life building communities that dictated the second piece of advice: “Don’t forget the families you are coming from, families of your friends and your neighbours. Together you and them are the world. They are running companies, financial institutions, governments, educational institutions, media. You are in every family. Get your family, friends of your family, families of your friends on your side. You may be angry with them, but without their support it’ll be impossible to get what you want”.


What do we want after a pandemic that so far and according to several statistics that reflect only official data, has contaminated at least seven million and killed over four hundred thousand?


“The world that others want us to go back to was a world on the verge of disaster”, answered Yunus.


The risk of committing suicide


“There was, and there is consensus on at least on one issue, that is on global warming. All governments, except one, joined that consensus”, he continued, without being specific about the decision of USA’s President Donald Trump to leave the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change.


For Yunus, “wealth is accumulated through a process which contributes to global warming… Since the wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny fraction of world population they are responsible for contributing the overwhelming portion of global warming”.


He observes many other issues on which “there is strong support that world is in disaster path. There is a strong voice that going back to the old world is almost like committing suicide”.


“That voice exists across age, wealth, race, and nationality. If we can build on this common understanding we can build a very strong momentum to start the process of building a new framework for the new world”, stressed Yunus in the interview.


He completed his thought once again encouraging hope: “Like all new journeys, it will be slow, it will be a journey through unknowns, it will be learning through doing, with cautious steps. But it will make us escape the suicide path”.


However, Yunus couldn’t help but be realistic: “Government, financial system and businesses are in a hurry to get back. Those who do not want to go back to the same world are financially and politically weak, they may have a blueprint to create a new world, but it is untried, unverified”.


Nevertheless, he speaks again with confidence about the power of individuals: “Initially contribution from each individual is imperceptibly small. But number is always in favour of people. Together they constitute a large number”, and he considers that the primary role of a government “is to empower citizens, facilitate unleashing of their creative power, act as a cheer-leader for the citizens who are engaged in solving problems of the society”.


Socially and environmentally conscious


Yunus’ critical analysis of the state of the world led him in the interview to express his believe that the concept of business as an exclusively profit maximizing institution is the root cause of all our global problems.


His vision is that that concept should be widened to include what calls “social business,” one which is created exclusively to solve problems and includes zero personal profits.


Instead of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Yunus wants to encourage corporates and other profit maximizing businesses to invest money in social businesses, create social business funds rather than give charity as CSR.


He says with clarity: “The present financial system is the vehicle which creates extreme wealth concentration […] needs to be redesigned entirely to make it equally available…from the poorest to the richest. This will require creation of social business financial institutions to solve the problems of the bottom 50% of the population”, he stressed.


Yunus is not radical, though, and in the interview avoided naming the neoliberal capitalistic paradigm. His idea is that in the new economy all types of businesses are welcome, with only one pre-condition: “All…must be socially and environmentally conscious. Maximization of profit will be subjected to the condition that the business must not be harmful to the people and the planet”.


The same thought that led him to creating the Grameen Back remains today as he conceives a different paradigm: “New world will be world of renewable energy. New economy will create its own employment opportunities. New economy will not allow artificial intelligence to replace human beings. Hundreds of millions of jobs will be saved each year. New economy will be entrepreneurship based economy, not a job based economy. It will not ask the question how many jobs are created. It’ll ask how many entrepreneurs are created”.


Finally, once and again, Yunus’ unbreakable philosophy: “There are so many problems in the world. Each problem may be viewed as a set of opportunities. Whatever makes people unhappy, it leads to imagination and opportunities to turn it around”.


Full transcript of the interview:


CitiPlat: With your philosophy of thought you managed to create a method of sustainable finance, succeeding in combining ethics with the economic and financial world. What is the peculiarity that you consider to be essential in order to generate a change process in our society?


Mohammad Yunus: Change starts from a feeling of inadequacy. It is prompted by a sense of injustice, indifference, existence of a socially unacceptable gap, from a feeling of something being wrong. It may come from an urge to set things right. Or, originate from embarking on an adventure, led by an imagination. It may come from an inner question of “why not?”. Its starting point may be simply noticing an opportunity — social, financial, or technological, which others don’t see.


There are so many problems in the world. Each problem may be viewed as a set of opportunities. Whatever makes people unhappy, it leads to imagination and opportunities to turn it around. There are types examples which did not start from any desire for problem solving. The moon was always there to be watched and admired. It was not causing anybody any problem. But some people could not resist toying with the idea of going there. They thought it would be fun. As you proceed with this simple fun mission, you start adding other side benefits to it, to make it more attractive to get funding.


