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‘A World Of No Poverty Starts With Young People’: Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

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By Devanshi Vaid and Smarinita Shetty:

Banker, economist, and humanitarian, Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, fueled by the belief that credit is a fundamental human right. Having pioneered the concept of microfinance in 1983, he then went on to set up Yunus Social Business in 2011 to foster entrepreneurship, especially among the young. 

In this interview with IDR, Professor Yunus discusses the very definition of success, the power of technology, the role of governments, and most importantly, imagining the impossible.

Q: You believe that we must move towards a world of three zeroes — zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero net carbon emissions. What will it take to make these three zeroes happen?

Photo courtesy: Nasir Ali Mamun/Yunus Centre

In my opinion, a world of three zeroes starts with young people. In order for them to be successful, we have to challenge the fundamentals on which the economic system as we know it is built, and then redesign it.

For example, how do we interpret ‘human being’ in our economic system? Because that assumption is what we build the whole structure on. Right now, we have created an image of an economic human. This economic human is defined as someone who is driven by self-interest. And accordingly, we have built the system based on this. We are trained in school, at home, in the workplace, to make money. So, we keep making money, and that’s how we define success. This is how we have pushed good human beings into limited people who only run after money.

I believe that this fundamental image of an economic human is wrong. There is a gap between ‘real human’ and ‘economic human’. And who is this ‘real human’? There is one basic difference—you say they are selfish, I say they are both selfish and selfless. And when you redefine the image like that, then suddenly the whole structure becomes different.
This is why young people are so important.

I have a lot of faith in the young for a simple reason: ‘young’ means that their minds are still fresh; so their mind space is not occupied—it is still up for lining up with fresh ideas, and we don’t know what they will be. What we are trying to do, is give them different options to choose from.

That’s why we focus on the universities. When universities teach courses on social business, the youth become aware that this kind of a business can exist. They begin to understand that selflessness can go hand in hand with business, and that if you want to change the world, this is the way to do it.

And just like that, they have been given an option, which is something the present system does not allow. They now get to decide. They will grow up with this new idea of a human being, and the possibility of a new economic system, and make it happen.

Understand the power of technology and use it well.

Technology is moving in such a way, that most impossible things have become possible. Today I tell the young people—look, you have Aladdin’s lamp in your hand. Literally, you can take your phone, touch it, and a digital genie comes out and asks what they can do for you. And you just have to say it—you want a song, you want to find a restaurant—any of these big or small things can be done in an instant. I tell them, ask your genie for big things, giant things, and to not limit yourself to daily little needs.

So, I tell them to be aware of the power that they are holding, of the power in their gadgets. Once they become aware of the power they have, then they can start to think about how they want to use it. And it’s important that they use the power of technology to the fullest.

To use it to the fullest, they have to imagine what they want. If you don’t imagine, you don’t know what to ask for—you will say okay, I want my breakfast, and then that’s what you get—you could have brought the wealth of the whole world to you, but you didn’t ask for it, you just said, give me breakfast.

You need to imagine the impossible.

Imagination is what changes things. It is the starting point. If we imagine, only then it will happen. If we don’t imagine it, there is no way it will happen.

That is why science fiction is so important. Science fiction is all imagination. All kinds of silly, funny things—we laugh at them. They seem so impossible that we don’t pay attention to them. But science fiction drives technology. What we see today was in movie scripts many years ago. And today, it’s our reality.

Photo courtesy: Yunus Social Business

That’s why I ask—why don’t we have social fiction? We are so good at writing science fiction, why don’t we try social fiction—bold ideas about human beings living together in a completely different way. Let us imagine the things we think are impossible. The fact that we imagine it, write it down, that will make it happen. Someone will watch it and say, yes we can do that, it is possible.

We pretend as if society is fixed. We keep saying that this is the way things are. But we don’t write social fiction. We pretend as if society is fixed. We keep saying that this is the way things are. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s the way things are because that’s what it’s been traditionally. What if we changed it? What if we said, this is not the way we live, we have no markets, we don’t have currency, we have something else altogether. And suddenly things become interesting. Because fiction created something and now it became reality.

So that’s the power—of imagination, of youth, of technology. And I say, in the transformation of the world, social business is that power. Once you introduce the idea of human beings being selfless and selfish, there is so much power, and that power brings with it the capacity to make change happen. If you insist on looking at money alone, no matter how you try, you will not get there.

