In the opening lines of his new book, A World of Three Zeroes, Muhammad Yunus reminds the reader that, in 2010, Oxfam reported that ‘the world’s richest 388 people owned more wealth than the entire bottom half of the world population (3.3 billion human beings)’. Yunus then updates us with the latest 2017 data from Oxfam: the richest half has shrunk to just eight people, and the poorer half has grown to 3.6 billion.
Yunus suggests that this continuing trend of gross inequality in respect of the world’s wealth is dangerous. Such inequality threatens social cohesion, and is therefore ultimately a matter of sustainability for humanity. In this regard, Yunus and his work are in absolute alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, he is a UN special advocate for the 2030 SDGs.
Dubbed the ‘banker to the poor’, Professor Muhammad Yunus, Bangladeshi economist and Nobel laureate, was recently in Australia. Now in his seventies, he was ostensibly here to catch up in Melbourne with a local partner, the Monash Sustainable Development Institute (at Monash University). Opportunist that he is, he also took time out for an Australian launch of his book, A World of Three Zeroes.
Across the planet, Yunus has courted, by way of telling his story, leading universities as a conduit to government, business, and the wider community. His pro-development message for the world’s poor was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, acknowledging his establishment in the early 1970s of the Grameen bank, and his pioneering concept of micro-finance for the poor.
A World of Three Zeroes (zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions) is a good summary of Yunus’s life work. His message is that a pathway to the ‘three zeroes’ can be discerned through his work with the Grameen Bank, micro-finance, and the concept of social business. He defines a social business as a social enterprise, a business that is financially sustainable while also providing good outcomes for those suffering social disadvantage and inequality.
The word ‘Grameen’ in the Bangla language means ‘village bank’. The Grameen Bank commenced in the 1970s, along with the micro-finance concept, not ideologically, but from life-and-death practical necessity in Yunus’s native Bangladesh and other poor nations. As at 2016, the Grameen Bank model has lent over US$2.5 billion, and was operating in more than 100 countries.
The surprising success of the Grameen Bank
Loans are made predominantly to poor women who are invariably locked out of regular finance arrangements. The relatively small loans are made only on the basis of trust, with no formal collateral in place. Yunus argues (with factual hindsight) that poor people within the Grameen Bank system, ‘especially poor women, are highly creditworthy, actually repaying their loans at a higher rate than in conventional banking’.
This microfinance concept of Yunus has been a tool for promoting entrepreneurship, and a way forward from poverty, leading to self-employment for millions, hence his focus on a future of zero unemployment. His movement has proved that initiative in business need not be the preserve of those capitalised via the regular commercial banking system. Since its inception in 1976, micro-finance ‘has grown into a worldwide movement that has helped over 300 million poor families’ to establish their own small businesses.
Yunus highlights that, even in wealthy nations, there are ‘large numbers of people stuck in poverty’. While micro-finance has it origin among developing countries, the Yunus model is now established across the world. Grameen America in 2017 had nineteen branches across the USA, lending more than US$600 million to poor women, with a repayment rate in excess of 99 percent.
Are zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions really possible?
If we look to business in the West today, we can note profound changes. If over the past 10-15 years, you have as a player invested in traditional fossil fuels, mining and extraction, or non-sustainable utilities, you will have had a tough time.
Despite Tony Abbott and other dinosaurs still roaming the planet, there is clear attraction in the new horizon of sustainability – cleaner energy and transport, environmental services including water management, recycling, and much more. Woodside (WPL), the largest operator of oil and gas production in Australia, recently committed to sustainability. Its latest annual report identifies five of the UN SDGs to which they will seek to make a meaningful contribution.
The success of the Yunus narrative itself is indicative that change is possible. Some of the breakthroughs in alleviating poverty and inequality include a climate-risk insurance program for developing world farmers, the installation of solar home systems for some 12 million Bangladeshis, many food and health programs, and the supply across developing countries of a pre-loaded computer (obviating the need for internet connectivity) at a cost of US$50. There are also many examples of fine business collaboration between the Yunus momentum and multinational corporations.
We live in hope.
Gary Harkin is a member of SPC.