CitiPLat: Recently you have said the pandemic gives the chance to re-designing the world from scratch. However, it depends on political decisions that governments do not seem bound to undertake while the pressure of other decision makers, such as the big “multinationals” and the international financial system, is determinant. What in the world of poverty and in the world of richness could citizens do to foster change?


M.Y.: When the economy collapses, the overwhelming tendency is to revive it as it was. It is because the old is known, it is familiar, we know how to live with it. It puts us on a fast track because no new thinking is involved, no new risk is involved. Besides, there are very powerful group of promoters who benefitted enormously from it. Government, financial system and

businesses are in a hurry to get back. Those who do not want to go back to the same world are financially and politically weak, they may have a blueprint to create a new world, but it is untried, unverified.


This is where citizens’ voice becomes important. Citizens have a very strong case. The world that others want us to go back to was a world on the verge of disaster. There was, and there is consensus on at least on one issue, that is on global warming. All governments, except one, joined that consensus. On other issues, there is strong support that world is in disaster path. There is a strong voice that going back to the old world is almost like committing suicide. That voice exists across age, wealth, race, and nationality. If we can build on this common understanding we can build a very strong momentum to start the process of building a new framework for the new world. Like all new journeys, it will be slow, it will be a journey through unknowns, it will be learning through doing, with cautious steps. But it will make us escape the suicide path. Citizens, particularly the youth have to raise their voice and get active in fixing things themselves. It is a good case of showing the power of common individuals.



CitiPlat: You base your New Recovery Programme on the development of social enterprises. Your NPR mean a radical change of the current paradigm?


M.Y.: I emphasize on the power of individuals. I see the primary role of government is to empower citizens, facilitate unleashing of their creative power, act as a cheer-leader for the citizens who are engaged in solving problems of the society. It will encourage the problem solving activities of the people through appropriate policies, legal space, and institutions. Building right institutions, right legal frameworks, and policies to facilitate citizens’ creativity will be government’s primary responsibility.


I believe that all human beings by birth are entrepreneurs. Job is a concept damaging to human creativity. Governments should ensure that every young person is prepared by education to become entrepreneurs. Financial Institutions should be created to provide all financial support to new entrepreneurs.


I believe that the concept of business as an exclusive profit maximizing institution is the root cause of all our global problems. The concept of business has to be widened to include the reverse type of business - a business which is created exclusively to solve problems, with zero personal profit. I call this business social business. Instead of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), I encourage corporates and other profit maximizing businesses to invest money in social businesses, create social business funds rather than give charity as CSR.


I point out that the present financial system is the vehicle which creates extreme wealth concentration. This system needs to be redesigned entirely to make it equally available to all, from the poorest to the richest. This will require creation of social business financial institutions to solve the problems of the bottom 50% of the population.


Social business should play a central role in healthcare system. It is to be added to the existing healthcare actors, commercial healthcare and charity healthcare.


CitiPlat: The climate change threaten is determined by fossil fuels, the transportation of goods and people, the fashion and the car industries that employ of people. How reconverting it? What would happen to millions of workers and countries depending on it?


M.Y.: When we move from the rubbles of Corona pandemic to a new world nobody will agree to take fossil fuel with us. It must stay behind. New world will be world of renewable energy. New economy will create its own employment opportunities. New economy will not allow artificial intelligence to replace human beings. Hundreds of millions of jobs will be saved each year. New economy will be entrepreneurship based economy, not a job based economy. It will not ask the question how many jobs are created. It’ll ask how many entrepreneurs are created. It will not ask the question how many people remain unemployed, it will ask how many people are waiting to become entrepreneurs. Then will ask the question what stops them from being entrepreneurs. Next step will be to get busy with removing barriers which make people wait from becoming entrepreneurs.


CitiPlat: You suggest that the situation would change when industries and companies no longer have their profit as their sole purpose, drawing a recovery plan designed on the basis of sustainable policies. In your opinion, has the current crisis led companies to develop this sensitivity?


