Tonight I went with some friends to hear Muhammed Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and "builder" of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. He piloted microcredit lending to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh and Grameen Bank, which grew out of his initial work, has been incredibly successful. He has some very interesting ideas about social business - business whose bottom line is change, rather than profit - and has been influential in the move towards social entrepreneurship - business with the poor/society in mind (focusing on a double bottom line: profit and community change/development). The paradigm shift required to see every problem as an opportunity, to make change your bottom line, to look at people as an opportunity to invest in as instead of a resource to extract...that's no small paradigm shift. Yunus summed it up practically when he talked about young people in Bangladesh, recipients of scholarships and educational loans for academic excellence looking for work post-graduation. There are few jobs available in Bangladesh, but when they asked Yunus for solutions he told them not to be job seekers but job makers. That is quite a paradigm shift.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Yunus speak. He had a very humble, even unassuming manner about him and was very engaging. He's done some incredible work in Bangladesh (and has even started a microcredit program in Queens, NYC, giving an average loan of $2,200 to 600 clients - and they've seen a consistent 99.6% repayment rate!) and is a man to be respected.
However, his motivation for ending poverty seemed less than attainable. He seems to believe wholeheartedly that if we could only change our current system (for it's our system, in his perspective, that makes people impoverished), we could iradicate poverty. If we could only recognize that people are not just selfish but also have the capacity to be selfless, to act on behalf of others, and if we could hold these two desires in a proper tension, then we can create a better world, a world without poverty. It's a compelling vision, but what's the motivation to be selfless? I don't think human beings are capable of ending poverty - we're certainly capable of all kinds of beautiful, incredible, powerful things, but we're also capable of all kinds of terrible, destructive, horrific things, like creating systems where the wealthy feed off the poor. I don't think we'll ever overcome that capacity on our own.
I wonder, though, what makes things like the Grameen Bank succeed. And, will it continue to succeed in the coming decades? Will it be a sustainable institution? Will it be a force of transformation in Bangladesh? Will it truly "change the world"? Only time will tell...