By Nyambura Mutanyi
It’s taken for granted that one will grow old and lose a sense of idealism. Grow jaded, one may say. We have grown to accept that aid doesn’t work and compassion fatigue is real. Maybe it shouldn’t be so, Yunus argues. From the Banker to the Poor comes ‘Creating a World Without Poverty’; a thesis that seeks to reconcile the world order with the goal of putting an end to poverty.
Yunus posits that the panacea to poverty is a new business paradigm. Social business, he calls it. As you read his description of it, the idealist in you (who, it turns out, didn’t leave) starts to perk up. And with good cause. He delivers an idea that bears an elegant simplicity. It is important, in his opinion, to rethink the way business is carried out and social business may just be the way to solve society’s issues.
A common feature of big business everywhere is the world is the idea of the ‘double bottom line’-the notion that a company should be able to make profit while making a social difference. As attractive as that may sound this book presents it as an idyll that is well nigh impossible. Capitalism in and of itself can be the engine that drives change without pushing for this double bottom line. Yunus started Grameen Bank after a stint teaching economics at university level in the United States and in his native Bangladesh. This is no light assertion from a man who has an advanced understanding of the economic system that most of the world is pivoted on.
Poverty, Yunus argued when he and Grameen Bank received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2006, is a threat to peace. A prescient book, it foresaw the events of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement. A key factor mentioned in all of these protests is the state of the economy-its workings and failings-and the need to overturn the system. Climate change, overconsumption and the marginalization of those that constitute half of the world’s people are the fruits of the greed that is the tree of capitalism. Humanity desires the best for each other, this book counters, and offers up a way in which the goodness of people can be reconciled with the mechanics of capitalism. While it acknowledges that capitalism and globalization may be the mechanisms that have set up these condition this book’s thrust is that they can be turned on its head to fix these issues. Enter social business.
A key premise of social business is the co-operation that is possible between corporations and those interested in an end to poverty. This is not a fancy foundation, though-a description of the workings of this new business model makes that quite clear. The business is different from other profit making businesses in that its stated goal is to lift people out of poverty through the provision of socially-conscious products and services sold in the market. An idea that quite easily lends itself to abstraction, Yunus holds up Grameen Danone (a social business started by Grameen Bank) as an exemplar model of how it works as well as the challenges that may be encountered on business and legislative levels.
Social business is revolutionary idea. The needs of a community can be served in the framework of capitalism, it seems. Aid, as Dambisa Moyo and others have argued in the recent past, does not empower the people and Yunus pushes for a shift from donations to investment. The business of aid is largely immoral not just in the way it works but also in its ability to take away some of the very humanity of both aid workers and those for whom the aid is intended. Technology and the mainstreaming of gender are key factors in the workings of social business and this book manages to situate these issues in a way that shows how they can be exploited to bring people out of poverty.
This book espouses the ethos of Grameen Bank: The poor can be trusted with money and capitalism can be the engine that powers them out of poverty. This is a departure from the commonly accepted idea that capitalism locks out the poor and a brave new egalitarian world is needed. He diagnoses some of the matters that seem to negate the work of the micro finance sector amongst which are interest rates that are usurious to say the least. In a hard-hitting analysis of micro finance institutions (MFIs), he presents a balanced view of what ails them. This is a refreshing aspect of this book; the ability to hold up a mirror to his core mission and point out just how good intentions don’t always seem to translate into great execution.
Yunus insists on the need to stay true to the microcredit ethos and suggests the radical overhaul of the workings of MFIs to better allow them to succeed. The role of MFIs, he insists, is to lift people out of poverty. To not achieve this goal will be to fail the poor. This is a chilling way to think of it especially in a world where the European debt crisis assails us on a daily basis with tales of woe. While acknowledging the many permutations of poverty across the globe, Yunus presents a set of measures that put the need to take people out of poverty in relief.
Bangladesh reads a lot like Africa. Widespread poverty, government systems that fail to serve the entire populace and a large population that faces natural disasters often. The descriptions of poverty in this book are more poignant for their familiarity. These are not the stories one reads in magazines about far-off places. In a place like Kenya, a continent like Africa, this is what life is for many. It’s not all gloom and doom, though; for all the heart-wrenching descriptions of poverty, this book offers a highly readable sliver of hope.
This book acknowledges the utopian quality of a business that will be a break from the usual; one that demands so much from people’s imaginations. People need to buy into the notion of social business and a successful uptake of this idea will eventually lead to the linking of business with poverty reduction in a way that is beneficial to all the bodies involved. An incisive read, it sells an idea whose time, it seems, is now. Huxley once wrote of a brave new world well on its path to implosion; Yunus might just have written the blueprint for one that thrives.
Publisher: Public Affairs
Year published: 2007
Price: Kshs. 2,500