Banishing poverty to a museum: The grand vision of Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus speaking at Oslo City Hall on 4 Sep 2008

Muhammad Yunus speaking at Oslo City Hall on 4 Sep 2008

The celebrated Bangladeshi economist and anti-poverty activist Muhammad Yunus returned to Oslo’s City Hall today, more than one and a half years after he accepted the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize there. In a passionate, insightful talk to a full house of over 900 people, he revisited his favourite topic: how to banish poverty from our planet.

The occasion was 2008 North-South Forum, convened and hosted by Fredskorpset, the Norwegian peace corp, together with the city council of Oslo. I was among the 350 international participants who have come from 50 countries to participate in this event.

In his talk, the founder of the Grameen Bank reiterated the central message in his recent book, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.

“We can and must chip away at poverty, and get rid of it – just like what they did to the Berlin Wall,” he said. “I’m dreaming of the day when there is no more poverty on this planet…the day when our future generations would have to visit a museum to see what it was like to live in poverty.”

Wistfully, he added: “I would then want to offer a million dollar prize to anyone who can find a poor person.”

He tempered this idealistic vision with the economist’s strong realism: to overcome poverty, we first need to understand and come to terms with factors that cause and sustain it.

“There is nothing intrinsically wrong with poor people,” Yunus said. “They are ordinary people like you and me – many of them talented and capable. But they have never had the opportunity to do well in life. Poverty is not created by poor people, but by the (social and economic) system we have created around us.”

Banishing poverty is not just a matter of social justice – it is also an ‘insurance’ against social disintegration and other major problems of our times like crime and terrorism.

Prof Yunus made the same points in this interview with the Nobel Prize website:

See full interview on Nobel website

For several years, Yunus has been voicing concerns about the so-called war on terror diverting much needed attention and resources away from the war on poverty. In his Nobel Prize lecture delivered in the same hall on 10 December 2006, he said: “I believe terrorism cannot be won over by military action. Terrorism must be condemned in the strongest language. We must stand solidly against it, and find all the means to end it. We must address the root causes of terrorism to end it for all time to come. I believe that putting resources into improving the lives of the poor people is a better strategy than spending it on guns.”

When Yunus speaks, he sounds far more like an amiable story teller than the professor of economics that he once was. He appeals to the heart and mind of his listeners, in that order. He did not dazzle his audience with endless facts and figures. There were no fancy Power Points or endless charts – the essential tools of poverty researchers. And, mercifully, he never once referred to the dubious millennium development goals or MDGs, the favourite mantra of assorted UN types. (They started off as a well-intended set of targets, but have become self-limiting, self-serving distractions for the development community.)

Instead, he drew from the practical, real life experiences of the Grameen Bank that he founded in 1976, when working as a professor at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Grameen’s three decades of work providing small loans to the poorest of the poor is ample evidence, he said, that the vicious cycles of poverty, debt and misery can be broken by ‘tiny interventions, sustained over time’. Grameen started with 27 poor people in a single village. Today, it has over 7 million participating in its micro credit programes, 97 per cent of them women.

Read Shahidul Alam’s account of Grameen and its founder

Yunus offers a grand vision without grandiose claims or pomposity. He is fond of the word ‘tiny’ – using it to describe the various initiatives he and his team have been taking to attack poverty from many different fronts. The results are anything but tiny.

In his new book, Professor Yunus describes the role of business in promoting social reform and his vision for an innovative business model that would combine the power of free markets with a quest for a more humane, egalitarian world that could help alleviate world poverty, inequality, and other social problems. He calls it ‘social business’ – a hybrid of the profit-maximising corporate sector and charitable non-profit sector.

Listen to Muhammad Yunus speak at Google New York City campus on 10 January 2008 about ideas captured in his new book:

In 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. In doing so, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted: “Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.” Read full statement

Watch an indepth interview with Yunus by the US journalist and doyen of TV interviewers, Charlie Rose:

One Response to “Banishing poverty to a museum: The grand vision of Muhammad Yunus”

  1. Sandra Says:

    Poverty will always be with us as long as greed remains part of the human condition. As Gandhi famously said…we can have enough for our need, but never enough for our greed. Professor Yunus is chasing an ideal that will remain unattainable.

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