A conversation with Muhammad Yunus, Nobel laureate and creator of microcredit
The vaccine against Covid-19 must be declared a “global common good”
“Once we know where to go, going there becomes much easier”. Muhammad Yunus, economist, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the creator of modern microcredit, has rather clear ideas about what to do in a world potentially changed by the coronavirus. To begin with, to protect everyone, the entire world, from the virus with a vaccine that will be declared a “global common good”. Then simply, to create a very different world.
You underlined, in harmony with the Pope, that after the Covid-19 crisis it will be necessary to find a new model. We can’t go back, nothing will be like before. How do you think it is possible to make those who hold power understand this message?
I am so happy to see that Pope Francis has the same feeling as I do. Going back to the old world would be an insane action because the world that we’re coming from was a very inhospitable world, a terrifying world, a world which was about to finish itself by global warming, by wealth concentration, by artificial intelligence removing human beings from jobs. At that point, everything was converging and we had only a few years left before the whole world collapsed. From the global warming side there is a very small time left before the world becomes unlivable. It is the same for wealth concentration, which is a ticking time bomb which can explode politically, socially with anger, and the same for artificial intelligence because of which people will have no job or no work for them. That’s not the kind of world that we would like to go back to. That’s the point. And coronavirus has done a great favour despite the fact that it made a horrible situation of the planet, but it has done a great favour to us because it stopped the machine in rushing towards death. So today we are at least not rushing anywhere. The train has stopped. We can just look around. We can get off the train which was taking us to sure end, and now can decide where we want to go to find safety and security. Definitely we don’t want to go back to the terrible situation. So that’s the point of not going back. Not going back means that we have options to go someplace else.
That’s what you’re saying. But what if the people in the high places and decision-makers don’t accept that?
Well if people want to go someplace else, decision makers will have not much of an option left. Ultimately the people have to decide where to go. That’s what the democracy is all about. If public opinion becomes strong, I don’t think that can be ignored. I try to encourage the young people to look at the situation and make their judgement. Teenagers are the ones who are marching on the street under the banner “Fridays for Future”. They are telling the world that we are on a wrong path. They are accusing their parents for being irresponsible and pushing them into a world where they have no future. I tell them now this is your chance. You can build the world that you want. So get together and make it happen. This is a question of convincing people in general, young people in particular. This is a question of communication. If Pope Francis gives the leadership, immediately the message becomes powerful. People respect his views globally, irrespective of the religious affiliation. We remember the impact his views made during the Paris negotiations on reaching consensus on the global environmental crisis. His call to the world helped in reaching the Paris Agreement.
Pope Francis can play a very important role now. I request him to play that role firmly.
In a recent streaming lesson at the Pontifical Lateran University, you underlined that the post Covid-19 recovery is studded with opportunities, but only if it passes through a new social and environmental awareness, the use of the economy, not as a mere science aimed at maximizing profits, but rather as a tool to achieve the happiness of individuals and the community. How can we achieve this goal?
Explain to people what this goal of creating a new world is all about: what was wrong with the old world, why we mustn’t go back to the old world. People are familiar with the dangers posed in the old world but they are not aware of opportunities created by the corona crisis to escape from those dangers.
I don’t think economics practiced in the world today deserves to be called a social science. There is not much social about it. Its sole concern is maximization of personal profit.
It is not concerned with the common interest of people. It is only concerned with how to accumulate the wealth of nations without concerning itself with how many or how few people got this wealth. Nor does it concern itself with the safety of the planet.
We can at best call economics a business science, not a social science. Social science must address societal problems, what is good for people, what is good for the planet, and it has to offer concepts which make people’s life better, make the planet safer.
To get to the new world we’ll have to redesign economics, giving it social orientation. It will be a social consciousness driven economy. It will be an environmental consciousness driven economy.
Present economics never recognized collective interest. It is based on self-interest only. If we include collective interest into economics, suddenly economics becomes different. Then we need two different types of businesses, one for profit maximization, another for solving the common problems of people, with zero personal profit. The same person can do both kinds of businesses. We don’t need two different persons to do that. In one business, he takes care of himself, and in the other business, he takes care of everybody else and the planet. I call this new business social business. This is the business dedicated to solving the problems of the people and the planet without any intention of making personal money.
