The global economic crisis can be an opportunity for positive social change, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus said Saturday during a speech honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Yunus, who pioneered a micro-financing system for the poor, said the financial meltdown has shown that traditional ways of doing business have not worked.
“This economic crisis suddenly awakens us to the fact that this system is not working. When the system is not working that is the best time to undo it and redo it in a new way,” he said.
“The financial crisis on top of the food crisis, the energy crisis, the environment crisis, the social crisis — all these are combined. Isn’t it time to wake up and redo things?”
Mandela, who turns 91 on July 18, did not address the audience at City Hall, an elegant colonial building in downtown Johannesburg.
Looking sprightly in a black and white patterned shirt, he waved as he took to the stage accompanied by his wife and human rights activist, Graca Machel.
Yunus founded the Grameen Bank three decades ago in Bangladesh and while the financial markets are in turmoil, it is flourishing. The bank has more than 8 million borrowers worldwide and has lent more than $7 billion to the poor with nearly a 100 percent repayment rate.
“Those who told us it would collapse, they have collapsed,” he said.
Yunus focussed his heartening speech on how wealth can be generated and poverty eradicated through more socially conscious investment.
He said social businesses — like his bank and other companies he has created — can be used to bring health care to the sick, safe drinking water to villages and nutrition to poor children.
“Whenever I see a problem, I immediately go and create a company,” he said, to applause by Mandela.
Mandela listened attentively to the speech through big black headphones, grinning at Yunus’s humorous remarks and clapping enthusiastically to accounts of the bank’s successes.
Yunus, who is a member of The Elders, a group Mandela formed to foster peace, gave a moving tribute to the anti-apartheid hero and global icon.
“You rejected prejudices and inspired us to do so. You rejected hatred and inspired us to do so. You inspired us to love people, embrace peace. You lifted people from their insignificance and gave them honor, dignity irrespective of their race, color, religion.
“And you became the symbol of human spirit. So you will remain an inspiration for all time to come,” he said, reducing at least one woman in the audience to tears.
This year will be the first time Mandela Day, an initiative of the leader’s various foundations and charities, is celebrated on the July 18 occasion.
A concert is planned for in New York starring a host of musicians including Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, Gloria Gaynor and Angelique Kidjo. France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, will also make an appearance.
Organizers are urging people to spend 67 minutes of their time doing good in their community in honor of the years of service Mandela has given to his country.
A Web site to promote the day suggests feeding the homeless, visiting the sick or finding another way to volunteer in communities every July 18. Organizers urged people to stay involved year-round.
On the Net:
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.