His odyssey to eradicate poverty has taken Professor Muhammad Yunus from the impoverished streets of Jobra in Bangladesh to the pristine ‘gater’ of Oslo in Norway where he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now more than a decade after that accolade, the ‘banker to the poor’ has expanded his vision and made an historic pact in Paris to bring sustainability and inclusivity to an event that has a huge economic, social and environmental impact – the Olympic Games.
Under the agreement, the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games will receive advice and inspiration from Professor Yunus and move towards achieving the goal of a world of three zeros: zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero net carbon emissions. In 2016, before Paris won the Olympics, the bid committee signed a agreement with the Yunus Centre that committed to using the bid and the delivery of the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a tool for the promotion of social business in the Paris area and beyond, to help improve the quality of life of citizens, increase social inclusion and support sustainable and equitable development.
Generosity caught up with Professor Yunus earlier this year to discuss his vision and why social business will change our world.
Just over a year ago you told us that we live in an age of speed and we are unlikely to correctly imagine what life will be like in 15 years. How fast do you think the world has moved in the last year and is it what you imagined?
It’s moving faster than I imagined. One of the things that you saw vividly during the last year, suddenly, nuclear weapons got into the picture. Our leaders are showing off that on one side nuclear weapons are bigger, more effective than the other side, or their buttons are bigger than the other side, or the colour is better than the other side. Really a childish way of talking about that, as if people’s lives don’t matter at all. It’s a question of who does the pushing of the buttons that’s the important thing for them. It came very close and that has never happened in the past.
And then wealth concentration is still continuing faster and faster. This is another thing that we are worried about.
The third one, very big news during the year, is about artificial intelligence. Now they are replacing Uber drivers or truck drivers or workers in the factories, and we are told it’s coming faster and faster. More and more people will be unemployed as we go along. This is a very horrifying story. They tell us that artificial intelligence will come to a level equal to the intelligence of human beings in 25 years. And after that artificial intelligence will become super intelligent, exceeding the intelligence of the human beings. We’re not sure what kind of role humans will play in this planet after the next 25 years, so we are seeing a kind of dead-end disaster spot that we never dreamt that’s coming so close to us.
I would say things are happening faster and faster.
In 2017 you released your book, A World of Three Zeros: A World of New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment and Zero Carbon Emissions. How is the chase for three zeroes going?
The chase is still continuing and I’m glad more and more people are taking interest, particularly with the release of the book in several languages. Many young people are getting interested, universities are getting interested, so that gives me hope that people will start looking at the alternatives: how to design the economic system in a way that it is helpful to other people, not leading to only one path – the path of concentration of all the wealth in fewer and fewer hands at a speed that is becoming faster and faster.
I would say yes, the chasing is going and hopefully more young people will pay attention to it and more policy makers will pay attention to it as we go along.
Can you tell us why you think social business is the answer to our world’s issues and to the flawed economic system you believe we have?
The way I try to lay it out, the whole system, the system that we practise, the capitalist system, led to all these problems, and it’s becoming worse at a faster and faster speed and we are coming to a dead end very soon. What I say is that if you follow the same old path of the capitalist system that’s been laid out, we’ll reach the same destination of disaster. If we want to avoid a disaster, we have to build new roads. Without new roads, you cannot reach a new destination.
Old roads only take us to the old destination, so it’s up to us now to design the new destination and build appropriate roads to reach it. I’m offering a destination, a destination defined by three zeros: zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero net carbon emission. This is our destination we have to reach. In order to reach it, we have to build new roads.
That’s where I talk about new roads of entrepreneurship, a new road of people becoming entrepreneurs rather than job seekers. I think the natural thing for a human being is to be an entrepreneur. This old system pushed us into taking a position of working for somebody else.
Another new road is that we can build businesses to solve problems exclusively, rather than make money for ourselves. That’s another road and that’s the one we’re calling social business.
If We put those together – the social business and the universal entrepreneurship for everybody – then we can reverse the system that we have created.
You say that capitalism inhibits our innate entrepreneurialism. Why do you think some people have already embraced their entrepreneurial spirit and how can that change for the rest of us?
Yes, human beings are basically entrepreneurs. So we are putting on the wrong shoe and chasing the wrong deal. We should be reinventing ourselves. We’re always promoting capitalism as a source of innovation. I say you build innovation for one, then you suppress the innovation and creative capacity of millions by pushing them into a job.
I say all of them have as much entrepreneurship, as much creativity, as much innovative power as anybody else. So you do not have to suppress millions; take away their right to be innovative, their right to be a problem solver, pushing them into a position of taking orders and following the rules. I’m trying to undo that thing. I said everybody can be a problem solver, everybody is a change maker, everybody can do things on their own – redesign your system so that we discover ourselves as people who can solve our own problems by creating sustainable enterprises. And that’s why we call ourselves social business.
That’s what I think needs to be done. We should not just get stuck with the idea that the means of production should be owned by few people and everybody else has to work for them. That takes away the fundamental right of a human being to be innovative, to be creative, to be an entrepreneur.
But maybe not everybody can be an entrepreneur. Not everyone is going to be running businesses, social or otherwise. How do the employees fit into this framework?
You are saying what you believe that everybody cannot be entrepreneur. It’s a question of belief. I’m saying the other way. I said everybody is an entrepreneur, some will become employees. Today you are saying all are employees, some will become entrepreneurs. I’m just reversing.
