· Vatican City ·

A conversation with Muhammad Yunus, Nobel laureate and creator of microcredit

The project for a new world

10 July 2020

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.

Andrea Monda