Monday, 2 March 2009

Inspiring words from the guru of microcredit, Professor Muhammad Yunus

On Thursday night we were lucky enough to have a lecture from the guru of microcredit, Professor Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank. He is a phenomenal, creative individual with the ability to come up with a life-changing idea a minute it seems. He has now developed his years of experience and knowledge into a concept he calls “social business” to address the problems of the poor. In the lecture, given in his intimate, conversational style, he spoke convincingly about the need for an urgent change in the world’s financial systems to promote lending to the credit-worthy poor, and spread the values of social business. The lecture hall at the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington was packed with people from all walks of life and all ages, with a great turnout of young people. Unlike many lectures, where papers shuffle and yawns are stifled, the atmosphere was quite electric, as the audience seemed to hang on every quiet and inspired word, each containing real resonance at this time of anxiety and uncertainty.

I first came across Professor Yunus’ work when working for the Panos Institute back in the 1980’s and we published a book called Banking the Unbankable, containing a chapter about his work in Bangladesh. Twenty years on, the Grameen Bank has spread microfinance to over 7 million people, offering small loans without collateral that are hugely improving the lives of poor women and their families in Bangladesh. Professor Yunus gave a moving description of his visit to a “Grameen woman”, one of his first lenders, and her daughter who is going to university thanks to his efforts. He commented sadly on the fact that this woman herself could have been where her daughter is now, if it were not for a system that stopped poor people from progressing and taking charge of their lives. He gently encourages all the children of these Grameen women to go out in the world and start up their own social businesses, instead of relying on others to give them work. I’m sure for many people in the audience he was lighting the spark of an idea…

Refreshingly, Professor Yunus sees the global financial crisis that we are constantly told will ruin lives and cause chaos, as an opportunity as well as challenge – an opportunity to bring about major changes in banking, the economic system and society. “The financial, environmental and food crises are all interrelated and are all driven by selfishness. We must seize this opportunity to come up with an alternative financial system, based on trust and selflessness. The poor are suffering from financial apartheid. They make up two-thirds of the world’s population but are currently excluded from the system. The real issue is not whether the poor are credit-worthy but whether banks are people-worthy” Professor Yunus told us.

We heard how the Grameen enterprises now number over 30 covering solar energy, mobile phones, water, health and many others, all driven by social motives. We at the Ashden Awards are very familiar with the member of the Grameen family that is expanding sustainable energy - Grameen Shakti. Last year they and their committed leader, Dipal Barua, won the Ashden Outstanding Achievement Award for incredible work installing solar home systems, biogas plants and improved stoves across Bangladesh. When they first won an award in 2006 for their solar energy programme and Dipal came to London to receive the prize, he was inspired by other winners using biogas and improved cooking stoves and decided to go back and do the same in Bangladesh. Two years later they’ve installed 220,000 solar home systems, 6,000 biogas plants and produced 23,000 improved stoves!

It was great to hear that the Grameen programmes so far are unaffected by the financial crisis - “While the financial world collapses all around us, our schemes are thriving - so who is really credit-worthy?” he remarked.

If you’re interested in these ideas, make sure you read Professor Yunus’ book which is now in paperback, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism where he puts forward his vision of a future where many embrace the idea of social business, business with a conscience that is not founded on the profit motive, but the motive to help others. “I think every problem can be turned into a social business. Each one is the development of a seed, and it can be replicated to change the world instead of to make money.”

Juliet Heller, Ashden Awards

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