Monday, October 2, 2017

Muhammad Yunus and A World of Three Zeros

Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

The thing about Muhammad Yunus is that he seeks to change the world for the better.  Not by tearing anything down, but by building up the poorest people.

 And he is succeeding!

From 1976 until today, his inventive idea—Micro Lending—has helped and continues to help 300 million poor people, almost all of them women, around the world.  By starting businesses with an average loan of around forty dollars, the poorest people on earth are breaking their own “chains of poverty” and educating their children and improving the lives of their neighbors.

We all know about the evils of income inequality—a much-discussed, seemingly intractable problem, as Michael’s blog post ten days ago lamented.   I read and agreed with Michael’s words, and just a few days later I had the privilege of attending an event at the New York Public Library that introduced Muhammad Yunus’s new book—A World of Three Zeros.   Yunus is an economist who understands the problem.  And he offers a solution.  A world of ZERO poverty.

No not this is not a pipedream.  It is just a natural extension and expansions of the work Yunus has already done.

Until he invented micro credit and founded the Grameen Bank, who would have thought that an idea as simple as lending (lending, not giving) women $40 could revolutionize the lives of 300 million families.  But it did.  The loans are made on trust.  And 99% of them are paid back!  Closer to zero than the capitalist economy can claim when it comes to bankruptcies.

Now, the zeros Muhammad Yunus’s book envisions for our world are:

·      ZERO poverty
·      ZERO unemployment
·      ZERO net carbon emissions

Let’s talk today about the first one and begin with the magnitude of the problem and the direction of the trend.

In 2010, when the world population was about 3.38 billion, the 388 richest people on the planet owned more wealth than the bottom fifty percent!  Mind boggling, right?

But only seven years later—in January of this year—when the population had risen to 3.8 billion—just eight (EIGHT!!!) people owned more than the bottom fifty percent of the human race.   And they did not get there by cheating and stealing.  They just played pretty much the only money game left on the planet.  Capitalism.

If you think this is a Third Word problem, think again.  In his new book, Yunus quotes another Nobel prize winner and fellow economist, Angus Deaton: “If you had to choose between living in a poor village in India and living in the Mississippi Delta or in a suburb of Milwaukee in a trailer park, I am not sure who would have the better life.”

We all know what the problem is.  And we all realize that working in a capitalist economy is no picnic.   I wrote two books about how to contend with the being one of the 70-or-so percent of employees who hate their jobs.   The reasons for this dissatisfaction are many and varied, but mostly they come down to this:  for most corporate employees, work puts bread on the table, maybe even allows them keep up with the Joneses in the endless game of economic competitiveness.  But it also requires them to give up too much of their inner selves.  There is often next to nothing in their work to satisfy their souls.  

This is true because of the falsity of capitalism’s central assumption: that human beings are motivated only by personal gain.  We know that this is not true.   Oh, what Yunus calls “Real People” may be self-serving some of time, but they also get lasting satisfaction (or laughter or JOY) from the opposite of greed and selfishness.   They get enormous satisfaction from living in a society where people can count on one another, from knowing they did something that protects the environment, from making others comfortable or safe or even just entertained.

People who toil in the corporate world will tell you that whatever soul-satisfying rewards they do feel on the job come from these intangibles.  And they are the lucky ones, who have “good” jobs.

For most in this world work is drudgery.

Here is the reality of dealing with such problems: “The person who is suffering is the one who has to change.”  People who are content with the situation—whatever it happens to be—have no motivation to do anything but support the status quo.

The hardest step toward such change is to give the suffering a reason to hope.  Once they have hope, possible paths out of the woods become clear.  Muhammad Yunnus has had one Nobel-Prize-worthy idea that created that hope and those paths for 300 million people.

Now he says there is a way to redesign the world’s economic system.  But not through fighting what is already there.  And not by helping the poor through charities and government programs.  He says we need to get “selflessness-driven” players into the market.  Allow me to quote him at length:

"All people have to do is express their willingness to participate in creating selflessness-driven businesses … That simple action changes the whole world.  If millions of people of every economic status take the lead in solving human problems, we can slow down and ultimately reverse the whole process of wealth concentration … Extreme wealth concentration is not an unalterable fate that humankind was born with.  Since it is our own creation, we can solve it through our own efforts."

In other words a new form of capitalism where people earn a living but NOT with a goal of accumulating endless wealth.  But by creating businesses that do not ignore social ills.  Businesses aimed at solving them.

One example he gave was a profitable business started in his native Bangladesh, the idea for which has already spread to other countries.  It attacks the problem of malnutrition in children.  (56% of the children in Bangladesh are undernourished.)  A common snack for kids there is yogurt.  There were lots of brands available.  The new social business did research on the nutrients missing from the diets of undernourished children.  They created a product that contained those nutrients.  They sell it at a profit in the more affluent stores and use the money they make to subsidize the price in poor areas, where parents pay what they can afford.  The same idea is being used to better the nutrition of poor children in Brazil—with ice pops.

Yunus’s call to action is aimed at the young around the world—to become social entrepreneurs.  Here in New York, no less an institution than Columbia University is sponsoring a conference that starts in a few days to encourage new entrants into the social economy.

New York already has many such businesses, begun by business leaders who are building companies  that will earn them their livings, solve social problems, and satisfy their souls in the process.

I bet there are some where you live too.

Hopefully more are coming soon.  Everywhere.

When it was my turn for him to sign my book, I had the opportunity
to remind Muhammad Yunus of the time he came to my house,
many years ago, thanks to my friend Dr. William Drucker, to present his
case for Micro Lending to a group of influential New Yorkers.


  1. Microloans are such a wonderful way to help people. I sincerely hope to see these programs growing, and spreading, and continuing to help people. Most people just want to work, earn a living, and care for themselves and their families. I hope more people have the chance to do it, through programs like these.

    1. We agree 100%. Susan. And I think Yunus is poised to recruit millions of young people with ideas. He has the reputation and the economy chops to make it work. Imagine an economy that grows up beside the largely dysfunctional system we have now. He already has some people who are big players in the food business finding ways to turn their firms toward social entrepreneurship. Because they want to feel good about what they are doing. Lovely, huh? And hope-inspiring.

  2. I knew some very wealthy folks involved in setting up the Grameen Foundation along with him, and I think it's safe to say it's changed their lives as much as those they've helped.

  3. Jeff, I wonder if any of those folks were in my house on Waverly Place when Yunus made one of his first appeals in NYC. There was a lot of excitement among those gathered. Clearly many people want to measure themselves by more than their net worth.