Nobel economist Muhammad Yunus proves, both in theory and practice, that selflessness can be a driver of growth. The self-seeking model of capitalist economic system only concentrates wealth and creates unequal growth.
A World of Three Zeros
By Muhammad Yunus
Hachette India, Gurugram
Year 2018; Price 499, Page 266.
Reviewed by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
We live in an unequal world. Of course, democracy, wherever it prevails, offers every adult a vote. But that is where the common man’s participation in decision-making ends. The overwhelming concentration of wealth in a few countries, and even more dangerously, in the hands of a few individuals, is leading to the concentration of power with these nations and individuals. The greater the wealth of the few, the greater the gap between them and the impoverished masses. No wonder then why anger, distrust and resentment are rising between nations and movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ‘Arab Spring’ have smudged the copybook of democracies and dictators alike.
Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh tears the deceptive faÃ§ade of the ‘Free market’ and capitalism in his latest book A World of Three Zeros. According to him, a more equal world would be one where poverty, unemployment and carbon emission (from increasing manufacturing activity) would be brought down to zero.
Oxfam, a conglomeration of 18 international NGOs, has been highlighting wealth concentration periodically. If the latest report is to be believed, 388 richest men in the world own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the world i.e., 3.6 billion people. In January 2017, it reported that the ultra-privileged group had shrunk to just eight people. Of these, five men are well-known and well-respected. They are American business leaders like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Jeff Bezos, as well as a few from other countries such as Amancio Ortega of Spain and Carlos Slim Helu of Mexico.
Concentration of wealth means concentration of political power through control of the media, public opinion, research institutions that write laws for the legislators, banks and lobbies that use disproportionate influence with political parties. The governments play second fiddle to these powerful multinationals. If proof is required, look at US senator Bernie Sanders words:”The richest 0.1% of the Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%, a claim supported by research data from National Bureau of Economic Research. Walton family of Walmart has more wealth than the bottom 40% of the US population owns.”
Not necessarily ill-gotten
These wealthy men are not necessarily bad. Most of them have not manipulated the system to garner the wealth. There are good and compassionate people among them who practice philanthropy. But the basic frightening reality is that wealth concentration is an all-but-inevitable nonstop process under the present economic system and there is no escape from it. They may even be paying taxes honestly. All that it boils down to is that even if the profit maximization is not their goal, they get rich because of the system.
So, the malady is rooted in the neoclassical theory of economics, which is based on the belief that a human being is basically a personal-gain-seeking being. It assumes that maximizing personal profit is the core of economic rationality. But not all the men are selfish. Otherwise there would not have been people who would be taking up jobs as teachers, nurses, firefighters, mentors, counselors and social workers. This means there are people who are not driven by selfish interest. There are perhaps as many people who are selfless as those who are selfish.
Grameen Bank’s Success
Yunus’ world famous Grameen Bank was founded on these principles, where honesty, integrity and sincerity of common men, nay women, was the cornerstone. They needed small capital which the conventional banks would not lend. The investors would only take back their original investments. No collateral or guarantees were sought. No legal documents were demanded. Creditworthiness needed no proof.
Yunus hailed from the small village of Jobra and taught economics at a college. His idea of Grameen Bank did not find favour with conventional finance experts. But he made it possible. Today, Grameen Bank of Bangladesh lends out over US $2.5 billion a year to nine million poor women on the basis of trust only. It enjoys a repayment rate of 98.96%. Grameen American has 19 branches in 12 US cities with 86,000 borrowers, all women, who receive business startup loans averaging around $ 4,100. So far, Grameen American has disbursed loans to the tune of $600 million, and the repayment rate is over 99%. In 2016, the social business funds of the Garmeen were annually creating around 1,000 new businesses for rural unemployed youth.
Not very real
Today GDP is the measurement of success of economy of nations. It is flawed because it measures all those activities that result into exchange of money but keeps out those where money is not involved. If a bread is sold or a man travels by a car or an automobile, it boosts the GDP. But activities like a woman rolling rotis at home”in fact 90% of us in developing countries survive on these flat breads rolled and baked by our womenfolk”or a man using a bicycle, do not add up to the GDP. Conversely, harmful activities like manufacturing of arms is factored into the GDP.
Yunus pleads for a shift and advocates ‘netting out’ the harms done to human being from the GDP measurement. Just because this measurement would be a bit difficult should not lead to its abandonment.
