Yunus Speaks About Capitalism, Poverty, and the Future of ‘Social Business’
Below is the text of Muhammad Yunus’ Commencement address delivered on June 6, 2008. Yunus was the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
It as a very special privilege for me to speak at the commencement ceremony of this prestigious institution.
What a wonderful feeling to be here today. To be with all of you, some of the brightest minds in the world, right at a moment when you decide the path you will embark on in life. You represent the future of the world. The choices that you will make for yourself will decide the fate of mankind. This is how it has always been. Sometimes we are aware of it, most of the time we are not. I hope you’ll remain aware of it and make an effort to be remembered not simply as a creative generation but as a socially-conscious creative generation. Try it.
I had no idea whether my life would someday be relevant to anyone else’s. But in the mid-seventies, out of frustration with the terrible economic situation in Bangladesh I decided to see if I could make myself useful to one poor person a day in the village next door to the university campus where I was teaching. I found myself in an unfamiliar situation. Out of necessity I had to find a way out. Since I did not have a road-map, I had to fall back on my basic instinct to do that. At any moment I could have withdrawn myself from my unknown path, but I did not. I stubbornly went on to find my own way. Luckily, at the end, I found it. That was microcredit and Grameen Bank.
Now, in hindsight, I can joke about it. When people ask me, “How did you figure out all the rules and procedures that is now known as Grameen system?” My answer is: “That was very simple and easy. Whenever I needed a rule or a procedure in our work, I just looked at the conventional banks to see what they do in a similar situation. Once I learned what they did, I just did the opposite.” That’s how I got our rules. Conventional banks go to the rich, we go to the poor; their rule is “The more you have, the more you get.” So our rule became “The less you have higher attention you get. If you have nothing, you get the highest priority.” They ask for collateral, we abandoned it, as if we had never heard of it. They need lawyers in their business, we don’t. No lawyer is involved in any of our loan transactions. They are owned by the rich, ours is owned by the poorest, the poorest women to boot. I can go on adding more to this list to show how Grameen does things quite the opposite way.
Was it really a systematic policy to do it the opposite way? No, it wasn’t. But that’s how it turned out ultimately, because our objective was different. I had not even noticed it until a senior banker admonished me by saying: “Dr. Yunus, you are trying to put the banking system upside down.” I quickly agreed with him. I said: “Yes, because the banking system is standing on its head.”
I could not miss seeing the ruthlessness of moneylenders in the village. First I lent the money to replace the loan-sharks. Then I went to the local bank to request them to lend money to the poor. They refused.
After months of deadlock I persuaded them by offering myself as a guarantor. This is how microcredit was born in 1976. Today Grameen Bank lends money to 7.5 million borrowers, 97 percent women. They own the bank. The bank has lent out over $7.0 billion in Bangladesh over the years. Globally 130 million poor families receive microcredit. Even then banks have not changed much. They do not mind writing off a trillion dollars in a sub-prime crisis, but they still stay away from lending U.S. $100 to a poor woman despite the fact such loans have near 100 percent repayment record globally.
While focusing on microcredit we saw the need for other types of interventions to help the rural population, in general, and the poor, in particular. We tried our interventions in the health sector, information technology, renewable energy, and on several other fronts.
Since we worked with poor women, health issues quickly drew our attention. We introduced health insurance. We succeeded in developing an effective healthcare program based on health insurance, but have not been able to expand this program because of non-availability of doctors. Doctors are reluctant to stay in the villages. (It has become such a big bottleneck that we have now decided to set up a medical college to produce doctors.) Under the program a villager pays about US $ 2.00 a year as health insurance premium, to get health coverage for the entire family. Financially it is sustainable.
I became a strong believer in the power of information technology to change the lives of the poor people. This encouraged me to create a cell-phone company called Grameen Phone. We brought phones to the villages of Bangladesh and gave loans to the poor women to buy themselves cell-phones to sell their service and make money. It became an instant success.
Seventy percent of the population of Bangladesh do not have access to electricity. We wanted to address this issue by introducing solar home system in the villages. We created a separate company called Grameen Shakti, or Grameen Energy. It became a very successful company in popularising solar home system, bio-gas, and environment-friendly cooking stoves. It has already reached 155,000 homes with solar home systems, and aims to reach one million homes by 2012. As we started creating a series of companies around renewable energy, information technology, textile, agriculture, livestock, education, health, finance etc, I was wondering why conventional businesses do not see business the way we see it. They have different goals than ours. We design our businesses one way, they design theirs in another way.
