Dec 09 2009
Social Business - A Step Toward Creating a New Economic and Social Order
Professor Muhammad Yunus
Grameen Bank, Bangladesh
Lecture delivered at the joint-meeting of the members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha of India, in Delhi on December 9, 2009
Hon'ble Vice President, Hon'ble Prime Minister of India, Hon'ble Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Hon'ble Members of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is a great honor and privilege for me to deliver the second Annual Memorial Parliamentary Lecture in honor of the formidable academician and parliamentarian, Professor Hirendranath Mukerjee. I am very proud to pay my respects to an individual whose commitment to social justice spanned over 60 years, until his death in 2004.
Hiren Babu’s commitment to the plight of the oppressed and exploited during his entire life has inspired many. His gift of oratory has captivated and enlightened individuals across the political spectrum. Indeed, Hiren Babu's faith in the ability of his fellow human beings to help themselves reflects my own beliefs about the innate ability of all people, including the poor, to change their own lives for the better.
Professor Hirendranath Mukerjee has been one of the 20th century’s best examples of the intellectual prowess in South Asia. If our human resources are nurtured and simply given a chance to grow, I am certain we can all change our economic and social situations dramatically.
So I pay tribute to the memory of this great son of the region who dedicated himself to improving life for the people at the bottom of society.
Professor Mukerjee tried to address the poverty issue politically. I first got involved in it as an academician, and then personally, almost by accident. I got involved with poverty because it was all around me. The famine of 1974 pushed me out of the university campus. In disaster situations, most of us take up our social roles unhesitatingly. But in my case what began in a time of crisis became a life-long calling. I gave up my academic position and founded a bank - a bank for the poor.
Enslaved by the Money Lenders
In 1974, I found it extremely difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the classroom while a terrible famine was raging outside. Suddenly I felt the emptiness of economic theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty. I realized that I had to leave the campus and somehow make myself useful to the distressed people of Jobra, the neighboring village.
In trying to discover what I could do to help, I learned many things about Jobra, about the poor people, and about their helplessness. I came face to face with the struggle of poor people to find the tiniest amounts of money needed to support their efforts to eke out a living. I was shocked to meet a woman who had borrowed just five taka from a money-lender and trader. The condition of the loan: She would have to sell all her products to him at a price he would decide. A five-taka loan transformed her into a virtual slave.
To understand the scope of this money-lending practice in the village, I made a list of the people who had borrowed from the money-lenders. When my list was complete, it had 42 names. These people had borrowed a total of Tk. 856 from the money-lenders. To free these 42 people from the clutches of the money lenders, I gave them the money to repay the loans. The excitement that was created in the village by this small action touched me deeply. I thought, “If this little action makes so many people so happy, why shouldn't I do more of this?”
That's what I have been trying to do ever since.
Grameen Bank Lends Even to Beggars
The first thing I did was to try to persuade the bank located in the university campus to lend money to the poor. But the bank manager refused to do that. He said, “The poor do not qualify to take loans from the bank - they are not creditworthy.” I argued with him about this for several months, but I couldn’t change his mind. So I offered to become a guarantor for loans to the poor. The bank agreed to accept this proposal. By the middle of 1976, I started giving out loans to the village poor, taking personal responsibility for their repayment. I came up with some ideas for making it easier for the poor people to repay the money they had borrowed. These ideas worked. People paid back the loans on time, every time.
It seemed to me that lending money to the poor was not as difficult as it was imagined. But I kept confronting difficulties in trying to expand the programme through the existing banks. Finally, I decided to create a separate bank for the poor. Finally I succeeded in creating this bank in 1983. We called it Grameen Bank.
Today, Grameen Bank is a nationwide bank serving the poor in every single village of Bangladesh. It has 8 million borrowers, 97 per cent of whom are women. The bank is owned by the borrowers. Nine of the thirteen members of the board of directors are elected by the borrowers as shareholders. Grameen Bank lends out over $ 100 million a month in collateral-free loans averaging about $ 200. It encourages children of Grameen families to go to school. It offers education loans to them to pursue higher education. There are more than 42,000 students who are currently pursuing their education in medical schools, engineering schools, and universities financed by education loans from Grameen Bank. We encourage these young people to take a pledge that they will never enter job market to seek jobs from anybody. They'll be job-givers, not job seekers. We explain to them that their mothers own a big bank, Grameen Bank. It has plenty of money to finance any enterprise they wish to float—so why waste time looking for a job working for someone else? Instead, be an employer, rather than an employee.
