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My life: Muhammad Yunus

The Nobel laureate and microfinance pioneer tells Charley Lanyon why the job of proving people are more than money-making robots has fallen to our children

 

 

HAPPY ACCIDENTS I was born in a village in (what is now) Bangladesh (and was then British India) to a very low-income family. In 1947, when I was seven, we became a separate country, Pakistan. So the question became, what do we do with the country? How do we handle development? Two things became attractive to me: one was the law, because all our political leaders were lawyers, and the other was economics, because our issues were mostly economic. I chose to study economics at university. After I finished my master's degree in Bangladesh, I got a Fulbright scholarship. I got a PhD (from Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, in the United States) and started teaching at Middle Tennessee State University. In December 1971, I resigned and started teaching in Bangladesh. I saw famine and poverty, and wanted to see if there was a way I could help. I was doing little things for individual people. Then I saw loan sharks in the village and started lending money myself. That's how it happened. Microfinance was an accidental thing. Then I tried to connect borrowers to the local bank. I offered myself as a guarantor. The money involved was so small that it didn't bother me - I was just solving a local problem and it had nothing to do with theory. You see a ditch on the street and you try to fill it up - not because you have a theory about roads and transport, just because you saw a big ditch and wanted to make things easier for people.

 

WHERE CREDIT IS DUE As we grew bigger and bigger, the bank became more and more reluctant. So I thought, "Why don't I create a separate bank?" I got permission from the government, but it was hard for me because I was reluc-tant to operate under the existing bank-ing law. My position was that if we did this under the law, no matter how much we tried, it would become the same as any other bank because the law would push it in that direction. I wanted to make the borrowers the owners of the bank - under the existing law, that would have been complicated. But finally I got it done. In 1983, we created a separate law (and founded Grameen Bank). We borrowed from the central bank, loaned money to people and continued to expand. We wanted to make sure half the borrowers were women. It took us six years to reach that point. We saw that money going to the family through women brought more benefits than the same amount of money going through men. Gradually, (the percentage of women borrowers rose to) 97 per cent.

 

WISE WORDS Winning the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2006) was a fantastic experience because all along I had been saying the same things - poverty is the denial of all human rights, entrepreneurship is something built into every single human being, the banking system is wrong and needs to be redesigned - and people showed little interest. But after the Nobel Prize, I would say the same things and people would think they were wise words. Doors that I couldn't open before were opened. People don't see that, along with Grameen Bank, I've created more than 60 companies and they are all dedicated to solving problems - not making money (Yunus was in Hong Kong over the summer as a keynote speaker for Nu Skin's 2012 Master Forum, where he discussed how individuals and corporations could create positive change). I realised that this was a new type of business. I call it social business: a non-dividend company to solve social problems.

 

SYSTEM FAILURE I keep explaining poverty is a design issue. Poverty is not caused by something lacking in a person. If there is nothing wrong with people, if they are as good a human being as anybody else and they still cannot afford to live in a decent way, somewhere we've made a mistake in the system. Poverty is not internally generated. It is externally imposed. And that comes from the way we said economics should function: the capitalist system. So why don't we correct the system? We have interpreted human beings in a very limited way. We assumed that they are all money-making robots. All they do is make money. We are blind to the rest of the world; we see only ourselves. It is a very self-centred framework. So bring the true human being into the picture and things will resolve themselves. Human beings are selfish at the same time as selfless. But selflessness was never allowed in the economic system. Making money is a happiness, but making other people happy is a super-happiness.

 

LITTLE MASTERS Technology will make things happen that we could never have expected or imagined. That gives us amazing capabilities. Young people today are very different from previous generations. A seven-year-old kid commands so much technology that a 70-year-old cannot compete. The 70-year-old might have PhDs, be an academic, be a great scientist, but this seven-year-old has more access and more immediate answers. Traditionally, we say the older you are, the wiser you are. Now things have changed. The younger you are, the wiser you are. We have to make these kids aware that they are super kids, that they have the solutions to all the world's problems in their hands. They can say, "I can create my own world. I don't have to inherit your world. Your world is junk but my world will be beautiful."

 

 

 

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