It’s a question of how you start your life. How you have been told. We have created an environment where we have been made to believe that the only salvation for me is to find a job. The schools are telling me to do that. My parents are telling me to do that. Find a job. Governments are saying that we’re ready to create more jobs for you so that you do not remain unemployed. People don’t give us any option. All we have to do is to find a job. I said no. That’s not a good thing.
We have options; you can be either a job creator or a job seeker. We have, at least, two options. I’m opening this up. Let people discover it. Today, you can’t just say not everybody is an entrepreneur. How do you know? I’m saying everybody is an entrepreneur because in microcredit when we lend money to millions and millions of women with those tiny loans – with $40, $100 loans – they become entrepreneurs. They start a business. They won’t go for the job.
If women can become entrepreneurs with that small money in their hand, they are the natural human being. They have not been tainted. They have not been contaminated by education. They have not had wrong education that they are told, “No, you have to find a job”. They are never told. They became a natural human being, acted naturally and become entrepreneurs. They have not gone to business school, they have not been trained how to do the accounting, but they did a good job. I have evidence to show that the real person, the real human being, the natural human being is basically an entrepreneur. That’s how microcredit at Grameen Bank works.
Yes, I agree with you. I think we are naturally enterprising in our spirit.
So when we want to grow our businesses, how does that work if we’re all entrepreneurs?
We’ve assumed that everybody will be an employee; we designed a world where some are entrepreneurs, others are employees. If we assume that all are entrepreneurs, we’ll be designing a new kind of world. We’ll have a new kind of relationship and we’ll cooperate with each other. It’s a question of cooperation, not working for somebody. How we cooperate so that we can get it done, so that each one has a role to play and I’m not forced to do it but I’m doing it because it’s in my interest to cooperate with you so that we can work together and make it a successful enterprise.
Those relationships will emerge once people see that the only way they can do it is to cooperate with each other and by cooperating with each other production begins. We will not call them an employee or worker. These words are the old-world words. They have no place in the new world.
Okay, I need to totally change my thinking! In this new world order, is there room for charities and a traditional not-for-profit sector?
As you find successes through social businesses, then the room for absolute charity will become smaller and smaller. That would be a happy thing that people are not depending on charity. In an ideal world, if everybody is an entrepreneur, taking care of themselves, there is probably not much room for the charity at all because nobody is asking for it. Nobody is demanding it. Nobody is needing it. So the need will disappear, not because it’s a bad thing to do, simply because it’s not needed anymore.
That makes sense. You talk a lot about wealth concentrated in the hands of a few and that is exactly what is happening. But some of our wealthy citizens are dispersing their wealth. How do you view the Giving Pledge and do you think it will make a systemic difference?
It’s very important that they have shown the way. I’ve been saying that there is selflessness in everybody. They came to that point – what will they do with all the money they made? So they automatically decided they’ll give away at least half of it, though they have not necessarily stuck to the half point. That is only proving my point that there’s a selflessness inside of the human being, including those people who have amassed an amazing amount of wealth for themselves.
The only footnote to that is that they are still not aware of social business so they have given it away as charity. They are giving away money to solve the problems of the world. It could be done as charity, it could be done as social business too. So this money could go to social businesses. If anybody can come up with a business idea, it will become a sustainable thing, it will continue to grow, continue to solve the purpose rather than disappear as a charity. So all those trillions of dollars which will come from the giving pledge, that enormous resource can change the whole world by using it for social business. It’s a good step.
Initially, as with any business, funding is going to be an issue.
I’m not worried about funds because funds are already there, simply with the wrong address. The address is given as charity. I’m saying don’t make it the exclusive destination of charity, make it charity and social business. Then this money will be an enormous help for creating capacity of people to make things happen.
What advice do you have for our social entrepreneurs? What do you think is the key thing they need to be doing now to ensure their success and sustainability?
First of all, attention is very important. That the Australians are paying attention to the idea of social business and it’s becoming a buzz word are good signs. Now we have to translate these buzz words into action. Make it happen. Even a small beginning is very important. All big trees start with a little seedling. This is the point where we’re looking for germination. The seed is there, but do we have the fertile ground so that it starts germinating? Once it starts germinating, then we see the prospect of being a tall tree.
As you say, quite horrifying things are happening in the world, but I’ve been struck – in interviews and in your book – by how optimistic you are. Despite our world and the troubles you’ve had in your personal life and in your business, how do you maintain that hope and optimism? Is it innate or do you work at it?
I don’t work at it. I feel I’m a compulsive optimist. I see the positive sign everywhere. And when young people pay attention to what I say, I get very excited. When I see one small initiative being taken, nobody is noticing it, but I see it happening and there’s a prospect of it becoming a big tree someday, so I get really excited about it. The more days go by, I see more and more people are engaged in it, more and more people are paying attention to what I’ve been doing, what I’ve been saying, more are reading the books that I’ve written. So I get pretty excited. It makes me very happy.
Sometimes I feel super happy that people are positive. Despite all the dark clouds, all the negative things we see, I see a new light is taking shape and that is taking over and will create a completely new world, a world where we will not have all those negative things; we’ll have an exciting life, we’ll create an exciting planet for all of us, and we’ll live together with harmony and with human values, not profit-driven, greed-driven like we are.