Conventional businesses are based on the theoretical framework provided by the designers of capitalist economic system. In this framework ‘business’ has to be a profit-maximizing entity. The more aggressively a business pursues it, the better the system functions — we are told. The bigger the profit, the more successful the business is; the more happy investors are. In my work it never occurred to me that I should maximize profit. All my struggle was to take each of my enterprises to a level where it could at least be self-sustaining. I defined the mission of my businesses in a different way than that of the traditional businesses.
As I was doing it, obviously I was violating the basic tenet of capitalist system — profit maximization. Since I was engaged in finding my own solution to reach the mission of my business, I was not looking at any existing road maps. My only concern was to see if my path was taking me where I wanted to go. When it worked I felt very happy. I know maximization of profit makes people happy. I don’t maximize profit, but my businesses are a great source of my happiness. If you had done what I have done you would be very happy too! I am convinced that profit maximization is not the only source of happiness in business. ‘Business’ has been interpreted too narrowly in the existing framework of capitalism. This interpretation is based on the assumption that a human being is a single dimensional being. His business-related happiness is related to the size of the profit he makes. He is presented as a robot-like money-making machine.
But we all know that real-life human beings are multi-dimensional beings, not uni-dimensional like the theory assumes. For a real-life human being money-making is a means, not an end. But for the businessman in the existing theory money-making is both a means and also an end.
This narrow interpretation has done us great damage. All business people around the world have been imitating this one-dimensional theoretical businessman as precisely as they can to make sure they get the most from the capitalist system. If you are a businessman you have to wear profit-maximizing glasses all the time. As a result, only thing you see in the world are the profit enhancing opportunities. Important problems that we face in the world cannot be addressed because profit-maximizing eyes cannot see them.
We can easily reformulate the concept of a businessman to bring him closer to a real human being. In order to take into account the multi-dimensionality of real human being we may assume that there are two distinct sources of happiness in the business world: 1) maximizing profit, and 2) achieving some pre-defined social objective. Since there are clear conflicts between the two objectives, the business world will have to be made up of two different kinds of businesses — 1) profit-maximizing business, and 2) social business. Specific type of happiness will come from the specific type of business.
Then an investor will have two choices — he can invest in one or in both. My guess is most people will invest in both in various proportions. This means people will use two sets of eye-glasses — profit-maximizing glasses, and social business glasses. This will bring a big change in the world. Profit maximizing businessmen will be amazed to see how different the world looks once they take off the profit-maximizing glasses and wear the social business glasses. By looking at the world from two different perspectives business decision-makers will be able to decide better, act better, and these decisions and actions will lead to a dramatically better world.
While I was wondering whether the idea of social business would make any sense to the corporate world I had an opportunity to talk to the chairman of Danone Group Mr. Franck Riboud about this subject. It made perfect sense to him right away. Together we created Grameen Danone company as a social business in Bangladesh. This company produces yogurt fortified with micro-nutrients which are missing in the mal-nourished children of Bangladesh. Because it is a social business, Grameen and Danone, will never take any dividend out of the company beyond recouping the initial investment. Bottom line for the company is to see how many children overcome their nutrition deficiency each year.
Next initiative came from Credit Agricole of France. We created Grameen Credit Agricole Microfinance Foundation to provide financial support to microfinance organizations and social businesses.
We created a small water company to provide good quality drinking water in a cluster of villages of Bangladesh. This is a joint venture with Veolia, a leading water company in the world. Bangladesh has terrible drinking water problem. In a large part of Bangladesh tubewell water is highly arsenic contaminated, surface water is polluted. This social business water company will be a prototype for supplying safe drinking water in a sustainable and affordable way to people who are faced with water crisis. Once it is perfected, it can be replicated in other villages, within Bangladesh and outside.
We have already established an eye-care hospital specializing in cataract operation, with a capacity to undertake 10,000 operations per year. This is a joint venture social business with the Green Children Foundation created by two singers in their early twenties, Tom and Milla, from England and Norway.
We have signed a joint-venture agreement with Intel Corporation, to create a social business company called Grameen-Intel to bring information technology-based services to the poor in healthcare, marketing, education and remittances.
