World-Renowned Economist Advocates for System Shakeup

Nobel Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus tells an Elliott School audience that the world must take a collective approach to combat its challenges coming out of the pandemic.

Muhammad Yunus gives virtual talk in front of a book shelf
Muhammad Yunus spoke to the George Washington community as part of the Institute for International Economic Policy at the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Facing Inequality series.
September 17, 2021

By Nick Erickson 

While hope is one of the principal foundations of his work, Nobel Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus offered a grim reality if the world does not use the pandemic as a vehicle for change.

Dr. Yunus, whose “Poverty, Climate, and Unemployment: Towards a World of Three Zeros” virtual presentation Thursday morning kicked off the Institute for International Economic Policy at the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Facing Inequality series, told the George Washington University community that profit maximization has led to a dead-end road.

Credited as the father of social business and microcredit, which are poverty combatting methods valuing societal over financial gain, Dr. Yunus has been discouraged to see COVID-19 resources fall into the hands of only those nations that can afford them.

The founder of Grameen Bank noted how, at one point, 10 countries accounted for 75 percent of administered vaccines. That unequal distribution, he suggested, is a microcosm of a current society that values the bottom line over human life and health. He finds these statistics inexcusable, saying the protective walls of profit make knowledge that should be available to all the world exclusive.

“I keep saying people are dying by drowning,” Dr. Yunus said. “Some people are coming around with the boat selling it to see if you have value, saying you can get into the boat provided you are the highest bidder. But there is plenty of space on the boat.”

Dr. Yunus, who received GW’s Presidential Medal in 2016, believes the pandemic has shown that even when the chips are down, the quest for wealth supersedes collective interest. As bailout packages mobilize to “restart the engine” once the pandemic finally loosens its vice grip, Dr. Yunus warned how dangerous it would be to resume steering down the same pre-pandemic path.

The program’s moderator, Elliott School Vice Dean and Oliver T. Carr Jr. Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Economics James Foster, admitted he had never heard Dr. Yunus speak in such discouraging terms but thought they were “very justified.”  

Dr. Yunus hopes the eventual restart can shake up a system that has led to much of the world’s wealth landing in a small percentage of pockets. (According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, the richest 1 percent own 43.4 percent of wealth.)

“People and wealth should be living together,” Dr. Yunus said. “It should not be separated by people in one direction and wealth in the other. That world we don’t want to go back to.”

The zeros to strive for, he said, aren’t the ones added after a comma on a bank statement but rather the three that can lead to a more complete global village: zero carbon emissions by eliminating fossil fuels, zero wealth concentration and zero unemployment.

In his presentation, Dr. Yunus cited the recent IPCC climate assessment that listed a “code red” warning for humanity. The report shows that if things remain relatively status quo, Earth is on a one-way ticket to reaching the agreed upon 1.5-degree Celsius threshold that would make changes irreversible. Dr. Yunus once again believes this is largely due to corporations seeking a maximum profit.

“We are in this burning house, and it is burning faster and faster, but inside that house we are celebrating and partying,” Dr. Yunus said. “We forget that our house will turn to ash very soon, but we don’t care.”

Entering a point of no return hinders future generations’ abilities to carve out life for themselves, he said. He also warned of artificial intelligence making once-needed jobs obsolete.

He hopes, before it’s too late, people rediscover themselves as entrepreneurs and that the system redefines finance. Too many, he said, are job seekers working for the very people who have created this cut-throat system.

Dr. Yunus believes people were born to be entrepreneurs, which is how most people acted until technology replaced creative thinking with an assembly line. Poverty, he said, is an external factor and that everybody was born with the same seed. Some just weren’t given the chance to grow. His own model at Grameen Bank illustrates that, as his institution provides loans to the poor or those facing societal constraints without collateral. Started in 1983, the bank now has 9.41 million members as of August, and 97 percent of the members are women. The whole structure promotes upward mobility.

It will take a cohesive effort, he said, to achieve three zeros. Investing in social businesses, such as renewable energy and waste management companies, and encouraging entrepreneurship are places to start. Hope lies in young people, he said, challenging students on the video conference be the pilots of the mission.

“The destination is clear, but you need a flight plan,” Dr. Yunus said. “You have to find your own way of doing things. As simple as that.”

GW is fostering those types of leaders, evidenced by its GW-Grameen Internship Partnership, available to graduate and undergraduate students interested in development projects. Dr. Yunus, who has spoken at GW many times and said Thursday’s gathering was like “bringing the family back together again,” noted his appreciation for the program.

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