Interview with Pr. Muhammad Yunus,
Nobel Peace Prize 2006 and founder of the first microcredit bank in the world
Microcredit initiatives are proliferating around the world and contribute to the promotion of a new model of sustainable development. Microfinance refers to all financial service programs that provide loans to people in extreme poverty to enable them to work independently. If one single man could embody microcredit, it is of course Muhammad Yunus. He is known as the "Banker of the Poor", and dedicated to them his Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. This professor of economics from Bangladesh revolutionized finance and the economy the day he had the idea to launch a loan program for the poorest of his country.
By founding the Grameen Bank in 1977, Muhammad Yunus developed the concept that built his notoriety around the world: microcredit. Yunus tried to understand how to help poor to get out of the infernal spiral of economic dependency. He decided to take action by setting up the first microcredit experiments in Bangladesh, with a special attention given to women. Thanks to patience and pedagogy, his team has helped more than 8 million borrowers, 97% of whom are women. Since then, Muhammad Yunus' model has been replicated all over the world, allowing the poorest to benefit from microcredits to develop a viable economic activity.
It is precisely this specific focus on women that gained the attention of Mouna, beneficiary of the C40 Women4Climate Mentorship Programme, to conduct an interview with Professor Yunus. Mouna is the co-director of the “Gender and Climate Change” project (GCC), an international collective of young scholars and professionals that aims to unveil the hidden connections between gender norms and climate-related issues.
The following interview was conducted with Professor Yunus at Les Canaux, the House for Social and Innovative Economy in Paris, with the support of the C40 Cities network.
Listen to the interview:
This interview was conducted by Mouna Chambon and Morgane Ollier, for Gender & Climate Change.
For clarity purposes, the retranscription has been slightly modified albeit without altering the overall message
Interviewer: Your initiatives are a wonderful example to show how essential but also simple it can be to empower women in economic activities. In climate policy, the inclusion of women is crucial [...] in rural communities, to give them the capacity for change-making actions but also to position women as leaders in the negotiation process. When you initially created the Grameen Bank, you decided to address women’s lack of access to credit, can you explain what made you focus on women needs for your initiative and how did you understand this potential for women empowerment?
Pr. Yunus: I was sympathetic to the issue but I was not doing anything about it. When I got into a fight with the banking system, I raised a lot of allegations [...], by saying it was designed the wrong way because it excludes all the people below the medium income, so almost half the people in the world. Then I added one more ladder: [...] it excludes women too. As an evidence I said: “in the Bangladesh banking system, not even 1% of all the borrowers happen to be women”. I thought this was absolutely wrong. So when I began, I wanted to make sure that half the borrowers would become women [...]. Not because I was sympathetic to women, I was making a case that it can be done. At first all the women said “don’t give it to me, give it to my husband”. [...] But we insisted. We tried to understand why women said no: it’s because of the fear, the society has created so much fear in women. They don’t want to take any risk, they don’t want to go out of their shell [...]. So we tried to gradually peel off that fear. [...] It took us 6 years of continuous efforts to make it happen, to open it up and find women saying yes, and after 6 years, we reached a 50/50 ratio [...] Then we saw something changed completely, money going to women brought more benefits to the family than if the same amount of money was given to the family through the man. We saw it every day. So we thought, why are we restricting women to 50%? […]
So we changed that and we focused on women deliberately, even if men were waiting. So gradually we made it to 97% and around the world we make it 100%. We see women as a big power in the family [...], because they have so much influence and so much commitment men don’t have [...]. That’s what will make the changes. Women’s commitment is a big force and they trigger changes in the family: if you can change the woman in the family, the whole family can change [...]. She is the core of the family because she is so close to the children, she builds the second generation [...]. So whatever we do, we try to bring the women in because they make a big difference. In Bangladesh, I think the most dramatic change [...]was giving woman a status, not as a favour. They created their status themselves by accessing microcredit and by becoming income-owners. So whichever direction you go, you should bring in women for that fundamental reason, that they trigger many changes.
Interviewer: In the context of climate change, to what extend social entrepreneurship can provide solutions for adaptation and mitigation activities in rural communities and how can it be correlated with women empowerment in the face of climate pressures?
Pr. Yunus: We don’t use the word social entrepreneurship because it’s very wide, I try to use social business entrepreneur, it’s more specific. The moment you design climate change as an issue, and social business as problem-solving, it becomes sustainable and it can be done, it can be replicated, it can be as big as you want. We have created some of them, like solar energy companies to replace fossil fuels, recycling social businesses to protect the planet, social businesses looking at how to build a circular economy, because now we are destroying everything, it’s not in circulation again because the system is too busy making money, they’re not paying attention to the damages. Also there could be very effective social business fighting against deforestation, it could generate lots of income [...]. In social business, you train yourself to address certain basic problems of the world in a sustainable way. Social business policies can make that reality happen and zero net carbon emission is one of them [...] through reforestation for example. Agriculture is very important because it produces lots of carbon, so it is interesting to work on a carbon free agriculture. To make than happen, food habits have to be adjusted […]. All these issues have to be addressed.
Interviewer: From your point of view what is the role of capacity building and how can we support households, especially women, in managing their micro credit in an efficient way [...]?
Pr. Yunus: What we need is not capacity building of the person [...], it’s capacity building of the economy. I want to do things but it’s not possible because I need money and no one will give me money, so I can’t use my capacity because capacity of the economy is missing. I tell the young people “if you put money on the table, everybody around the table would become an entrepreneur”. Now, it doesn’t happen because there is no money on the table, since the system doesn’t allow it. We have a banking system which will give you more money if you already have money, but those who don’t have money won’t get any. [...] Those people don’t have a starting point, so that’s the capacity I’m talking about. You change the structure of the system so that I have access to finance, so I can start my life. Then, even if I wasn’t thinking about it before, now that I see this money is waiting and I can take it, my mind starts ticking. So I want to emphasize on that part, [...] the first requirement is to create an environment where financial services are available and the legal system is conducive, so that people can express their creative capacity.
Interviewer: We often hear you say that you wish poverty were to belong in the museums. Do you think it can be said for gender equality and what can make the world’s eye change on seeing women as change-makers and opportunities for improvement and not as a problem? How do you create this environment [...]?
Pr. Yunus: One starting point that I see as very powerful is facilitating women to become entrepreneurs. If you let a woman become an entrepreneur, she’s on her feet, all the things that the society has build against her start crumbling [...]. Other things are important but this is the most important, to help her, guide her, to become an entrepreneur. Once she has the confidence that she can take care of herself, of her family, other things will follow. That’s what happened in Bangladesh [...], because once women stood up, other things just fell apart, all the religious taboos, the male domination, disappeared because women had money in their hands and in their bank accounts. The relationship between men and women transformed completely. It suits women to become entrepreneurs because if they are employed, they are still a second-class citizen because they always have to negotiate between office and home to take care of their family, and it’s not easy. They will always be at disadvantage. With entrepreneurship they can do anything they want, they can take care of their family and start their business. […] Because women are very tied to their family, there is an emotional tie with the children [...].
Interviewer: To finish on a positive and inspiring note, can you share with us one special positive story of a woman who benefited from your initiative and as Amartya Sen calls it, created a human capability, especially within the topic of climate change?
Pr. Yunus: It’s not an individual, it’s millions of women who transformed themselves by their only force. Most of them are illiterate, but they joined this program and they understand that being illiterate does not mean stupid […]. So they used their intelligence to overcome all the obstacles society has put in front of them. You have to create an environment where women can bring out their capabilities, their creative capacity, and then they will transform the society completely.