By S. Sivaselvam
Pix by Saliman Leman
BANGI, 15 July 2011 – Nobel Laureate, Prof Muhammad Yunus has described UKM’s decision to name him its Laureate-in-Residence as very special as it was the first time he had received such a designation.
Speaking at his inaugural lecture in the UKM campus here today he said it was a “very special” feeling to be part of UKM’s faculty and he was very happy to be able to come back to teach here.
Malaysia is also special to him because it was the first country outside Bangladesh to adopt his microfinance scheme, and he is on the board of Amanah Ikhtiar Malaysia, a Grameen replication project.
As Laureate-in-Residence, Prof Muhammad Yunus will spend a month over the span of a year to, among others, help develop iconic research projects for UKM.
About 2,000 university students, gifted students under UKM’s PermataPintar programme, students of several secondary schools in the Klang Valley, academicians and the public attended the lecture on “Social Business: A way to solve society’s most pressing problems,” at UKM’s Dewan Tun Abdul Razak.
He called on the younger generations of Malaysians to use technology and their own energy to resolve problems of the people.
“As humans, we have much more creativity than all the problems we face. The issue is about how we commit ourselves in the direction of addressing these problems instead of being distracted by other matters.”
He noted that while the present generation was more focused on accumulating wealth for themselves as they had been deprived of it when they were young, the younger generation comes from families who are quite well-off and would rather pursue activities that lead to social good than pursue wealth.
Prof Muhammad Yunus told the young people to ask themselves, “I have unlimited potential. What can I make of it?” advising them to come up with ideas on how to solve people’s problems in a business way, which is what social business is about.
For example, he said, in Italy a social business is helping to eradicate drug addiction, and spoke of the numerous opportunities that beckon in such areas as the environment and health.
Social business is cause-driven, where the investors/owners seek to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company, without any personal gain.
Such a company must cover all costs and make a profit, at the same time achieve the social objective, such as healthcare for the poor, housing for the poor, financial services for the poor, nutrition for malnourished children, providing safe drinking water and introducing renewable energy in a business way.
Prof Muhammad Yunus pioneered microfinance for the poor in his home country, Bangladesh in 1976, in the process creating Grameen Bank, whose activities he later directed towards creating businesses that focused on resolving social problems, such as providing access to solar energy for rural communities and financing beggars to become door-to-door salesmen of toys and foodstuff.
He expected the beggars programme to draw only about a couple of thousand of them but more than 100,000 signed up, with them being able to repay the loans to get bigger loans. Some 22,000 of them were no longer beggars.
“It’s a wonder how just a US$15 loan changes a person’s life,” he mused.
Since he doesn’t own any shares in Grameen Bank or any of its 30-odd subsidiaries, Prof Muhammad Yunus said he is often asked why he doesn’t want to make money from this, and the questioners are sceptical when he says that he simply enjoys enriching the lives of the poor.
He blamed this general attitude, that anyone in business must aim to make money for oneself, to the prevalent economic theory of selfishness, of creating wealth for oneself only.
He said he now realised that he was actually pursuing a contrasting theory of selflessness, where the profit is measured not in monetary terms but in the benefits it brings to other people.
He pointed out that people are multi-dimensional, not single dimensional as the economic theorists assume. Therefore, a person can be selfish and at the same time be selfless, in helping others.
Prof. Muhammad Yunus, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Grameen Bank in 2006, urged the younger generations to focus on building on selfless businesses and thus enable social business to flourish.
He related how Grameen teamed up with Group Danone to create a yogurt fortified with micronutrients to decrease malnutrition for the children of Bangladesh. The yogurt is produced with solar and bio gas energy and is served in environmentally friendly packaging.
In another venture, Grameen and Veolia Water combined their complementary skills to make clean and safe water accessible to villagers in the poorest parts of Bangladesh, where, for essentially geological reasons, almost all of the groundwater is contaminated with arsenic, very often at levels that make it a health hazard.
When Adidas asked him for a motto that would promote the company globally, he responded with, “Nobody in the world should be without shoes,” and challenged them to make shoes that would cost just one euro a pair. They baulked at this challenge, he said, but eventually came up with a product costing less than a euro.
He cited this as another example that should spur the younger generations to think outside the box.