The capitalist system needs to be re-designed in a fundamental way and social enterprises hold the key to a new human centred economy but we are running out of time.

These were the main takeaways from the brilliant closing session of Social Enterprise Futures where we were honoured to have been joined by Nobel Prize winning economist, Professor Muhammad Yunus.

In an interview with SEUK’s Chief Executive, Peter Holbrook, Professor Yunus addressed the vastness of the challenges that lie ahead, focusing his attention on the dehumanising effects of our economic model and what needs to be done to change it.

We are born as entrepreneurs

“Poverty is not created by poor people, it is created by the system. Poverty should belong in a museum”

Professor Yunus is one of the real superstars of the social enterprise movement through his development of the concept of microfinance and microcredit. He started his work out of a desire to protect the poor in his native Bangladesh from loan-sharks – initially lending is own money to support people set up their own businesses. This grew into the Grameen Bank and its famous work supporting the poor through seeing access to credit as a human right. Professor Yunus is driven by the idea that poverty is not created by poor people – it is created by the system and because of this we can get rid of it. As he famously put it “poverty should belong in a museum”.

But Professor Yunus told us that poverty cannot be separated out from the other issues, drawing out the connections between poverty, wealth concentration and the climate emergency.

Capitalism as a system has created vast concentrations of wealth, unemployment and climate breakdown. To Professor Yunus it is not only unjust but dehumanising, built on a flawed view of human nature. He told attendees that we’ve “created a system where everyone has to find a job but we’re not created as job seekers, we’re born as entrepreneurs.”

We have the potential to solve the world’s problems if we’re allowed to. As an example he looked at the banking system with its focus on credit ratings and profit stating that “finance is the oxygen of entrepreneurship…if you change the banking system every will be an entrepreneur.”

When asked about what he feels are his greatest achievements he cited how people used to write off the poor, especially women, as having entrepreneurial ability. Through the projects he pioneered “today millions and millions of women can take a small amount of money and be entrepreneurs – I see success in these people.”

A three zeros world

This led on to what we need to do to break away from our world of vast inequalities and climate chaos. Professor Yunus proposed that the solution lay in building a three zeros world based on:

  1. Zero wealth concentration and an end to poverty
  2. Zero unemployment
  3. Zero carbon emissions

With the climate emergency disproportionally affecting the world’s poorest, tackling it is vital not only for a sustainable future but also to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality. A three zeros world will be one where we “are all entrepreneurs, where we don’t worry about unemployment we worry about opportunities.”

The liveable and unliveable worlds

“our house is burning. But inside the house we’re having parties, we don’t even recognise the house is on fire”

Perhaps where Professor Yunus was most passionate was in his analysis of the climate emergency and how it relates to wealth concentration and poverty. There’s an urgent need to get to a three zeros world because as it stands, we are heading to a situation where “two worlds are emerging – the liveable world and the unliveable world”

The changing climate will result in billions being forced to move as the unliveable part of the world becomes ever larger. This will not be about migration because “migration is for a better life” rather “this is about survival”. He powerfully made the observation that whilst the poor will be forced to move, the wealthiest 1% will find ways to maintain their lifestyles.

When asked if a shift is beginning to take place amongst businesses and world leaders, Professor Yunus was sceptical stating that climate statements often look like gimmicks and PR exercises, citing how banks keep on pouring trillions into fossil fuels whilst emphasising their green credentials.

Can capitalism deliver the equal world we need to address the changes around climate and inequality?

This was the big question at the heart of the discussion and Professor Yunus’s answer was no it can’t, at least not the extractive, inequality creating model we currently have. He said that our “economic system needs to be re-designed in a fundamental way. It’s on a suicidal path and we need to get to a world of three zeros”

Capitalism is built on profit maximisation leaving little room for humanity, as Professor Yunus put it “the economic theory that we practice doesn’t have any human considerations…It is all about making money”

Inequalities, the pandemic and the lack of global leadership

When the conversation turned to the impact of the pandemic, Professor Yunus highlighted how it really brought to light the wealth concentration within and between nations. He mentioned how any notion of the world being a global village was shut down the moment the pandemic hit with nations turning to act out of self-interest particularly with regards to vaccine hoarding and the refusal to lift patent rights on vaccines.

“[leaders] don’t want to see what’s happening on neighbouring islands. Everybody is grabbing their own vaccines. 10 countries took 80% of the total production of the vaccines.”

He countered the rich world’s refusal to lift Covid vaccine patents with the founder of the polio vaccine, which is available for mass production, and who said that “nobody can patent sunshine.”. 

A message of hope – pursue super-happiness

If capitalism isn’t working, then what can replace it? How do we move away from profit maximisation as the organising principle of the economy? The answer, rather unsurprisingly lies in social business, the term Yunus uses to describe social enterprises.

When asked whether if all businesses became social businesses, that would be enough, Professor Yunus agreed. Why? Because social businesses are “driven by the collective interest and capitalist economy by personal interest”

He fundamentally disagrees that pursuit of profit maximisation is the only incentive for human beings saying that “we know that money can bring happiness but making people happy is super-happiness”.

Whilst we, within the social enterprise movement know of the incredible transformative potential it has we do sometimes feel that we are not listened to – ignored by politicians and those with power. However, Professor Yunus encouraged us not to give up hope with those pushing for change always being side-lined to begin with – from those fighting for votes for women to the abolitionists campaigning for an end to slavery. He ended by stating that social enterprises “are the creators of a new civilisation. Take it seriously, make it happen and history will remember you…”

There was no more powerful way to end Social Enterprise Futures 2021.