Grameen Bank is financially self-reliant. All of its funds come from deposits. More than half of the deposits come from the borrowers themselves, who are required to save a little bit every week. They have a collective savings balance of over half a billion US dollars. The repayment rate on loans is very high, about 98 per cent, despite the fact that Grameen Bank focuses on the poorest people—those that other banks consider non-creditworthy.
Grameen Bank even gives loans to beggars. They use the loans to start the business of selling goods from door to door, rather than begging door to door. Beggars like it. We now have over 100,000 beggars in this programme. During the four years since this programme was launched, over 18,000 have quit begging.
This idea of small, collateral-free loans for poor women, known as "microcredit", or "microfinance", has spread around the world. There are now Grameen-type programmes in almost every country in the world. We even run a programme named "Grameen America" in New York City. It is now branching out to Omaha, Nebraska, and San Francisco, California. Even in the richest country in the world with the most sophisticated banking system, there is a need for a bank dedicated to serving the poor.
Poverty is Not Created by the Poor
When I meet Grameen Bank borrowers, I often meet mother-daughter and mother-son pairs in which the mother is totally illiterate, while the daughter or son is a medical doctor or an engineer. A thought always flashes through my mind: the mother could have been a doctor or an engineer too. She has the same capability as her daughter or son. The only reason she could not unleash her potential is that the society never gave her the chance. She could not even go to school to learn the alphabet.
The more time you spend among poor people, the more you become convinced that poverty is not created by poor people. It is created by the system we have built, the institutions we have designed, the concepts we have formulated. Poverty is an artificial, external imposition on a person. And since it is external, it can be removed.
Poverty is created by deficiencies in the institutions that we have built. For example, financial institutions. They refuse to provide financial services to nearly two-thirds of the world’s population. For generations, they claimed that it could not be done, and everybody accepted that explanation. This allowed loan sharks to thrive all over the world. Grameen Bank questioned this assumption and demonstrated that lending money to the poorest in a sustainable way is possible.
During the current financial crisis, the falsity of the old assumption became even more visible. While big conventional banks with all their collateral were collapsing, microcredit programmes, which do not depend on collateral, continued to be as strong as ever. Will this demonstration make the mainstream financial institutions change their minds ? Will they finally open their doors to the poor?
I am quite serious about this question. When a crisis is at its deepest, it can offer a huge opportunity. When things fall apart, that creates the opportunity to redesign, recast, and rebuild. We should not miss this opportunity to redesign our financial institutions. Let’s convert them into inclusive institutions. Nobody should be refused access to financial services. Because these services are so vital for self-realization of people, I strongly feel that credit should be given the status of a human right.
Poverty Belongs in Museums
Every human being is born into this world fully equipped not only to take care of himself or herself, but also to contribute to the well being of the world as a whole. Some get the chance to explore their potential, but many others never get the chance to unwrap the wonderful gifts they were born with. They die with those gifts unexplored, and the world remains deprived of their contribution.
Grameen has given me an unshakeable faith in the creativity of human beings and the firm belief that human beings are not born to suffer the misery of hunger and poverty.
We can create a poverty-free world if we collectively believe in it—a world in which the only place you would be able to see poverty is in poverty museums. Some day, school children will be taken to visit these poverty museums. They will be horrified to see the misery and indignity that some human beings had to go through. They will blame their ancestors for tolerating this inhuman condition for so long.
To me, poor people are like bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed from the tallest tree in a tiny flower-pot, you get a replica of the tallest tree, only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted, only the soil-base that you gave it is inadequate. Poor people are bonsai people. There is nothing wrong with their seeds, but society never gave them the proper base to grow on. All it takes to get poor people out of poverty is for us to create an enabling environment for them. Once the poor can unleash their energy and creativity, poverty will disappear very quickly.
