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:

New media tsunami hits global humanitarian sector; rescue operations now on…


Geneva, 25 October 2007 (MovingNews): The global humanitarian sector has been hit by a ‘new media’ tsunami, causing widespread damage and massive confusion in Geneva.

Giant waves — carrying blogs, wikis, YouTube and other new media products — have simultaneously swept over several aid capitals of the world, including London, New York and Tokyo.

United Nations and many other international relief organisations are among the worst affected. These aid agencies, usually among the first to arrive at the scene of major disasters or crises, found their information and communication capacities severely depleted.

“This is entirely a man-made calamity, and we just didn’t see it coming,” the UN spokesperson in Geneva said in a brief message released using the old-fashioned Morse code. “Our risk registers, log frame analyses and satellite technologies gave us no advance warning.”

Eye witness reports said some agencies were completely marooned on old media islands, saddled with very large numbers of completely unreadable documents going back to decades.

First casualties included assorted spin doctors carrying out propaganda for UN agencies. One perished while trying to sanitise the Wikipedia entry about his agency head.

Meanwhile, several dozen injured or badly bruised public information officers have been treated at a language clinic. Some will undergo trauma counselling.

“We have never been exposed to this level of open and two-way communication,” a survivor from UN OCHA said. “We were so used to always being in control, always telling others what to do and how to do it. I still don’t know what hit us!”

In a major show of solidarity, the world’s computer, telecommunications and media industries are rushing emergency teams to provide relief and recovery support.

“For decades, the UN, red cross and other aid agencies have responded to many and varied emergencies. In their hour of need, we have decided to come to their help,” a joint tele-com-media industry statement said.

Other survivors are being given first aid in simple, jargon-free public speaking. Those who respond well will be treated with basic courses in participatory communication methods.

The emergency coordinators have ordered that any spin doctors found alive be quarantined to prevent the spread of the fatal infection known as MDG.

As the recover process continues, ICT activists plan to conduct more advanced exercises — such as how to produce PowerPoint presentations with less than 20 words per slide.

“But we have to take things one step at a time,” a relief worker said. “These people have just had their entire frame of reference collapse all around them. They are in deep shock and disbelief. It will be a gradual process.”

It has now been established that a few alert officials had anticipated the new media tsunami well ahead of its dramatic arrival. But their warnings were ignored, as it now turns out, to everyone’s peril.

In Washington DC, the United States has just designated veteran broadcasters Walter Cronkite , Bill Moyers and Oprah Winfrey as their New Media Tsunami Relief Ambassadors. In the coming weeks, they will tour the decimated UN, red cross and other humanitarian aid agencies, taking stock of the global disaster and sharing their collective wisdom on telling the truth to the public simply and well.

You, dear reader, are now invited to continue building this unfolding scenario:

How soon and how well will the humanitarian sector raise its head from the new media tsunami?

Will they learn lessons from this disaster, or might they soon return to business as usual?

What would happen to the massive outpouring of goodwill, voluntary help and aid?

Who makes the best ‘Alphabet Soup’ of all?

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Take a close look. This is the original Alphabet Soup.

It’s is a kind of soup containing noodles shaped like the letters of the Latin alphabet. According to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, it comes as a prepared, canned vegetable soup with letter-shaped noodles. Read full Wikipedia entry

Metaphorically, alphabet soup means “an abundance of abbreviations or acronyms”. In this sense, the term goes back at least as far as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies of the New Deal (1933-38). In the United States, the Federal Government is described as an ‘alphabet soup’ on account of the multitude of agencies that it has spawned, including the NSA, CIA, FBI, USSS, BATF, DEA and INS.

But Uncle Sam’s expertise in making alphabet soups has been challenged by another entity – the United Nations. (Interestingly, Roosevelt was an architect of the UN, and coined the term with Winston Churchill). The UN’s propensity for enriching the alphabet soup has few parallels.

In the early 1990s, when I was earning a living as a UN consultant in Asia, I had to wade through the sea of acronyms and abbreviations as part of my daily bread. Funnily enough, some high-level peddlers of arconyms no longer even remembered what they stood for!

The UN has enriched the alphabet soup even more in the years since. MDG is a current favourite – it stands for Millennium Development Goals, a blue print for achieving basic socio-economic development by 2015.

It’s not just the UN, but the entire development community that is in love with coining abbreviations and then liberally bandying them about. Some are manageable. Others are unpronounceable tongue-twisters. PLWHA comes to mind – that stands for Persons Living with HIV/AIDS.

And then there are too many meanings or expansions for the same abbreviation, causing confusion to those who don’t know the context. ICT is a good example. We in media and development circles use it to mean Information and Communications Technologies. But the Wikipedia shows at least another two dozen meanings for the same three letter combination!

Journalism taught me to explain every technical term and abbreviation when introducing it. I still do, but on the whole I avoid abbreviations if we can help it.

But I have to watch out. A colleague reminded me recently that I’ve been happily coining inhouse acronyms myself. Examples:
GBR – The Greenbelt Reports (Asian TV series)
STP – Saving the Planet (Asian regional project and upcoming TV series)
D4C – Digits4Change (Asian TV series)

Does this make me a minor chef in expanding the Alphabet Soup?

