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'World cannot be sustainable' with poverty around us

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus pioneered the concept of microcredit and microfinance. At the World Economic Forum he tells DW's Manuela Kasper-Claridge his take on sustainable development and equality.

DW: Professor Yunus, the UN implemented the sustainable development goals. Do you think that was a sensible move?

Muhammad Yunus: This is the first time the entire world got together to address its problems in a sustainable way. This is very important. To me, the planet itself is sustainable, it works. If we don't solve the problem of climate change the planet will not disintegrate - but we will. We will perish.

But if we don't solve the problem of poverty, the problem of inequality, the world cannot be a sustainable world. Human society cannot be sustainable under those circumstances.

To make our world a sustainable world, both physically and socially, we have to be aware of the problem. In the case of global warming, many many citizens around the world work very hard to explain to people that the world is in danger.

In the beginning, forty years back, if you or I had told someone about global warming, they would have said you were crazy. ‘The world has gone on for a million years and nothing happened, and now you are telling me it will happen in the next 30 years, 40 years, 50 years? You are out of your mind.' Nobody believed that. But people kept bringing it up, they supplied scientific evidence and convinced people. So governments got together and said: ‘No, we have to stop this here. The global temperature cannot exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above what it was before the industrial age.' They made a decision.

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus

We have to become aware of the fact that we are in the middle of another process, which is the

accumulation of all the wealth in the world in very few hands.

We are not aware of that, unless somebody tells us something like that 62 people now own [as much wealth as the poorer half] of the world. Last year it was 80 people and 10 years back it was 380 people. What will be next year? If you go on, soon we'll have a situation where one person owns the whole world. So we have to know that and then we have to think about how we can stop this, because if we don't stop it, this process will continue and where will that lead?

So how does this wealth accumulate and are the people accumulating it aware of that? Some of these rich people themselves say: ‘I don't want to own the whole world.' Would they do something about it? And there are ways to do something, like giving the money to a trust, like Bosch did. Bosch is a company but Robert Bosch gave the whole company to a trust and the trust expands it. It's not owned by anybody. So we could do that. There are 101 ideas we could pursue, once we become aware of the problem.

So I would say first, become aware of the problem and then come up with solutions. What was done in the past in this context on a small scale? People didn't recognize it at the time but let's bring this solution back again and make it big.

And suddenly we see, we might not change the whole problem of inequality for now, but we could stop increasing the concentration of wealth. So perhaps next year, it won't be 61 people who own half the wealth of the world, but instead it will be 63 or 64. That would mean we will have done something. Then we'll think about the next step: How to make this wealth available to everybody else.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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