A Fundamental Conceptual Flaw
Let me return to the current financial crisis. Unfortunately, the media coverage gives the impression that, once we fix this crisis, all our troubles will be over. We forget that the financial crisis is only one of several crises that are threatening humankind. We are also suffering a global food crisis, an energy crisis, an environmental crisis, a health care crisis, and the continuing social and econonomic crisis of poverty. These crises are as important as the financial crisis, although they have not received as much attention.
Furthermore, the media coverage may give the impression that these are disconnected crises that are taking place simultaneously, just by accident. That's not true at all. In fact, these crises grow from the same root—a fundamental flaw in our theoretical construct of capitalism.
The biggest flaw in our existing theory of capitalism lies in its misrepresentation of human nature. In the present interpretation of capitalism, human beings engaged in business are protrayed as one-dimensional beings whose only mission is to maximize profit. This is a much distorted picture of a human being. Human beings are not money-making robots. The essential fact about human beings is that they are multi-dimensional beings. Their happiness comes from many sources, not just from making money.
Yet economic theory has built the whole theory of business on the assumption that human beings do nothing in their economic lives other than pursue their selfish interests. The theory concludes that the optimal result for society will occur when each invididual's search for selfish benefit is given free rein. This interpretation of human beings denies any role to other aspects of life - political, social, emotional, spiritual, environmental, etc.
No doubt human beings are selfish beings, but they are selfless beings too. Yet this selfless dimension of human beings has no role in economics. This distorted view of human nature is the fatal flaw that makes our economic thinking incomplete and inaccurate. Over time, it has helped to create the multiple crises we face today.
Once we recognize this flaw in our theoretical structure, the solution is obvious. We can easily replace the one-dimensional person in economic theory with a multi-dimensional person - a person who has both selfish and selfless interests at the same time.
Immediately our picture of the business world changes. We now see the need for two kinds of businesses, one for personal gain (profit maximization), another dedicated to helping others. In one kind of business, the objective is to maximize economic gains for the owners, even if this leaves nothing for others, while in the other kind of business, everything is for the benefit of others and nothing is for the owners—except the pleasure of serving humanity.
Let us call this second kind of business, built on the selfless part of human nature, as “social business”. This is what our economic theory has been lacking.
Social Business – A Non-Loss, Non-Dividend Company
A social business is a business where an investor aims to help others without taking any financial gain himself. At the same time, the social business generates enough income to cover its own costs. Any surplus is invested in expansion of the business or for increased benefits to society. The social business is a non-loss, non-dividend company dedicated entirely to achieving a social goal.
Will anybody in the real world be interested in creating businesses with selfless objectives? Where would the money for social business come from?
Judging by the real human beings I know, many people will be delighted to create businesses for selfless purposes. Some have already been created. I’ll give briefs on some of them a little later.
Regarding the source of fund, one source can easily be the philanthropy money going for creating social businesses. This makes enormous sense. One problem of charity programmes is that they remain perpetually dependent on donations. They cannot stand on their own two feet. Charity money goes out to do good things, but that money never comes back. It is a one-way route. But if a charity programme can be converted into a social business that supports itself, it becomes a powerful undertaking. Now the money invested is recycled endlessly. A charity taka has one life, but a social business taka has endless life. That's the power of social business.
Besides philanthropists, many other people will invest in social businesses just to share the joy of making a difference in other people's lives. People will give not only money but also their creativity, networking skills, technological prowess, life experience, and other resources to create social businesses that can change the world.
Once our economic theory adjusts to the multidimensional reality of human nature, students will learn in their schools and colleges that there are two kinds of businesses traditional money-making businesses and social businesses. As they grow up, they'll think about what kind of company they will invest in and what kind of company they will work for. And many young people who dream of a better world will think about what kind of social business they would like to create. Young people, when they are still in schools, may start designing social businesses, and even launch social businesses individually or collectively to express their creative talents in changing the world.
Grameen-Danone and Other Social Businesses
Like any good idea, the concept of social business needs practical demonstration. So I have started creating social businesses in Bangladesh.