Maybe it does! If I can’t beat ’em, I’ll join ’em….

Say MDG and smile, will ya?

There we go again!

I have just done another post on Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), pleading that the core issues they promote be given due prominence than simple brand promotion for MDGs and their promoters-cum-custodians (the UN).

For my readers outside the charmed development circles, MDGs are an international blueprint for human development, with eight major goals to be achieved by 2015. These goals are the means of implementing the Millennium Declaration — to which 189 governments committed at the UN Millennium Summit held in 2000.

One way to ensure the governments will keep their promise is to turn media spotlight on them. Journalists and media managers have a key role to play in this process.

With this in mind, our friends at the Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD) have launched the Asia Pacific MDG Media Awards to ‘recognise and honour the best media reporting on the MDGs’. They have the backing of two UN agencies (UNDP and UNESCAP) and the Asian Development Bank. The deadline for applications is 15 April 2007.

See TVE Asia Pacific news item on Asia Pacific MDG Media Awards

All this is well and good — except that the rules of the award scheme are a bit self-limiting. There’s one that I’ve only just noticed: “Reference to the MDGs (whether one or all MDG Goals) in your content is mandatory.”

This places wrong emphasis on MDG branding when it should be on the actual issues. MDGs are not another slogan for spin doctors at UN agencies to play around with for a few years until the next development fad comes along.

MDGs are about human dignity and social justice to the half of humanity that currently lives in poverty, squalor and deprivation. It is these real world people who lose their babies to preventable childhood diseases; drop out of school because they cannot afford to stay on; die needlessly in their millions during pregnancy or childbirth; or go to bed hungry every night.

In that bigger scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter whether justice is delivered through strategies, programmes and projects labelled ABC, XYZ, MDG or something else.

Besides, MDGs are a means to an end. The process is important, but branding is not, on that journey.

Half way along the way — to the agreed target of 2015 — an informed and motivated media can help countries and development players to remain focused.

By all means, reward good journalistic coverage of development and social justice issues underscored by the MDGs. But please, let’s not turn this into another round of simple publicity and self-promotion for UN agencies.


MDG Asia Pacific website

AIBD documents on Asia Pacific MDG Media Awards

MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

References to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are popping out of every UN document, speech and communication product these days. Each agency and official seem to be keen to outdo all others in living and swearing by this new ‘development mantra’ of our times.

MDGs are an international blueprint for human development, with eight major goals to be achieved by 2015. These goals are the means of implementing the Millennium Declaration — to which 189 governments committed at the UN Millennium Summit held in 2000.

But important as they are, the MDGs are only a means to an end, even if an extremely worthwhile one. If we lose sight of that, we risk allowing the MDG ‘dog’ to wag the development ‘dog’.

Alfonso Gumucio Dagron

Speaking at OUR Media 6 conference in Sydney this week, Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, Managing Director – Programmes of the Communication for Social Change Consortium, cautioned about development agencies engaging in too much spin or public relations, and too little real communication.

Alfonso, a widely experienced and highly respected practitioner and thinker in development communication, lamented how institutional publicity is taking a much higher priority than communication as a social process that gives a voice to the communities and players involved.

Ah, finally a dev-com heavyweight echoes what I’ve been saying for some time! At every UN and media platform I could access in the past couple of years, I’ve stressed that catalysing wide ranging public discussion and debate on the MDGs’ core issues is far more important than simply enhancing ‘brand recognition’ for MDGs themselves. (That’s useful too, but as part of a wider process.)

On the eve of the MDG+5 Summit at UN Headquarters in September 2005, I wrote in an editorial published by SciDev.Net:

Today’s MDG promoters need to revisit some of the more successful development efforts of the past few decades — such as promoting universal human rights, eradicating smallpox, popularising oral rehydration salts, and wiping out Southern debt — and study the role good communication played in each.

Those in the UN system, in particular, have to find more creative ways of getting the MDG message across. In my view, MDG ‘branding’ is not what is important; it is the core set of issues that MDGs embody that need mass attention and aggressive promotion.

We should also invoke the memory of past visionary leaders who navigated the treacherous inter-governmental minefields to talk truth to power. One was James Grant, former executive director of the UN children’s agency, turned UNICEF into a formidable global brand.

One of Grant’s enduring remarks concerned the silent emergency of several thousand children (and adults) dying everyday from preventable diarrhoeal diseases. It was, he pointed out repeatedly, as if several jumbo jets full of children were crashing everyday — and nobody took any notice.

That metaphor might lack political correctness in the post-11 September era. But the message was loud and clear. Grants’ one time deputy at UNICEF, Tarzie Vittachi, was another master at summing up complex development issues in memorable ways. When he was head of information at the UN population agency, the former newspaper editor used to remind everyone: ‘Governments don’t have babies; people do.’

Read my full editorial in SciDev.Net in September 2005: Simpler words are needed to get MDG message across

Related links:

MDGs: Mind the development gap, Asia Pacific told

The Communication Initiative: Strategic Thinkin: Mind the Communication Gap