delivered by MUHAMMAD YUNUS

Muhammad Yunus, a Messianic figure standing on the stage of the Johannesburg City Hall, preaches revolution. “The system is not working,’ he is pointing to the financial, social, environmental and food crises.  “This is the best time to undo and build in a new way.”  He stands smiling, pleasant, humble, quietly advocating the overthrow of the financial system, as we know it.  He deplores the approach and attitudes of authorities and institutions to the development of the poor. “Poverty is created by the system … banks don’t lend to the poor …  Business (is based) on one concept – make money, maximize profit.  (This attitude) reduces humans to one-dimensional beings … the theory of business is built on selfishness.”   Government’s approach to poverty in providing grants, a form of charity, is no better.  “Charity freezes poverty, robs people of initiative.  Giving people challenges excites people.  Human life is all about facing challenges.”  In other words, the system as it presently operates, disempowers poor people and keeps them in a cycle of poverty.

Listening to his revolutionary words, the audience cheers like a congregation at its Sunday service listening to a sermon that as usual castigates them for man’s inhumanity to man and they go through hallelujah motions of hope for a better world. Yes, Yunus is inspirational. 

If he hadn’t won the Nobel Peace Prize, if he hadn’t started the Grameen Bank, if he hadn’t been instrumental in reducing the level of poverty in Bangladesh and if people in other countries were not applying his financial formulas, he would have been laughed off the stage for presenting such simplified, non-academic solutions to the problem of poverty.  His ideas, based on ubuntu seem reductionist; they are about empowerment, love, trust and respect for people.  Yunus recognizes that poor people are poor, not incapable.  His strategies cut right through all theories and bureaucratic entanglements and get down to the basics of helping people help themselves.  Yunus’ Grameen Bank demonstrates genuine belief in and commitment to empowerment. “Poverty is not in the person.  Poor people are as capable as anyone else; they were just never given a chance.”

Children in Bangladesh are being socialized into an understanding of themselves as achievers, creative, enterprising independent human beings.  The children are taught:  “ I shall never seek a job in my life.  My mission in life is to create jobs.  I am not a job seeker; I am a job giver.  Money is not a problem. As their mothers own banks, the new generation has opportunities to create jobs.”  These children, unlike their parents, are being given a chance to grow and develop.

In South Africa, policies and programmes have been established to give opportunities to the disadvantaged, but these have not addressed the problem of poverty.  ‘The poorest of the poor,’ a favourite phrase of politicians, have not been empowered but only made more dependent through the provision of grants and subsidies.  Such provision follows from abstract understandings of poverty alleviation.  Muhammad Yunus did not work on abstractions in Bangladesh.  He evaluated the situation there and grounded his approach on his analysis.  He discovered that his Micro Financing Institutions (MFI) would only work through women. As a result, women were organised into MFIs, were given small loans to start businesses and mentorship on running successful enterprises.  The loans that the women received, required no collateral or guarantees.  Yunus was told that his scheme would fail but “those who told us that it would collapse, they collapsed.”

Yunus’s decision to place responsibility mainly in the hands of women did not go unchallenged.  Men opposed his initiative.  There was “religious opposition.”  He was accused of “destroying culture … destroying women by taking them out of the home.”  He responded, “You keep your culture, I am creating counter-culture.  Culture creates people and people create culture.”  It is a continuous process. “Human society moves on … In Bangladesh, women own 97% of the micro banks; they make decisions, sit on boards and they don’t depend on government. 

Yunus’ understanding of culture is thoroughly modern; he sees it as an evolving process.  In my opinion, obstinate clinging to prescribed traditions simply because they were prescribed, bedevils relationships in today’s multi-cultural world.  In places like the Middle East, they lead to murderous conflicts.

Yunus’s counter-culture is not only against outdated social traditions; it also against the financial and economic cultures that we have come to accept and that have created a poverty-stricken under class.  And he is determined to destroy poverty and the only way to do it, is genuine empowerment of poor people. For him empowerment is not a just catchword. So he has initiated Social Business, that is, banking companies created, not for the pursuit of money, but as the means to solve social problems and provide services to the poor. Yunus believes that once a social problem is identified, a Social Banking company needs to be set up to deal with the problem. We need to “create a company … to solve problems, many companies, problem solving companies, …  to bring drinking water, electricity, curb malnutrition … health care to the sick ... such as the company that collaborates with DANONE to feed Bangladeshi children with yoghourt supplemented “with micronutrients.”  The object of Social Business is “not to make money but to care for people.”  As poor people run  Social Businesses, they tackle problems on a scale that they can manage, and the companies they set up may “employ five unemployed people,” at most.  These companies do not  “wait for government.  We can solve our own problems … If we depended on government money, we would be stuck.  We take deposits from people and lend people money.”  And this micro-economic strategy works.  Now “all children are in school …university …(there are) 38,000 students with loans from people’s banks, some are PhD” candidates.”

In this the Seventh Mandela Lecture, Muhammad Yunus offers hope to the poor but his audience consists entirely of the privileged, the powerful and wealthy, against whose control of resources he is preaching.  The rich and powerful will find in Yunus’ lecture that poor people must liberate themselves from poverty, pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  Will they ignore Yunus’s qualification that poor people, in addition to the will to succeed, need the chance to succeed.  Will they see this as an invitation to assist?   If the revolution that Yunus advocates is to take place, we need people like him to give poor people the chance to lift themselves out of poverty.

At the end of his lecture, Yunus sets South Africa a goal; end poverty in the next twenty years.  He says that if we regard this as impossible, we will be denying that it is in the nature of the human being to do the impossible.  Our ability to overcome challenges is what makes us human.  Have we not ended slavery? Have we not landed a man on the moon?  Have we not ended apartheid?  We can achieve what we believe in.  And we can end poverty in twenty years, if we have the will to do so.  The Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago.  Ordinary people made that happen.  Ordinary people can, in twenty years, bring down the wall of poverty.  Human beings originated in Africa, let South Africa be the first country in the world that is free of poverty.  

It is not impossible. In Barack Obama’s words, Yes We Can.

TV Programme: Interface
Sunday, 12 July 2009

Interview with Muhammad Yunus

In this interview, Muhammad Yunus explained that he was not against capitalism; that his social businesses function within capitalism.  But as human beings are not one-dimensional, they need a system that allows them to express themselves as multi-dimensional, selfish as well as selfless. So to cater for the many faceted human being, Yunus wants the present capitalistic system to become a two-fold system in which the pursuit of profit functions alongside non-profit enterprise. The two-fold system would fulfil the needs of both the rich and the poor. The Social Businesses of the poor depend on people of means who are willing to make loans to their banks without collateral or guarantee requirements and with a willingness to allow borrowers to pay back in small amounts over a long period of time.  Philanthropic individuals, Yunus himself is one such, have become involved in Social Businesses in Bangladesh and have not been disappointed. The borrowers, who are also the owners of the banks, have shown that they are responsible people.  In the thirty-three years that Social Businesses have operated in Bangladesh, 98 % of loans have been paid back.

When asked about wish lists, Muhammad explained that it is necessary for everyone to develop visions of a better world to motivate them to build that better world. In Bangladesh, children are encouraged to make wish lists of the kind of world that they want to live in.  They revisit their wish lists every few years and make the changes required by new perceptions and understandings of the world.  In this way they come to understand that they have a part to play in creating the future.

When the interviewer indicated that Yunus had been criticised for being an idealist, he simply said that he was a practical person, “I do; I don’t talk.”