M.Y.: I always argue that economics should be redesigned to include two types of businesses, personal profit maximizing businesses, and social businesses with zero personal profit. Once we make these two extremes types recognized, many intermediate types will emerge. Between zero personal profit to maximum personal profit., there will emerge many intermediate types of businesses, accepting more than zero personal profit but less than maximum personal profit. Each entrepreneur will choose his/her type. In the emerging new economy all these types of businesses are welcome, with only one pre-condition: all types of businesses must be socially and environmentally conscious. Maximization of profit will be subjected to the condition that the business must not be harmful to the people and the planet. Supremacy of profit maximization disregarding the collective costs will not be allowed in the new economy. That’ll be the prime distinguishing feature of the new economy.


Unfortunately no government has yet announced its policy for moving into new economy. What we can take to the new economy and we cannot take to the new economy has to be elaborated and decided now. Strict check points have to be installed before the journey to the new economy begins.


CitiPlat: The pandemic has created a global crisis. Countries will suffer, with visible consequences on the life of the world population. Starting from the assumption that several single actions, if coordinated, can give life to a massive action, how do you think each of us individually can fill an active role in the post-crisis reconstruction?


M.Y.: In the post corona economy, or the new economy, individuals must play the central role. Only power of individuals supported by government policies and institutions can create the new economy. Initially contribution from each individual is imperceptibly small. That will look very discouraging. But number is always in favour of people. Together they constitute a large number. By adding very small contributions together we can build a massive contribution. At individual level if an initiative becomes successful it can be quickly multiplied by many to bring it a significant change.


In another perspective, each mega corporate is also run by individuals. If those individuals change their mind, suddenly something very big happens. So, I don’t give up on the possibility of massive transformation.


CitiPlat: Do you think this potential change process will start as a local or as a global phenomenon?


M.Y.: Technology has changed those concepts of local and global. On top of that, corona has become a great leveler. During the corona period no matter which rich country, or which poor country we are in, we are in the same situation. Locked up in our rooms while the outside world is crumbling, worrying about the same enemy, watching the same news on the TV regarding the global march of coronavirus.


Today, I would say there is very little left to be called a local action. Small doesn’t mean local. Any action can turn global. It can spread so quickly. What happened in a tiny corner of Wuhan city five months back pushed everybody in the world behind the doors of their homes. All over the world planes stopped flying. All shops are closed. Roads are empty.


Corona is an unpleasant example of being global so fast. A happy thing can spread around the world at the same speed. May be even faster.


Yes, initiatives will start small, locally. Almost invisible at the beginning. But if it brings good news, it will be everywhere in no time.


CitiPlat: In recent years, the involvement of new generations in combating climate change has been increasingly relevant. If you would want to give three tips to young people involved in the cause of climate change, what would you suggest them?


M.Y.: Greta has given face to the conscious young generation. They were there. But nobody knew that they existed. Greta made them visible. Suddenly we see them everywhere.


To young people I try to point out that now that you are visible nobody can ignore you. Stay visible. Don’t allow yourselves to go out of sight again. While you are visible get your points accepted and put them in action. Existing system is very good in putting pressing demands to sleep by grand assurances. Be aware of that.


While you are visible, visible part of your generation is only the tip of the iceberg. Don’t stop there. Make the whole iceberg visible. That’s a hard work. But don’t give up. Otherwise the large invisible portion of your generation will pull the small visible part of your generation down to invisibility.


Second point I try to bring to them is: you are doing excellent work with governments, international organizations, and media. Don’t forget the families you are coming from, families of your friends and your neighbors. Together you and them are the world. They are running companies, financial institutions, governments, educational institutions, media. You are in every family. Get your family, friends of your family, families of your friends on your side. You may be angry with them, but without their support it’ll be impossible to get what you want.


CitiPlat: Statistics show that the wealthy countries are the main responsible for climate change and negative environmental impact while the world of poverty suffers the consequences.


M.Y.: Wealth is accumulated through a process which contributes to global warming. The more wealth you accumulate the more you contribute to global warming. Since the wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny fraction of world population they are responsible for contributing the overwhelming portion of global warming.


Wealth is accumulated through a process which contributes to global warming. The more wealth you accumulate the more you contribute to global warming. Since the wealth is concentrated in the hands of tiny fraction of world population they are responsible for contributing the overwhelming portion of global warming.


A CitiPlat exclusive interview by Ricardo Grassi with Emanuele Valenti and MICRI students Rachele Casorati, Nicolò Daniele, Maria Vittoria Genovesi, Francesca Paradisi and Carlotta Ruocco (*) (*) MICRI is the Master in Communication for International Relations at IULM University, Milan, Italy English editing: Mina Zahine