Some of them are created in partnership with large multi-national companies. The first such joint-venture with a multi-national company was created in 2005, in partnership with the French dairy company Danone. The Grameen-Danone social business is aimed at reducing malnutrition among the children of Bangladesh. The Grameen-Danone company produces a delicious yogurt for children and sells it at a price affordable to the poor. This yogurt is fortified with all the micro-nutrients which are missing in the children’s ordinary diet vitamins, iron, zinc, iodine, etc. If a child eats two cups of yogurt a week over a period of eight to nine months, the child gets all the micro-nutrients he or she needs and becomes a healthy, playful child.
As a social business, Grameen-Danone follows the basic principle that it must be self-sustaining, and the owners must remain committed never to take any dividend beyond the return of the original amount they invested. The success of the company will be judged each year not by the amount of profit generated, but by the number of children getting out of malnutrition in that particular year.
Many other big companies are now approaching us to create social businesses jointly with us. They want to create joint ventures with Grameen because they want to make sure that it is done the right way. Once they become experienced in social business, they will take the concept wherever the need exists.
We have a joint-venture social business with Veolia, a large French water company. The Grameen-Veolia Water Company was created to bring safe drinking water in the villages of Bangladesh where arsenic contamination of water is a huge problem. Villagers are buying water from the company at an affordable price instead of drinking contaminated water.
BASF of Germany has signed a joint-venture agreement to produce chemically treated mosquito-nets in Bangladesh as a social business. The BASF-Grameen joint-venture company will produce and sell these mosquito-nets as cheaply as possible to make it affordable to the poorest. The company will have to be self-sustaining, but there is no intention of taking any profit out of the company beyond the amount invested.
Our joint-venture social business with Intel Corporation, Grameen-Intel, aims at using information and communication technology to help solve the problems of the rural poor—for example, by providing health care in the villages.
Our joint-venture with Adidas aims at producing shoes for the lowest income people at an affordable price. The goal of the Grameen-Adidas company is to make sure that no one, child or adult, goes without shoes. This is a health intervention to make sure that people in the rural areas, particularly children, do not have to suffer from parasitic diseases that can be transmitted through walking barefoot.
Grameen-Otto is planning to set up a garment factory as a social business in collaboration with Otto, a large chain store and mail-order company of Germany. Profit of the company will be used for the improvement of the quality of lives of the employees, their children, and the poor of the neighbourhood.
As these examples show, social business is not just a pleasant idea. It is a reality, one that is already beginning to make positive changes in people’s lives.
Many more social businesses are on the way. One attractive area of social businesses will be in creating jobs in special locations or for particularly disadvantaged people. Since a social business company operates free from the pressure of earning profit for the owners, the scope of investment opportunities is much greater than with profit-maximizing companies. Profit-maximizing companies need to be assured of a certain minimum level of return on investment before they'll invest and create jobs. A social business does not need to fulfill such a condition. It can easily invest below that level and go down even to near- zero profit level, and, in the process open up opportunities for creating jobs for many people, which exciting area of social business is in afforestation. Forests are being denuded all around the world by individuals, greedy businesses and in some cases by government officials who are paid by the tax-payers to protect the forests. This is having a documented negative impact on climate change. Planting trees across huge tracts of land could be an excellent area for social business This opportunity, we cannot afford to ignore for saving our planet.
Healthcare is another highly potential area for social business. Public delivery of healthcare in most cases is inefficient and often fails to reach the people who need it the most. Private healthcare caters to the needs of high-income people. The big empty space between the two can be filled by social businesses.
In Bangladesh, Grameen Healthcare company is trying to create social businesses to fill this gap in the healthcare system. We are trying to develop a prototype of health management centres in the villages to keep healthy people healthy by concentrating on prevention and offering diagnostic and health check-up services, health insurance services, etc. We are making efforts to take advantage of universal availability of mobile phones. We are in the process of working with leading manufacturers to design diagnostic equipment that can transmit images and data in real time to city-based health experts.
