Monday, July 18, 2011

At The Feet Of A Master

I had a good time this weekend, professionally speaking that is. Why? Muhammad Yunus was in town to deliver a lecture. If you don’t know who he is, Prof Yunus is an economist who has devoted his life to helping the poor, pioneered microcredit in the 1970s, a firm advocate of women’s rights (no small thing in the highly patriarchal society of his homeland of Bangladesh), and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. While he has no big presence academically, the pragmatic approach he took in dealing with poverty and its related issues sets a benchmark for effective poverty eradication policies, and not just ones that read well in the press.

The occasion was his appointment as “Nobel Laureate in Residence” at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in Bangi, for which there was a big do last Friday, with the Minister of Higher Education in attendance. There was also a follow-up dialogue at UKM’s Faculty of Economics and Management the next day with a much smaller group. I’m already familiar with his work (and his books), so I learned nothing really new at either session. But the impact of hearing the same thoughts straight from this highly articulate man, with his very obvious passion and devotion to his calling, has a far greater impact than the written word.

His current obsession (if I can call it that) is with Social Business (here and here), a logical development from social entrepreneurship. The biggest difference between the two concepts is that a Social Business is a socially oriented organisation that also makes enough profit to sustain it’s mission. This is a crucial differentiator for making a sustained socially beneficial effort – you are no longer reliant on charity and/or donors to fund social work or poverty eradication projects. Prof Yunus has been busy these past 5-6 years evangelising the concept to anybody who would listen and more than a few have, such as Danone and Adidas.

But (I can just hear somebody complaining), wouldn’t raising revenue through charging the poor for goods and services that they need be tantamount to exploitation? That’s always been a major criticism of Grameen Bank and microcredit in general – the high rate of interest they charge on loans to the poor.

But there’s a method to this madness, one I found examples of in William Easterly’s “White Man’s Burden” (another must read, look for a book review soon). To wit: charging the poor for stuff, even medicines and necessities, ensures that they actually use them. Giving stuff away on the other hand, is apparently far less effective in ensuring actual utilisation, and is more expensive to boot because everything has to be borne by the giver. I guess this is fundamental to human nature – if you get something for free, you don’t value it. If you have to work for something, you actually value it more.

I’m also struck by the similarities in the approach that Easterly advocates for development projects, and the methods that Prof Yunus has actually used.

But all this aside, I was disappointed with one thing though – we have a Nobel Peace Prize winner (an acknowledged luminary in poverty eradication and economic development no less), under a program ostensibly sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education and a major research university, and somebody dropped the ball. I looked in vain for major media coverage of the event – none to speak of. Online? Apart from UKM itself, nada. I only found out about his coming from my wife, who’s at UKM. This is all despite the event being “open” to the public. There’s was barely any representation from any of the other universities either, much less the private sector. I think I was one of the handful of outsiders there.

That’s a real shame – I think Prof Yunus’ ideas and methodology (what Easterly calls the “Seekers”) have far wider application than just poverty eradication alone, and could have an impact in many different fields of public policy and social engagement. This is a missed opportunity – for PEMANDU, for TERAJU, for any and all the government agencies working for the development of the nation and the people.

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