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Creating a Thailand without Poverty
By Chavapas Ongmahutmongkol

In 2006, Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Muhammad Yunus, known as the "banker to the poor," received the top Nobel honor for handing out small loans to help those in desperate poverty begin income-generating projects. Later this week, Muhammad Yunus visits Bangkok , it is perhaps opportune to revisit the question: How can we bridge the gap between the rich and poor in Thailand?

With the market and political turmoil in recent past, little attention has been paid to the less privileged in our society. Market and political reforms around the world have not succeeded in eliminating poverty or the growing gap between rich and poor. We can no longer assume that there is a direct correlation between economic growth and the alleviation of poverty and there is much to be done to achieve significant progress in the struggle against poverty and social ills.

Enter Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and father of micro-credit. What he has achieved in Bangladesh can be a model for social innovation and social enterprises the world over. Through Grameen Bank and its numerous affiliates, Yunus has provided Bangladeshis with a highly elevated standard of living, lifting over a million people out of poverty. He has instilled in his clients the dignity of work, the satisfaction of health care and nutrition, the value of knowledge, and a community of trust and cooperation. Clients of Grameen Bank are asked to adhere to a list of 16 principles that will help raise their standard of living ranging from keeping their family sizes small, putting their child through school (with scholarships Grameen Shikkha), boiling water before drinking, through to subjecting themselves to regular health check-ups. With the common aim of raising standards of living and enabling prosperity amongst the poor, Grameen affiliates have succeeded in providing sufficient nutrition for children (Grameen Danone), raising productivity by providing access to electricity (Grameen Shakti), and providing access to information allowing farmers to check on the weather and latest commodity prices to get a fair value for their goods (Grameen Phone, Grameen Telecom, Grameen Cybernet).

What can Thailand learn from this experience? Thailand is fortunate to have many social organizations that help to plug the gap between rich and poor. Many royal foundations have been immensely successful in raising the standards of living of the under-privileged and as such we are highly blessed. There is, however, perhaps a role for us to play and something that we can learn from the Grameen model of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship.

Bill Drayton, Founder of the Ashoka Foundation, insisted that social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry. They are the driven, creative individuals who question the status quo, exploit new opportunities and refuse to give up.

Social entrepreneurs work to solve social problems, but they are not just concerned with the problem at hand. They work to bring change to the social dynamics and systems that have perpetuated the problem. Social entrepreneurs work as catalysts for social transformation; the changes they effect will work as pressure points to eventually trigger and cascade larger social transformation in the longer term.

The central aim of social entrepreneurs is to create a lasting social impact via a commercially sustainable enterprise. Social entrepreneurship and social enterprises are not entirely a new concept - Harvard Business School added a course called Social Factors in Business Enterprise back in 1915. Whats revolutionary and transformational is in the way that Muhammad Yunus, Bill Drayton, Jeff Skoll, Klaus Schwab, and others have come to redefine and expand the concept of social enterprises. In its new form, social enterprises are no longer solely dependent on charitable donations or government funding as the means to fund their work. As an example, Grameen Phone sells mobile phones and air-time to village entrepreneurs, who in turn, provide telephone services to the community. Grameen Shakti (Energy) sells solar-power electrical units to rural villagers, supported by social engineers who in turn, can sell the electricity to nearby houses. These services are in itself profitable and at the same time serve a social purpose.

Robert F. Kennedy once said in a speech in 1966: Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation; a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth; a young woman reclaimed the territory of France; and it was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the 32 year-old Thomas Jefferson who [pro]claimed that "all men are created equal. These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.

With Prof. Yunus visit to Bangkok in mid-week, this is an opportune time to raise the awareness of this new era of social enterprises and the role that we, as social entrepreneurs can play in building a better society, a better Thailand, for all.


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