Muhammad Yunus once said, ‘people are both selfish and selfless’. But it is the selflessness that we need to pursue and apply to economic activity. Yunus aspires that such a revision in economic insight will allow for the creation of ‘social businesses’, a fusion of for-profit and non-profit businesses, which rely on the enterprise and innovation of its entrepreneur.
Essentially, investors who provide the capital to launch these businesses receive back their initial investments only. The rationale of investors, to provide capital in the first instance, is justified by funds the size of Lebanon’s GDP being put towards philanthropic efforts every year. This seeks to create social businesses that are ‘designed to create revenues and thereby become self-sustaining’ and criticises various other aid programmes.
However, there is a second goal to tackle: unemployment. The job-model is becoming less feasible, especially for developing countries, due to the rising populations and levels of automation. Yunus calls for mass entrepreneurship as the answer; he describes individuals as, ‘nature-built to become entrepreneurs’. It is not an unusual sight to walk down a highway in India and witness individuals selling anything they can get their hands on, from flowers to hand-crafted shoes.
Yunus shares one specific story which may have left many readers in awe of the ingenuity of the ‘unemployed’. A women who supported a family of three by laying wet sand, a fairly abundant and undesirable good, on the side of the highway. By the afternoon, the wet sand would have dried from the heat of the car exhausts and be sold to local households, to help in cleaning dishes and clothes. Unfortunately though , it is not enough to escape the poverty trap. Yunus calls for big social business centres, to foster a culture of entrepreneurship within regions and provide the necessary capital and training.
Leading global companies like Renault, Danone and McCain have already contributed significant funds to social businesses and worked with local entrepreneurs to provide low-cost products. This provides readers with a sense of optimism that such an idea might flourish, especially coined from the pioneer of micro-credit organisations.
Yunus ends with the ‘Legal and Financial Institutions’ required to initiate this economic revision and reinforces the importance of micro-credit organisations to support and fund ‘social businesses’. However, despite claims, short term gains from micro-credit loans have been unable to elevate individuals from poverty and may have even pulled the poor into the debt cycle. Questions still linger over Yunus’ vision of social businesses – will they really be any different?
Nevertheless, Yunus’ idea provides valuable provocations for a further discourse in the wider development sphere.