Singapore has room for social business-Nobel Laureate

September 21, 2008

Not-for-profit schemes can make society here ‘more balanced and humane’ writes Cheong Suk-Wai in Strait Times:

SINGAPORE is a global business centre with room for ‘social business’, according to Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus.

That is what the Bangladeshi economist and a pioneer of micro-credit calls not-for-profit businesses and programmes set up to generate jobs and other opportunities to help those trapped in poverty.

‘Social business’ is not charity, but more in keeping with the adage: It’s better to teach a man how to fish than to give him fish.

Speaking to The Straits Times here yesterday, Professor Yunus said: ‘The business proposition is for the poor to pay a tiny amount of money for you to take care of their needs.

‘You can, for example, provide health insurance to the poor, who pay a little bit every year for it. And I know if Singaporeans design it, it will be of world-standard quality because you have the highest standards.’

Two or three Singaporeans, he added, could start such businesses just by pooling, say, their year-end bonuses.

In fact, he pointed out, with Singapore’s reputation for quality, other countries would soon want to replicate its schemes since they would probably be the ‘most efficient’ by far.

Doing so, he added wryly, would also make society here ‘more balanced and humane’.

Prof Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for lending tiny sums to the destitute so they could go into business, was on a whistlestop here yesterday as the keynote speaker at a panel discussion on development in Bangladesh and Singapore, at the National University of Singapore’s Bukit Timah campus. It was organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS and the Institute of South Asian Studies.

In 1974, the unassuming man started a social revolution when he took US$27 out of his pocket and lent it to 42 Bangladeshi basket-weavers.

After years of dispensing small loans to the desperate, in 1983, he set up the not-for-profit Grameen (Bengali for ‘rural’) Bank in Bangladesh to help even more needy folk, whom he made part-owners of Grameen and who paid it back in weekly instalments.

Today, Grameen is owned by 7.5million Bangladeshis, most of them women, who previously held no purse strings because their culture entrusts money to men.

With 98per cent of all borrowers repaying loans totalling more than US$5 billion (S$7.2 billion) today, his successful ways with micro-credit are now followed in, among other countries, China, Canada, Thailand and India. His goal is now to get Bangladesh’s total population of 150million owning the bank by 2013.

Grameen has also branched into more not-for-profit ventures such as Grameen Shakti (to light up most Bangladeshi homes with solar power for people to read at night) and GrameenPhone (giving villagers solar-powered pay phones so they can run businesses). The bank also gives out 30,000 scholarships a year to poor students, now known as ‘Grameen Children’.

Which begged the question: How to get materialistic non-Grameen children to help the needy?

Prof Yunus smiled and said: ‘Children today are born with plenty. And what do you do with your life when you are born with plenty? You want to do something to put your signature on this planet.’

He added: ‘By having your own business with purpose, you can design things on your own and feel happy about it. This is not something that your dad or mum have done.’

Business Times 3 Nov 07
S’pore good place for social enterprise: Nobel winner
By CONRAD TAN

(SINGAPORE) Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus believes Singapore is ‘a good place’ to start more businesses with a social objective.

‘Creative ideas are thriving here, but for personal reasons… now widen it for the common good of the people,’ said the founder of Grameen Bank, famous for its successful business of making small loans to poor people in Bangladesh to reduce poverty.

He was speaking at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy yesterday, ahead of a panel discussion among top personalities from the private and public sectors in Bangladesh and Singapore on the development of the two countries since independence.

In his wide-ranging speech and a discussion with the 200-strong audience afterwards, he repeatedly stressed the need for ‘defiance’ of established ideas, particularly in the conventional banking system and modern economic theory.

‘Sometimes conventional wisdom is also conventional stupidity,’ he said.

‘We’ve made a big mistake in interpreting human beings in a very limited way within the financial sphere.’ To see people as nothing more than ‘profit-maximisers, all yearning after personal gains … is a travesty of the truth.

‘Human beings are much bigger. They are not created to spend their lives making money.’

Asked by an audience member what Singapore could do, he said: ‘Run water companies, healthcare programmes, nutrition programmes for the children, address diseases that are curable but no one pays much attention to.’

Venture capital funds that channel money into such social enterprises are another possibility, he added.

‘There’s plenty of money here to start social businesses for Singapore and for other countries.

‘Singapore can be a much broader society than currently … its image is that this is a society which is always running for economic success – personal success, mostly.’

His experiment with Grameen Bank, which started with him making a US$27 loan from his own pocket to 42 women in a village in Bangladesh in 1976, showed that extending micro-credit or small loans to poor people can be a sustainable business model.

Today, the bank lends more than US$500 million a year. It has 7.3 million borrowers. Almost all are women – a deliberate strategy started after Prof Yunus found in the early days of Grameen Bank that lending to women had a much bigger social impact than lending to men.

Within Bangladesh, he estimates that about 80 per cent of poor families now have access to micro-credit.

‘This is a methodology which should become part of the mainstream banking system, not a footnote, because two-thirds of the world’s population have no access to the conventional banking system,’ he said.

‘People used to ask me, how much money do you need to start a micro-credit programme? If you’re earning money, take one month’s income – that’s good enough.

‘With your income you can probably give loans to 10 or 20 people. And if you can recycle this, you’re in practice.

‘You don’t have to work with thousands. You can work with five. If you can do it with five and you’re successful, you can find another 10 who would like to put in their one month’s salary or income to add another five, and that’s it.’

The difference between charitable giving and a social business – which he defines as ‘a non-loss, non-dividend company with a social objective’ – is that a social business is self-sustaining.

‘Charity money has only one life,’ he said. ‘You can use it only one time.’

From Wild Singaporepublished on 3rd November 2007

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