Grameen Healthcare is in the process of setting up of a series of Nursing Colleges as social business to train girls from Grameen Bank families as nurses. Bangladesh has an enormous shortage of nursing professionals. The global shortage of nurses is also quite enormous. There is no reason why vast number of young girls should be sitting around in the villages while these attractive job opportunities are going unfilled.
Grameen Healthcare is also planning to set up secondary and tertiary health facilities, all designed as social businesses. To train a new generation of doctors to staff our social business healthcare facilities, Grameen Healthcare plans to establish a University of Health Sciences and Technology.
Many other segments of health care are appropriate for building successful social businesses--nutrition, water, health insurance, health education and training, eye-care, mother and childcare, diagnostic services, etc. It will take time to develop the prototypes. But once creative minds come up with the design for a social business and a prototype is developed successfully, it can be replicated endlessly.
Designing each small social business is like developing a seed. Once the seed is developed, anybody can plant it wherever it is needed. Since each unit is self-sustaining, funding does not become a constraint.
Putting Today’s Powerful Technology to Work
The world today is in possession of amazingly powerful technology. That technology is growing very fast, becoming more powerful every day. Almost all of this technology is owned and controlled by profit-making businesses. All they use this technology for is to make more money, because that is the mandate given to them by their shareholders. Imagine what we can achieve if we use of this same technology to solve the problems of the people!
Technology is a kind of vehicle. One can drive it to any destination one wants. Since the present owners of technology want to travel to the peaks of profit-making, technology takes them there. If somebody else decides to use the existing technology to end poverty, it will take the owner in that direction. If another owner wants to use it to end diseases, technology will go there. The choice is ours. Present theoretical framework does not give this choice. Inclusion of social business creates this choice.
One more point to ponder – there will be no need to make an either/or choice. Using technology for one purpose doesn’t make it less effective for serving a different purpose. Actually, it is the other way around. The more diverse use we make of technology, the more powerful it gets. Using technology for solving social problems will not reduce its effectiveness for money-making use, but rather enhance it.
The owners of social businesses can direct the power of technology to solve our growing list of social and economic problems, and get quick results.
We May Create Social Stock Markets
Once the concept of social business becomes widely known, creative people will come forward with attractive designs for social businesses. Young people will develop business plans to address the most difficult social problems through social businesses. The good ideas will need to be funded. I am happy to say there are already initiatives in Europe and Japan to create Social Business Funds to provide equity and loan support to social businesses.
In time, more sources of funding will be needed. Each level of government—international, national, state, and city—can create Social Business Funds to encourage citizens and companies to create social businesses designed to address specific social problems (unemployment, health, sanitation, pollution, old age, drug, crime, disadvantaged groups the disabled, etc). Bilateral and multi-lateral donors can create Social Business Funds. Foundations can earmark a percentage of their funds to support social businesses. Businesses can use their social responsibility budgets to fund social businesses.
We'll soon need to create a separate stock market for social businesses to make it easy for small investors to invest in social businesses. Only social businesses will be listed in this Social Stock Market. Investors will know right from the beginning that they'll never receive any dividends when they invest in social stock market. Their motivation will be to enjoy the pride and pleasure of helping to solve difficult social problems.
Social business gives everybody the opportunity to participate in creating the kind of world that we all want to see. Thanks to the concept of social business, citizens don't have to leave all problems in the hands of the government and then spend their lives criticizing the government for failing to solve them. Now citizens have a completely new space in which to mobilize their creativity and talent for solving the problem of our time. Seeing the effectiveness of social business governments may decide to create their own social businesses or partner with citizen-run social businesses, and/or incorporate the lessons from the social businesses to improve the effectiveness of their own programmes.
Governments will have an important role to play in the promotion of social business. They will need to pass legislation to give legal recognition to social business and create regulatory bodies to ensure that transparency, integrity, and honesty are ensured in the social business sector. They can also provide tax incentives for investing in social businesses as well as for social businesses themselves.
The Power of Dreams
The wonderful promise of social business makes it all the more important that we re-define and broaden our present economic framework. We need a new way of thinking about economics that is not prone to creating series of crises; instead, it should be capable of ending the crises once for all. Now is the time for bold and creative thinking—and we need to move fast, because the world is changing fast. The first piece of this new framework must be to accommodate social business as an integral part of the economic structure.