And we need to change things. If we don’t, and we continue to go down this path, things will get worse until we have destroyed the planet. So, before we get to that point, let’s be aware, let’s look at ourselves and see what we can do.

You cannot go to a new destination with old roads. And as I always say, you cannot go to a new destination with old roads. You have to build new roads to get to the new destination. So don’t cling to the old roads, don’t try to tinker with them, to fix them, they cannot and will not take us to the new destination.

Q: You’re a big proponent of companies driving some of this change. What’s the role you see them playing, especially in a country like India?

When I look at companies, I see them not as entities, but as people. After all, companies are made up of people—people who run them, people who own them. If we could somehow talk to these people, and show them that they have this combination of selfishness and selflessness in themselves, then they too would question their work. They would wonder why they are only fulfilling the dollar (selfish) part of themselves and not the global (selfless) part. And once they start thinking like that, they begin thinking about how their businesses can be both, dollar and world oriented.

These people within companies, I see them as allies. And when they begin acting on the selfless parts of themselves, other companies too will look at them and want to replicate what they are doing.

Q: And governments?

Governments are very important because they can level the playing ground. They can remove hurdles, inspire people, and make space for the real power and capacity that is within each person for change. Human beings have unlimited creative opportunity, and it’s the government’s job to unleash that.

It doesn’t take everybody to change the world, one person is enough. It doesn’t take everybody to change the world, one person is enough. It takes one person to see things differently, open the door, and show people that there is another way. Microfinance is an example of seeing things differently, as is technology. Technology is not something we have to hold a big rally for, with a million people getting together. One person does it their way, it works, and just like that everybody else has it a little easier.

And that’s the government’s job—to make it possible for that one person who sees things differently to open the door for others. We elect the government and we give them power to facilitate our ideas, and to do the things that we cannot do individually. We want to reach a destination, and we ask that they build the roads to get us there.

Q: What would you like India to do?

When it comes to India, the financial system is designed in the wrong manner as it is in other countries. If you design it right, everybody will have access to financial services, and they can be empowered.

How do you know if you are doing the financial system right? It’s very simple. Do you have loan sharks? Do you have pawn shops? Do you have people borrowing money from friends? This shows a lack of access to the system. If the system exists, these alternatives wouldn’t. The system would make it much easier for people to do business on their own terms, without being dependent on anybody.

If you design it right, everybody will have access to financial services. The other thing that the government can do is to create a separate banking setup that takes care of the unbanked people, but do it as a social business. Do it with a lens of being selfless, not because you can make yourself rich, but because you want to solve problems.

Imagine this: Any license the government gives, is a social business license. A license is a very powerful thing—it means you can make billions of dollars from it. I’m saying, that the moment the government issues any license, any privilege, they should make a condition—you have to build a social business of certain size in order to qualify for this license. Essentially, any license, that any government gives should be a social business license. If businesses want to compete with that, let them.

Because essentially, we did not elect governments to make other people rich. We gave them power so they could help us. And what they have done is, they’ve used our power to make somebody else a superpower. If they insist that any license or privilege that they give be used for a social business, we will see change. We’ll be on our way to building a new society, a new world.


About the authors:

Devanshi Vaid: Devanshi is Co-founder and Director at IDR. Prior to this, she worked at Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation. As a part of the advisory research team, she conceptualised, planned and implemented their first comprehensive dissemination strategy. She was responsible for new media partnerships and was closely involved with the organisation’s efforts on digital content. Prior to Dasra, Devanshi was a news producer at Times Now, where she co-produced The Newshour–the country’s leading prime time show. She holds a BA in English Literature from Bryn Mawr College.

Smarinita Shetty: Smarinita is Co-founder and CEO at IDR. She has more than 20 years of experience leading functions across strategy, operations, sales and business development, largely in startup environments within corporates and social enterprises. Prior to IDR, Smarinita worked at Dasra, Monitor Inclusive Markets (now FSG), JP Morgan and The Economic Times. She also co-founded Netscribes–India’s first knowledge process outsourcing firm. Her work and opinion have been featured in The Economist, Times of India, Mint and The Economic Times. Smarinita has a BE in Computer Engineering and an MBA in Finance, both from Mumbai University.

This article was originally published on India Development Review. You can view it here.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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