Having shaken up the conventions of banking by arguing that credit is a fundamental right to help the poor in his native Bangladesh get loans for small business ventures, Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus has set his sights on another shake-up: university education.
“Education needs to be integrated with life, with real experiences, action,” said the man who became known as the “banker to the poor” for pioneering the idea of microcredits for the economically
To pursue his new goal, the 69-year-old banker and economist launched the Yunus Center this week at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), a center of learning dedicated to an array of development programs located on the outskirts of the Thai capital Bangkok. Yunus has had a long-standing relationship with AIT, firmly believing in its mission as a regional university promoting sustainable development.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
Inter Press Service: You have just set up an education center to look at issues like food security, agriculture and lifting the poor out of poverty. What is so unique about your center since there are others that have the same mission?
Muhammad Yunus: It will be more than a research center. It is going to be an action center. We are not going to produce papers, have the students write theses. We want the students to design their own programs to help local communities. The aim is to have it driven by experience and engagement in life. The students can take one or two years or a little more to finish their programs. That is how they will get their degree.
IPS: So you have in mind a new way of education?
MY: Yes. It is learning by doing and challenging other people about what they have done and what needs to be done. The teachers in this setting will be backbenchers. The students will take the lead. They will tell their teachers about the plans they have, why they were chosen and how they hope to implement them. And the teachers are not there to criticize the students but to get to know more.
IPS: What inspired you to go down this road?
MY: I have always thought about this model of learning. Young people should not be sitting in classrooms. They have tremendous capacity to make change; they have tremendous energy. They should go out and deal with problems directly and try to solve them.
IPS: Could it be that what you are doing here is following your own story of working directly with the poor although you were trained to be a professional economist, got a PhD and then taught in a conventional university setting?
MY: Well, that is how my work began with Grameen Bank. True, that is what I did after I came out of the university and started a grassroots bank by working with the poor in the village next door. So, I am saying, enough thesis writing; there are enough people to do that. But some people have to get out and identify social problems in poor communities – whether it is about the environment, problems of poverty, agriculture, poor health, housing – and solve them directly. And if it is excellent work, these students will become an example for their whole country.
IPS: Does it mean that universities and the traditional academic community have failed in solving some areas that you are concerned about, like agriculture or food security?
MY: There are a lot of gaps. Professors have no practical knowledge. They live in ivory towers. Life has to be integrated into education because life is changing, but education is lagging behind. Education should be far ahead and not sharing old knowledge for the people. Education means trying to bring future knowledge to the people so that they can go there.
IPS: But what about scientific contributions that were made through the Green Revolution that researchers have been taking credit for to solve hunger in this region?
MY: The best technological change for agriculture took place in the 1960s through the Green Revolution. There was a sudden increase in the yield of agriculture, rice. But after that it seems to have stayed there. We have not seen a big jump in agriculture since then. In the meantime, the world has changed, but the changes in agriculture have been slow. The food supply is growing slower while the market is expanding.
IPS: Why do you think the scientific contributions to agriculture have not kept pace with the world’s changes?
MY: Because there are more exciting areas where science can concentrate on and where the money is going, like communication technology and mobile phones. There is a big market for them; they are drawing the attention of millions of people who want to have mobile phones in their hands. The big money calculations went in that direction, but agriculture was not seen as an exciting, moneymaking area. So it has to come as a social business – this is the idea that I am promoting through this new center. It is about making an impact in society than making money.
IPS: But you are up against demographic trends, where young people in rural areas are moving to the city because of the jobs and the excitement it offers. How do you make a life in agriculture happy for young people?
MY: Today, the way the moneymaking economy is built, everybody is trying to find where the money is, and they may not want to sit in a village because there is no money there. But when you break out of that paradigm that that is how life should be and say, “I can be happy making an impact by solving people’s problems and their lives,” you see things differently. The focus then becomes about social impact. A commitment. A dedication. It is something that comes from their own heart and not because somebody is paying them money to do so.