In this context let me raise another question.
What will the world be like twenty or fifty years from now? More specifically, what will South Asia be like? It’s fascinating to speculate about this. But I think an even more important question is: What do we want the world, and specifically South Asia, to be like twenty years or fifty years from today?
The difference has great significance. In the first formulation, we see ourselves as passive viewers of unfolding events. In the second, we see ourselves as active creators of a desired outcome.
I think it is time to take charge of our future rather than accept it passively. We spend too much time and talent in predicting the future, and not enough on imagining the future that we would love to see. And even so, we don’t do a very good job of predicting the future. With all our wisdom, expertise, and experience, we repeatedly fail to imagine the amazing changes that history continues to throw our way.
Think back to the 1940s. Nobody then predicted that, within fifty years, Europe would become a borderless political entity with a single currency. Nobody predicted that the Berlin Wall would fall even a week before it happened. Nobody predicted that the Soviet Union would disintegrate and that so many independent countries would emerge out of it so fast.
On the technology front, we see the same thing. In the sixties, no one predicted that a global network of computers called the Internet would soon be taking the world by storm. No one predicted that lap-tops, palm-tops, Blackberries, iPods, iPhones, and Kindles would be in the hands of millions. Even twenty years ago, no one was predicting that mobile phones would become an integral part of life in every village of the world.
Let's admit it, we could not predict the world of 2010 even from 1990 - a span of only 20 years. Does this give us any credibility in predicting the world of 2030 today, given the fact that each day the speed of change in the world is getting faster and faster?
If we have to make predictions, there are probably two ways to go about it. One would be to invite the best scientific, technical, and economic analysts in the world to make their smartest 20 year projections. Another would be to ask our most brilliant science fiction writers around the world to imagine the world of 2030. If you ask me who has the best chance of coming closer to the reality of 2030, without pausing for a second I'd say that the science-fiction writers will be far closer to the reality of 2030 than the expert analysts.
The reason is very simple. Experts are trained to make forecasts on the basis of the past and present, but events in the real world are driven by the dreams of people.
We can describe the world of 2030 by preparing a wish-list. This wish-list will describe the kind of world we would like to create by 2030. That's what we should prepare for.
Dreams are made out of impossibles. We cannot reach the impossibles by using the analytical minds which are trained to deal with hard information which is currently available. These minds are fitted with flashing red lights to warn us about obstacles that we may face. We’ll have to put our minds in a different mode when we think about our future. We’ll have to dare to make bold leaps to make the impossibles possible. As soon as one impossible becomes possible, it shakes up the structure and creates a domino effect, preparing the ground for making many other impossibles possible.
We'll have to believe in our wish-list if we hope to make it come true. We'll have to create appropriate concepts, institutions, technologies, and policies to achieve our goals. The more impossible the goals look, the more exciting the task becomes.
Fortunately for us, we have entered into an age when dreams have the best chance to come true. We must organise the present to allow an easy entry to the future of our dreams. We must not let our past stand in the way.
Let’s dream that by 2030 we'll create a well-functioning South Asian Union. There will be no visas required, no customs officials limiting travel among the South Asian countries. There will be a common flag, along side our national flags, a common currency, and a large area of common domestic and international policies.
Let's dream that by 2030 we'll make South Asia the first poverty-free region of the world. Let’s prepare to challenge the world to find a poor person anywhere in South Asia.
Let’s dream that by 2030 South Asia will set up a reliable state-of-the-art healthcare system that will provide affordable care for all people.
Let's dream that by 2030 we'll create a robust financial system to provide easy access to financial services to every single person in South Asia.
Let’s dream that by 2030 the first career choice for every child growing up in South Asia will not be to work for some company but to launch his or her own enterprise.
And let’s dream that by 2030 we'll have a range of creative and effective social businesses working throughout South Asia to solve all the remaining social problems.
Do all these dreams sound impossible? If they do, that means they are likely to come true if we believe in them and work for them. That’s what the history of the last fifty years teaches us.
So let’s agree to believe in these dreams, and dedicate ourselves to making these impossibles possible.