Thursday, December 25, 2008

Romanes Lecture at Oxford University - “A Poverty Free World – When? How?” by Dr.Muhammad Yunus



It is not often that we hear bold, audacious statements being made that can inspire a generation and prod us to take a deeper look at future. A future that is free from the constraints of the past. A future that calls us to action. A future that is possible. This was exactly what Dr.Muhammad Yunus did when he gave the prestigious annual Romanes lecture at the Oxford University. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner said “Poverty belongs only in the museum where our children and grandchildren can go to see what inhumanity people had to suffer, and where they will ask themselves how their ancestors allowed such a condition to persist for so long.”

                It was my privilege to be able to listen to Prof.Yunus at the Sheldonian theatre. A large number of members of the university had assembled braving the cold winter evening to listen to his speech. Dr. Yunus is now renowned for the Grameen Bank that he set up to provide credit to poor people in Bangladesh and thereby transformed the lives of millions in the last few decades. The Grameen Bank model and its social impact apart, this lecture was an occasion to listen to his vision of the future of world and his opinion on the current financial crisis.

                A few things stood out from the speech personally for me. He drew our attention to the fact that Capitalism has failed to create a social impact on such a vast section of the world. He said that one reason for this is that we look at human beings only in a singular dimension; as a selfish being. In the new market place he suggests that profit making must be combined with social impact and that the collective intelligence of the business world must be employed to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity today. Social business is the new mantra.

                While, speaking of the current financial crisis, he said that markets must be self-correcting. He suggested that there must be mechanisms firstly to flush out toxic assets out of the system through a participatory structure and secondly to identify bubbles and keep shooting them on an ongoing basis. This he says will lead to long term stability.

                Finally, he shared his vision of a future when generations will ask how their ancestors could tolerate something as cruel as poverty to inflict such a large population of the society when it could have been eradicated. Yes, we live in times when we have accepted it to be a reality in our society. True, there were times when people thought we could never land on the moon, that slavery cannot be abolished and that the earth was the center of the universe. It takes courage to think beyond.

                After the lecture I bought his new book, “Creating a world without poverty” not knowing what was coming up next. As I walked out of the theatre it was the Vice Chancellor Dr. John Hood who noticed some of us students with the book in our hands asked if we wanted Prof. Yunus to autograph it. We were thrilled at the prospect and joined him to meet the Nobel laureate himself. We were touched by Dr.Yunus’ smile as he autographed the book, made pleasant enquiries and also gave us an opportunity to take pictures with him. The evening was inspiring and will be cherished for long.

PS: The text of the speech can be read at  http://muhammadyunus.org/content/view/177/127/lang,en/ . The audio and video of the lecture is available at  http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/ . A video clip of his interview is available at  http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2008/081203_3.html

Monday, December 22, 2008

Simplicity is gentle


It was unlike any other day. I was taking a stroll on the banks of the river Isis in the Christ Church meadows. I paced up the last stretch of an avenue lined with beautiful English Elms that had shed much of its foliage. There was stillness and freshness in the lush green meadows. Along the Broad walk there are very few wooden benches. And on one of them, I noticed an old woman with a big white canvas spread over her lap. She wore a woolen cap, a sweater and a thick over coat to cover her fragile body from the cold of the Oxford winter. If not for all the paraphernalia spread around her on that bench, I would have passed her off as an old woman with dirty clothes who might ask for some spare change if you looked her way. I did look her way and she very gently asked “Are you from India ?”. I said “Yes” and there began a conversation that I will remember for a long time to come. I went nearer from where I got a closer look of the large canvas spread on her legs and held by her delicate wrinkled hands on which she was drawing beautiful, large pencil sketches of the big deciduous trees lined in front of her. As she made enquiries of what I study and how long I have been in the city, she told me she was herself an Economist who had devoted her recent life time drawing sketches of trees, writing stories and poetry around them and contributing in her own way to the literature on environmental issues. She told me she was a European of mixed ancestry. She was well read, philosophical, soft and bestows a memorable conversation. She also showed me her collection of books, poems and hand crafted cards with beautiful messages that she sells to passers-by. I bought one of them as a souvenir of the beautiful afternoon at the meadows, of the intelligent conversation in a chance encounter, of the perspective a stranger could offer me on life and of the gentleness in the simplicity of this old woman. She said “You have a gentle soul” and I acknowledged her with a smile. Zoe Peterssen was her name.