Everyone is an entrepreneur
The current banking system aids concentration of wealth. It must cease to do that and needs to be replaced with institutions that deliver financial services to the poor. Secondly, the idea that only selfishness drives entrepreneurship needs to be given up. Motivations of both kinds i.e., selfishness and selflessness, foster economic progress. Thirdly, all men and women are born entrepreneurs, packed with unlimited creative capabilities, and their energies must be channelized.
Yunus floated the idea of ‘Social Business’ under Grameen Bank’s Nobin Udyokta Program and encouraged thousands of people, mainly women, to set up small business. In January 2013, the Yunus Centre in Dhaka organized the first Social Business Design Lab, which attract business executives, social activists, NGO leaders, academics, students and design businesses. Over the next four years, nearly 16,000 new entrepreneurs had their business plans approved and received advice and guidance as well as $21 million in investment funding through these labs. It took him to Bosnia to fund the efforts of Paris-based Bosnian refugee Nadira Mingasson to organize 300 female knitters into Udruzene (literally meaning ‘unified women’) and finding them a marketplace in fashion plazas of the West Europe. Countless such initiatives followed.
Climate change affects Bangladesh disproportionately. The country contributes only 0.3% to the carbon emissions. But global warming and consequent rise in sea level to say, one metre, would flood 19% of its land area. Yunus was increasingly getting perturbed at Bangladesh’s precarious existence against the sea’s ravages. The nation sprawls on a total area of 1,43,000 sq. kms., with 15 crore humanity cramming the space.
Yunus dubs the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection a false assumption. There are ways to grow sustainably. Grameen Shakti launched renewable energy business in Bangladesh in 1996. By 2007, it had installed one lakh solar panels system in homes throughout Bangladesh. It celebrated the one millionth solar home system in Jan. 2013, and by 2017 the number of homes they serve has now surpassed 1.8 million. It encouraged other organizations to compete with Grameen Shakti. It supplied around half a million improved home cookstoves which reduce in-house pollution.
Elsewhere, Yunus collaborated with Richard Branson of Virgin business family to reforest Haiti; the Yunus Social Business (YSB) launched collection of plastic trash in Uganda and converting it into grow-bags and construction sheets; produced ecoStove and Briketi briquettes for homes and hotels; launched Impact Water to supply water refined in ceramic filters to schools. These programmes were meant to prove that clean growth is not a fantasy but a reality.
Amid the deluge of depressing news from all around, the ever active man called Muhammad Yunus has been a source of hope for the underfed and unwashed multitudes world over. His work across the nations exemplifies the indomitable human spirit that refuses to yield to frustration and despair.
The richest 0.1% of the Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%, a claim supported by research data from National Bureau of Economic Research. Walton family of Walmart has more wealth the bottom 40% of the US population. (Quoted by Senator Bernie Sanders)
Food Going Waste
Today, experts say that more than 30% of the food that we produce”an estimated 1.3 billion metric tons annually”goes uneaten due to waste, even as more than 800 million people suffer from hunger and malnutrition. At the same time, the world’s population is forecast to grow from 7 billion to 9.6 billion during the next 35 years, placing our agricultural resources under even greater pressure.
In Colombia, farmers cannot sell 20% of the potato crops because these potatoes are not of the proper shape for making French fries or chips. They are not fit for the machines used in the processing factories run by companies like McCain. Another 6% of the crop remains under the ground because ordinary harvesting machines miss these potatoes. As a result one fourth of the actual crop produced does not get to consumers”a major waste of food.
30% of the vegetables produced in Europe are wasted because they are born with irregular or even “grotesque” shapes. They are known in the business as ugly vegetables as they do not fit into the perfect military formations we see in supermarket displays, and so they are rejected, although they are perfectly edible and full of nutritional value.
Food turned Fuel
In 2007, fully one quarter of the maize (corn) crop in the US was used to manufacture ethanol, a fuel for cars.
Prosperity is bringing its own challenges. The amount of meat eaten by typical Chinese citizen has increased from 20 kg per year in 1958 to over 50 kg today (slightly lower than the US average of 57 kg).
Poverty in the West
In Europe 18.5% people under the age of 25 are unemployed. In Greece, Italy and Spain, the rate is over 40%.
Population Density of Bangladesh
Bangladesh is smaller than the American state of Iowa. If the United States were to be as densely populated as Bangladesh, entire population of the Earth i.e., 7.5 billion would have been living there.
Population density is one of the reasons for Bangladesh’s environmental vulnerability.
No to Capitalism
According to a 2016 poll of young adults between ages 18 and 29 conducted by experts at Harvard University, just 42% say they support capitalism, while 51% say they do not.
(Extracted from Muhammad Yunus’ latest book A World of Three Zeros)