Microfinance · Poverty Reading List · Social Business

Creating a World Without Poverty book review

Creating a World Without Poverty: How Social Businesses Can Transform Our Lives
by Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has recently released his second book, Creating a World Without Poverty. The centerpiece of this book is Yunus proposal for a new kind of institution called a “social business” which is a for-profit business which has as its top objective a social objective/mission. Yunus makes a passionate argument for the benefit and role of social businesses in helping us move extreme poverty to museums.

I have written a fair amount on Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize winner and his first book, Banker to the Poor on my blog. Yunus is an incredible innovator and one of my current day heroes who has made a huge impact on addressing global poverty. So, I was eager to read his new (and second) book.

While I do recommend reading this book, I would call this less of a book and more of a collection of stories and speeches on topics with a little more detail thrown in than a speech generally allows. So, don’t be expecting something “integrated”, but a bunch of Yunus’ current thinking and favorite topics.

Social Business. The centerpiece of this book is Yunus’ concept of a social business. His argument is that humans are actually interested in more than self-interest … they are also interested in helping others. Traditionally, there are 3 primary organization types: (i) for-profit businesses; (ii) non-profits/NGOs and (iii) government. He is proposing the need (and opportunity) to launch a new entity, a social business, to serve the needs of the world’s poorest citizens.

Yunus has a rather specific and narrow definition of the term/concept of a “social business.” Yunus defines two kinds of social businesses: (a) a business which is owned by the poor; and (b) a business where investors are only allowed to receive back their capital invested (that is, no additional return whatsoever.) He primarily focuses on (b) where the primary objective of a social business is a specific social objective plus it must be self-sustaining (i.e. generate financial surplus) in order to provide on-going and growing fulfillment of its social mission. Type (a) social businesses can be pure profit-making machines with the benefit to the poor provided through the profit surplus. Or social businesses could be both type (a) and (b) like Grameen Bank.

Yunus sees no room for businesses with owners/investors (other than poor people) which earn a profit (he calls them profit-maximizing) calling themselves social businesses or having any long-term potential for delivering much social benefit to the poor. He believes that the profit motive will always win-out and these hybrids will ultimately not serve the poor. He also assesses other examples of organization formats to help the poor including coops and NGOs. [See separate response to Yunus’ social business concept.]

Social Entrepreneurs. Yunus defines social businesses as a subset of the larger social entrepreneur segment. That is, all social business operators are social entrepreneurs, but not all social entrepreneurs run social businesses. That is, what they do is either not run as a for-profit/sustaining business and/or it doesn’t meet his criteria for a social business per above.

The Grameen Bank Story. There is a whole section/long chapter dedicated to succinctly telling the story of the Grameen Bank. For those of you who who haven’t read Banker to Poor, this hits many of the story high points (and some later additional points) in much fewer words.

Grameen Companies. Yunus provides one of the first overviews (that I’ve seen) of the 24 (!) companies/entities that Grameen Bank has launched in the last 25 years. He describes what they are doing and identifies some as successful and others as work-in-progress. All of them are intended to help the poor in Bangladesh with just one, Grameen Trust, which is seeking to help the poor outside Bangladesh today.

The Grameen Danone Story. Yunus tells in detail the story of how the new Grameen Danone venture in Bangladesh transpired. [I wrote about it here a while ago and got it mostly right ;-)] This is Yunus’ posterchild example of a social business (except it does pay 1% dividends). It is a very compelling and interesting story of how Danone, the world’s largest yogurt company created a new JV with Grameen in Bangladesh to deliver nutritious food products to the poor of Bangladesh. Their first product is a tasty, healthy yogurt product aimed at children which is priced right and is run as a business. Grameen Bank borrowers provide the milk through the cows they have financed. Danone designed a new micro-yogurt factory that supplies a local area and is sold door-to-door by women entrepreneurs from Grameen Bank in their villages. This is a great example of a social business.

The Poor Lack Capital. Yunus has a strong belief that the first place to start with helping the poor is to provide capital. He argues that at the core of poverty is that the poor lack capital so “the poor work for the benefit of someone else who controls the capital.” He says that “poverty arises from the fact that they cannot retain the genuine results of their labor”, so “the poor work for the benefit of someone else who controls the capital.” Sounds like Marx, huh? Yunus is very much a democracy advocate and capitalist though and encourages a business (not socialist) approach to addressing poverty. In fact, he is quite negative about the ability of non-profits/NGOs and government to provide much help to the poor without the contribution of business.

Microcredit Interest Rates. Yunus has a very simple test for whether interest rates charged for microcredit are fair. He grades interest rates that are up to 10% above cost of funds as “green” (best), 10-15% above as “yellow” (warning) and >15% as “red” (he calls them “moneylenders”). He then has a few footnotes which admit that there should be some exceptions. While I agree that philosophically that there should be more transparency and accompanying scrutiny on interest rates charged by MFIs, his formula is very centric on Bangladesh and other like countries like India and are not reflective of the realities of the cost of doing business in most other emerging market countries. So, unfortunately, I think his test is more the exception than the rule.

International Capital for Microfinance. Curious to me, Yunus picks a fight and argues that international/foreign equity and debt capital for bad for MFIs. Some of this comes from his perspective that these investors have for-profit objectives (counter to his social business criteria) and some from the additional cost due to currency risk issues. He argues for national, subsidized megafunds to provide the capital to MFIs along with urging governments to authorize MFIs to collect and then re-lend savings (currently prohibited in most countries with Bangladesh being a notable exception.) I think his first point is too restrictive as there just isn’t enough subsidized capital to go around. I am fully in support of his second point on savings and think that this would be a huge benefit to the poor.

Technology for the Poor. Yunus is a big proponent of the power of technology to transform and uplift the poor. Grameen Bank has launched companies which have brought cell phones and internet services to villages across Bangladesh. And yes, the poor have very productive means of taking advantage of these services. He encourages the development of new technologies which are targeted at the poor. Probably his most interesting idea is a handheld device which provides simultaneous translation so the poor can more easily communicate with the globally important economic languages.

So, quite a bit to chew on from an economist from Bangladesh!
UPDATE: Here is Grameen Foundation’s blog on this book

One thought on “Creating a World Without Poverty book review

  1. I enjoy your blog and am also a supporter of Unitus. As a heads up, when I clicked on the “Read full book review” link, it brought me to a review of How to Change the World. Ryan


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