Travel-Blogue Day 6: Muhammad Yunus? Next Big Thing

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The way Noble Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus sees it, the micro-credit revolution is running its course in his home country of Bangladesh. Between his Grameen Bank and other NGOs, which together make Bangladesh the most heavily micro-credit-enabled place on earth, he estimates that about 80% of the poor families that might want to participate are being served already. His goal is for Grameen to help finish the job by 2012.

What’s next? Health care. “This is the biggest project. With micro-credit, we only reach the poor,” he told me. “With this health care project, we reach everybody-and we bring state-of-the-art health care to even the poorest.”

When I visited with Yunus in his office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, today, he had just returned from a stay in Amman, Jordan. In fact, he’s been traveling almost non-stop since he got the Peace Prize in 2006, first taking advantage of his new fame to press his ideas on the global stage, and more recently publicizing his new book, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, which went on sale in most places early this year. But now he’s planning on spending a lot of time in Bangladesh on the health care project.

This is no flash-in-the-pan idea. Yunus and his Grameen colleagues set up Grameen Health Care Services in 2006 with the goal of contributing to the country’s health care system. But when you hear what they have in mind it quickly becomes clear that this is a full-scale overhaul rather than a tune up. They plan on building and operating hospitals, community health centers, mobile clinics, and testing centers. They’ll establish medical universities and health training schools. They’ll conduct health science research. And they’ll establish pharmaceutical companies with the goal of delivering affordable drugs to poor people.

This organization, one of more than 25 Grameen-affiliated outfits that Yunus and his colleagues have set up over the past 30 years, is structured as what he calls a “social business,” meaning people pay for services and the organization aims to operate in the black-but produces no return to shareholders. The profits are to be plowed back into expanding services..

The most pressing need for health care in this country of 150 million is in, no surprise, the rural villages. Villages and towns in the hinterlands have had difficulty recruiting and keeping doctors. Yunus’s idea is to set up medical schools that train doctors specifically to work in villages, focusing on the medical and social skills that are needed there. They’ll provide scholarships for young people who agree to spend at least 4 years working in the villages, but will also offer them career ladders that allow them to migrate to the places they prefer to work. “That way, they won’t feel stuck and quit.”

The company’s first project is establishing four eye-care specialty hospitals. The first one just opened-a 30-bed facility in the city of Bogra. Charities have been providing the seed money to get these projects started, but the idea is that they will quickly become self-sustaining. Yunus says he’s actively looking for a 200-acre parcel of land for his first medical school.

His plans seem incredibly ambitious, but when he pioneered micro-credit decades ago people in the traditional banking profession doubted he’s get very far by loaning money to poor people without demanding collateral. He proved them wrong. Now he’s out to defy conventional wisdom again.

Source: Business Week Blog (link opens in a new window)