It is difficult to read Yunus’s book without shaking one’s head in disbelief. The most difficult problems of the poor, those that we in the West keep trying to solve for them, are being solved by the poor themselves. Yunus likens the poor to bonsai trees, which possess all the qualities of a larger tree, but are planted in too-small pots. And he redefines development and quality of life in noteworthy ways:
To me, the essence of development is changing the quality of life of the bottom half of the population. And that quality is not to be defined just by the size of the consumption basket. It must also include the enabling environment that lets individuals explore their own creative potential. This is more important than any mere measure of income or consumption.
Yunus describes a partnership between Grameen and the French multinational Groupe Danone to exemplify the evolution of a “social business.” The purpose of the joint venture, formalized in March 2006, is to “reduce poverty by a unique proximity business model which brings daily healthy nutrition to the poor.” The venture combines Danone’s expertise at producing yogurt with the skills of local businesswomen. The result is a highly nutritional yogurt now produced in small plants in Bangladeshi communities and sold by local women to their neighbors for a decent profit. Production, retailing, and consumption are close to one another, and local people are engaged at every stage of the process.
Yunus’s concept of a social business is one that fully covers its costs through sales of goods and services that fill a market need. This is a nonloss, nondividend enterprise, owned by one or more individuals who invest in the business in the interest of social benefit, rather than personal profit. Unlike social business models that rely on donations, gifts, and grants, this model returns the initial contributions of investors and becomes self-sustaining over time. Even though investors are repaid at some point, they retain their ownership, management interest, and commitments in the venture. To Yunus, the investment opportunity is and will continue to be attractive to those who seek wise use of their money as well as measurable social benefit. “A charitable dollar can be used only once,” he writes. “A dollar invested in a self-sustaining social business is recycled endlessly.”
Grameen’s partnership with Groupe Danone has many rich outcomes, but of special note is the impact on Danone’s culture and employees. Grameen Danone is only a $1 million business within a $16 billion corporation, yet Danone’s CEO credits it with giving the company a new vision. Employees follow the joint venture’s progress with interest, discuss it continually, and frequently mention it with pride when discussing their company in public.
Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty she experienced was in the United States. She was describing the nation’s spiritual poverty: its excessive materialism and competition, its loneliness, its increasing sense of meaninglessness. Having worked deeply in community in the U.S. and the Third World, we agree, and we attribute this spiritual poverty to the West’s profound misperceptions about human capacity and quality of life that have been illuminated in Yunus’s work. If you must choose only one of these books to read, Creating a World without Poverty should be it. It will startle you, challenge your assumptions, and inspire you.
We believe that community engagement is the easiest and most effective way for people to see past the blinders of Western economic thought. It is also a compelling way to discover that all people of all ages are capable of creating truly innovative solutions when they care about their work. And that is why Peter Block’s wise book on how to create community, Community: The Structure of Belonging, is so important.