This new economics will be the basis of building the new world.
You have launched an initiative for a free vaccine that is accessible to all. How do you think it is possible to subtract medical research, especially in situations like these, from the logic of profit?
We should go a little bit deeper in that question. You see, it’s not correct to say that the companies are spending money to develop the vaccine. In most cases universities put in their knowledge, research and creativity, and governments pay a lot of money for that research, particularly for vaccine research. Why should the universities give up their right? Why should the government give up its right?
I am not denying companies from getting their fair return on investment. We can discuss what was the size of investment and what should be a fair return in it. They can be paid back to make the vaccine a global common good. Ownership has to be with people not with a company. It must be an open source product so that anybody anywhere can produce it, satisfying all regulatory requirements.
If we want to bring it to people all around the world at the same time, it must be produced all over the world. Not just in one or two places that we see being planned now.
Already one company has declared that the first delivery of vaccine will be given to the United States. Another company declared that the first delivery will be given to Europe. What about the rest of the world? If you don’t give the vaccine to the rest of the world there will be another trouble. It will immediately create a new mega business of producing and selling look-alike fake vaccines. Since the genuine vaccine is taking time to reach billions of people, desperation to access will lead to this situation. People in poor countries will fall victims to this business of fake vaccines because they cannot compete with the highest bidders in the genuine vaccine market.
Before such a situation arises, the world must declare the vaccine as a global common good. I made an appeal to the world leaders yesterday co-signed by many important people from around the world.
I am making this Appeal again, through you, to put pressure on governments to get this declaration made as soon as possible. Make Covid-19 vaccine a global common good. I appeal to Pope Francis to put his powerful voice behind it.
As the Pope said, the pandemic, besides being a planetary tragedy, represents an opportunity to develop a different future. How do you imagine this future and how do you think the new world balance might be?
I fully agree with what the Pope has said. We have a clear statement from him: we must not go back. Pope Francis has to say it again and again in a very bold way so that it gets heard by everybody and people can sit up and listen to him. He’s now the moral voice for the whole world. So this is very important that he keeps insisting on it.
Yes it’s possible to change this world. Human beings can do whatever they want. It is the power of their will that will make it happen.
When we decide not to go back we have to develop policies, institutions and facilities to make sure we go to the right direction, and get there quickly. We must ask the governments to redirect the bailout packages to support the initiatives dedicated to not going back, rather than giving them to speed up the process of going back.
Resources are not a problem. Resources are already mobilized for the wrong purpose. The task is to put it behind the right cause.
We must have a new world built for us. What kind of world would that be? It is very clear that it would be a very different world than the world we are coming from. In the new world there will be no global warming. Pope Francis has already made his statement on global warming. Now, we have to make it happen. It’s not just a statement coming from the Pope. Now we all have to get together and make it happen. The new world will be a world of zero-net carbon emission. That world will be a world of zero wealth concentration. This will be a world where we’ll be sharing the wealth rather than monopolizing the wealth the way it is being done today. It will be a world of zero unemployment. This new world will be almost the opposite of the present world. Once we know where to go, going there becomes much easier.
For moving to the new world, we have to check which business is contributing to global warming or wealth concentration or unemployment. We set up checkpoints to stop the wrong businesses getting into the new world.
We cannot take the fossil fuel business into the new world. We tell them you have to come back with the renewable energy, if you wish to be in the energy business. If you are a pollution creating company, we tell them that you have to come back with the businesses for creating a circular economy.
Do you think this can happen?
If we make up our mind, it can happen. It’s a question of making up our mind. We are facing the greatest existential challenge. When the crisis is at its deepest, we have to come up with the most daring of solutions.
Do you think that spirituality is important for this change, the strength to achieve this change?
Sure it’s very important. Coronavirus has transformed everything by creating a situation where we cannot get to meet each other physically. We are made to stay behind doors in our homes and social distancing became part of our lives. While we are deprived from physical proximity this becomes a good occasion to achieving spiritual unity.