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Muhammad Yunus at JLF 2018: Poverty in the world is a solvable problem

Nobel laureate Dr Mohammad Yunus believes the prevalent system of capitalism is wrong and needs to be fixed. He was speaking about his new book, A World of Three Zones at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 26, 2018 14:06 IST
Vidya Subramanian
Vidya Subramanian
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Jaipur Literature Festival,Jaipur Literature Festival 2018,JLF 2018
Using bonsai as an explanation for micro credit, Nobel laureate Mohammad Yunus said during his session with Mihir Sharma at the Jaipur Literature Festival said, “If you take the seed of the largest tree in the forest, and plant it in a small flower pot, it will not grow to be a big and mighty tree.”(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

He’s an affable man, mild mannered, with a ready smile and a mischievous look, like he’s just about to crack a naughty joke. Dr Muhammad Yunus is also trained economist, founder of the Gramin Bank, a Nobel laureate and the man who believes that poverty is a solvable problem.

In a session about his new book, A World of Three Zeroes: the new economics of zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon emissions, he speaks about the origins of the enterprise in Bangladesh, “It was to protect people from loan sharks in the village,” he says simply. He jokes about how they translated the Bangla word for it into “micro credit”. “But maybe the terminology was wrong,” he says, “Maybe I should have called it ‘nano credit’, because the sums were so small.”

For full coverage of Jaipur Literature Festival, click here

It was these tiny amounts of money that he sometimes paid out of his own pocket to those at the lowest end of the economic spectrum that helped stave off hunger and poverty for millions in Bangladesh and around the world. The bank now has over 9 million borrowers, he tells the audience with some pride. 97% of them are women – illiterate women.

He speaks of social entrepreneurship as the practiced ease of someone who has been doing this for as long as he has. “If you take the seed of the largest tree in the forest, and plant it in a small flower pot, it will not grow to be a big and mighty tree,” he says, using bonsai as an explanation for micro credit. “This is not because there’s something wrong with the plant, but because it doesn’t have enough soil to grow.”

All humans are creative entrepreneurs, Yunus argues. The present concept of capitalism cannot accommodate the concept of social entrepreneurship because at the heart of the capitalist philosophy is the idea that human beings are inherently selfish, and will only work for their own greed. This system needs to be fixed. If everyone was an entrepreneur, then no one could exploit each other, he suggests.

Mihir Sharma, his interlocutor speaks for many in the audience when he points to the optimism of the book in which Yunus suggests solutions to three of humanity’s biggest problems, and says how different it is from all the doomsday predictions that we have almost become used to reading. Yunus maintains that optimism throughout the session, as he speaks of trust, and points out that there is no legal document between Gramin Bank and the borrowers, and there never will be.

Muhammad Yunus was in conversation with Mihir S. Sharma during ‘The Three Zeros’ session presented by Aga Khan Foundation at the JLF. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

When asked what he feels about a universal basic income, in which every citizen is paid a certain amount of money for basic needs, he retorts, “I feel awful.” When a human being is an endlessly creative person, with the ability to work for herself and for others, why would they want to live on welfare, he asks. By giving people welfare, one takes away a person’s ability to be an independent, creative human being.

He does not like the idea of micro credit being used as a vehicle for profit, either. Venture capital without a need for profit is the “right” kind of micro credit. But there is also a “wrong” micro credit, he insists. Using micro credit ventures to make profits off the poor, he insists is “wrong”. “Micro credit business is not for profit,” he says, aghast, “You’ll end up becoming the loan shark we were trying to save people from.”

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First Published: Jan 26, 2018 14:05 IST