Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus speaks on micro-lending — and world hope

Muhammad Yunus, Managing Director, Grameen Ban...
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Recently, someone remarked to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi banker/ economist/ crusader against poverty, that he must be a very rich man.

“I said, why would I be a rich man?” he tells an attentive audience. “Well, you have all those companies; you must be rich to have all those companies.”  Yunus scratches his chin and smiles the beguiling smile that makes you want to be a believer. “Oh. I start these companies, but I would never own them.” You are now a believer.

Yunus was in San Francisco Monday, at a social entrepreneurship program sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. He is winding up a U.S. tour promoting his new book, Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs. In the process, he is promoting a theory that social business — business operated for the benefit of society (such as the poor who are commonly the beneficiaries and owners of Yunus’ companies) — can and should be a viable segment of the global economy.

Grameen Bank, which was begun in 1976 with $27 out of Yunus’ pocket and now provides loans to more than 8,100,000 borrowers — no collateral, just good faith and trust — would seem to prove his point. Defaults on Grameen micro loans are so few as to make Fannie Mae weep.

From micro loans, Yunus expanded into business ventures on the same basic principle: to achieve one or more social objectives through the operation of the company. The investors/owners can gradually recoup the money invested, but cannot take any dividend beyond that point.

There are now Grameen (the word refers to a rural village) companies in banking, agriculture, healthcare, telecommunications and other areas.  Yunus gave one as an example of why he believes the principle works:

Grameen and Group Danone went into a joint venture to create a yogurt fortified with micro-nutrients 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. The first plant started production in Late 2006. The 10-year plan is to establish 50+ plants, create several hundred distribution jobs and self-degradable packaging.

The environment is protected, children get healthy, grow up to create businesses. Yunus spoke of one skeptic saying, “where will I get a job?” and said he explained, “You don’t look for a job, you create a job.”

Grameen Bank has more than 2500 branches — now including three in New York (where Yunus would like to see payday loan and check-cashing operations go out of business), one in Omaha, and in the near future: one in San Francisco. If Yunus is enjoying the proving out of his theories and the lifting of vast numbers of people out of poverty, he may be enjoying most of all the reminiscences about those who scoffed at his notions in the 1970s.

“They said the poor were not credit worthy,” he smiles. “I was told, about non-collateralized loans, ‘You can’t do that!’ After 2008, I wanted to ask, ‘Who is credit-worthy?'”

If you happen to be in Omaha

This is going on in Omaha? Omaha Nebraska? Indeed.

No one should really be surprised. My friend Ward Schumaker, a gifted artist and not exactly your run-of-the-mill conformist, comes from Omaha. He and the similarly-describable Vivienne were visiting family there once when they up and married, sending word of the event with a notation in tiny print at the bottom that read ‘Forgive us.’ I think his mother was in her eighties when she started an innovative Midnight Basketball program to help keep Omaha kids off the streets. Innovation happens in Omaha.

This morning a notice arrived in my Inbox about an open position for an intern with Project Interfaith in Omaha. Project Interfaith is, as explained below the job description, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing understanding, respect and relationships among people of all faiths, beliefs and cultures. You might want to apply.

Project Interfaith, started in 2004, is one of the younger such groups around the country with these goals. (I would be in big trouble if I failed to single out the San Francisco Interfaith Council, on whose board I serve.) There’s even an organization of organizations, the North American Interfaith Network which covers organizations and agencies in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.  Some of the others might be looking for interns too, but don’t go there if you want to get rich, other than in spirit.

Is this news, even in Omaha? Probably not. But it is worth noting, at a time when the need for understanding and respect among people of different beliefs and cultures is at an all-time high.