Muhammad Yunus : the new enlightenment

1784, Immanuel Kant said : sapere aude, he begged humans to ‘dare to know’. More than two hundreds years later Muhammad Yunus convinces us that we should dare to create.

Last Monday, Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner came to the Catholic University of Lille for a two-hour conference to talk about the projects of the Yunus Fondation in the academic world, but also to share his story.

A bank for the poor

Pr. Yunus grew up in Bangladesh before going to the United States to study economics. Coming back to his home country he realized that, although he knew a lot about economics, he was unable to solve the problem of poverty and inequality that was surrounding him. At least he thought so. With the money he was earning, thanks to his teaching position in the U.S., he could afford to give money to some people of the poor villages around him. His idea was simple : land money, without interests to men and women who would have been ignored by banks. Many said that it was a crazy idea, even dangerous for him. Yet, every single of his‘clients’gave the money back. As his concept proved to be successful, Yunus decided to globalize his idea to the whole country, thus creating the Grameen Bank in 1983. As for today, the bank counts more than eight million borrowers.

Social business

By creating the Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus created what he calls a ‘social business’. These are companies which aim is not to make profit but to solve problems. Yunus argues that businesses making money, will always be dedicated to the rich, not to the majority of the population, therefore increasing inequalities. His vision of entrepreneurship is based on a logic of problem equals solution. He does not care about the profitability of an issue, he genuinely wants to solve problems in order to make peoples’life better.

When asked about the concept of charity, he explains that, although it is admirable, it has limits. A project powered by charity will only last until money from a third part is coming in. A social business, however, as a charity pushed by an entrepreneurial engine, can live on its own for a long time, if not for ever.

Dare to create

Yunus’s approach is full of philosophical meaning. The amount of trust he puts in human creativity and power of resilience is similar to the one philosophers of the enlightenment had in human rationality.

He believes that every human was born to imagine, to create. He thinks of humanity as a problem solving community, because otherwise, as he puts it, we would still be living in caves.

In 1784, Immanuel Kant said : sapere aude, he begged humans to ‘dare to know’. More than two hundred years later Muhammad Yunus convinces us that we should dare to create. It is every generation’s role to come up with solutions to create a world that works for everyone, and he has faith in humanity, faith in the fact that, somehow, we will achieve those challenges. He comes up with an interesting concept that he calls, ‘social fiction’. Just as we use science fiction in fields such as medicine and astronomy, he thinks that we should develop a culture of social fiction, an exciting and smart way to address the issues of our times. At the end of a thrilling and inspiring sentence, Yunus said ‘humans do not take impossible as an answer’.

Muhammad Yunus dares us to create because he thinks we all have the ability to do so. He uses a metaphor to prove his point. We all come from a seed and we are all bound to grow. However just like a seed of a bonsai could become a giant tree in a forest, it can also become a miniature plant in a small pot. This is why we need to dare to create, and in order to do so we have to build a fruitful environment allowing the human creativity to be unleashed and live up to its full potential.

Blind optimism ?

Listening to Muhammad Yunus is indisputably inspiring and thrilling. It is also refreshing to hear, for once, someone who has faith in the future. However, one could have doubts about the feasibility of his project and vision.

History shows us that there are very few people who have the generosity and confidence of Pr. Yunus and it is part of the reason why he got the Nobel Peace Prize, he is an exceptional and unique man. His uniqueness raises questions : can we rely on philanthropists to solve the problem of inequality ? Is it reasonable to think there will be enough generous creators to help the world ?

Muhammad Yunus is bringing interesting and disruptive solutions to the world but I think his existence is the symbol of something that runs deep in today’s world : the incapacity of National States to deal with poverty and inequality. Saying that States have failed is a neutral statement. However, the diagnosis of this failure, whereas it is deplorable or inevitable, is part of an everlasting debate over the respective responsibilities and duties of the government and private actors.

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