We also signed a social business joint venture agreement with Saudi German Hospital Group to set up a series of hospitals in Bangladesh.
Many more companies from around the world are showing interest in such social business joint ventures. A leading shoe company wants to create a social business to make sure that nobody goes without shoes. One leading pharmaceutical company wishes to set up a joint venture social business company to produce nutritional supplements appropriate for Bangladeshi pregnant mothers and young women, at the cheapest possible price.
We are also in discussion to launch a social business company to produce chemically treated mosquito-nets to protect people in Bangladesh and Africa from malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases.
Your generation can bring a breakthrough in changing the course of the world. You can be the socially-conscious creative generation that the world is waiting for. You can bring your creativity to design brilliant social businesses to overcome poverty, disease, environmental degradation, food crisis, depletion of non-renewable resources, etc. Each one of you is capable of changing the world. To make a start all that each one of you has to do is to design a business plan for a social business. Each prototype of a social business can be a cute little business. But if it works out, the whole world can be changed by replicating it in thousands of locations.
Prototype development is the key. In designing a prototype all we need is a socially-oriented creative mind. That could be each one of you. No matter what you do in your life, make it a point to design or be involved with at least one social business to address one problem that depresses you the most. If you have the design and the money, go ahead and put it into action. If you have the design but no money, contact your dean — he will find the money. I never heard that MIT has problem in finding money when it has a hot idea in its hand. MIT can even create a social business development fund in anticipation of your requests.
I can tell you very emphatically that in terms of human capability there is no difference between a poor person and a very privileged person. All human beings are packed with unlimited potential. Poor people are no exception to this rule. But the world around them never gave them the opportunity to know that each of them is carrying a wonderful gift in them. The gift remains unknown and unwrapped. Our challenge is to help the poor unwrap their gift.
Poverty is not created by the poor. It is created by the system. Poverty is an artificial imposition on people. Once you fall outside the system, it works against you. It makes it very difficult to return to the system.
How do we change this? Where do we begin ?
Three basic interventions will make a big difference in the existing system: a) broadening the concept of business by including “social business” into the framework of market place, b) creating inclusive financial and healthcare services which can reach out to every person on the planet, c) designing appropriate information technology devices, and services for the bottom-most people and making them easily available to them.
Your generation has the opportunity to make a break with the past and create a beautiful new world. We see the ever-growing problems created by the individual-centered aggressively accumulative economy. If we let it proceed without serious modifications, we may soon reach the point of no return. Among other things, this type of economy has placed our planet under serious threat through climatic distortions. Single-minded pursuit of profit has made us forget that this planet is our home; that we are supposed to make it safe and beautiful, not make it more unliveable everyday by promoting a life-style which ignores all warnings of safety.
At this point let me give you the good news. No matter how daunting the problems look, don’t get brow beaten by their size. Big problems are most often just an aggregation of tiny problems. Get to the smallest component of the problem. Then it becomes an innocent bite-size problem, and you can have all the fun dealing with it. You’ll be thrilled to see in how many ways you can crack it. You can tame it or make it disappear by various social and economic actions, including social business. Pick out the action which looks most efficient in the given circumstances. Tackling big problems does not always have to be through giant actions, or global initiatives or big businesses. It can start as a tiny little action. If you shape it the right way, it can grow into a global action in no time. Even the biggest problem can be cracked by a small well-designed intervention. That’s where you and your creativity come in. These interventions can be so small that each one of you can crack these problems right from your garage. If you have a friend or two to work with you, it is all the more better. It can be fun too.
You are born in the age of ideas. Ideas are something an MIT graduate, I am sure, will not run out of. The question I am raising now — what use you want to make of them? Make money by selling or using your ideas? Or change the world with your ideas? Or do both? It is up to you to decide.
There are two clear tasks in front of you — 1) to end poverty in the world once for all, and 2) to set the world in the right path to undo all the damage we have done to the environment by our ignorance and selfishness. Time is right. Your initiatives can produce big results, even lead you to achieving these goals. Then yours will be the most successful generation in human history. You will take your grand-children to the poverty museums with tremendous pride that your generation had finally made it happen.
Congratulations, for being part of a generation which has exciting possibilities, and advance congratulations to you all for your future successes in creating a new world where everyone on this planet can stand tall as a human being. Thank you.