My 2016 highlight

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Let’s face it, 2016 dashed many of our aspirations. We experienced swathes of celebrity deaths, the decision to Brexit and a new leader elected to run the “free world”. But I will always remember that 2016 was the year I saw world-renowned economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus take to the stage.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, according to Newton’s third law of physics. Can the same be said of thought patterns? Could thinking opposite solve some of the planet’s greatest challenges?

Engaging an opposite mindset is at the heart of Yunus’ business, the Grameen Bank (GB), and his pioneering work in the field of microcredit. The economist won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for proving that lending money to the poor to run their own micro-businesses can transform lives.

Yunus’ own awakening came in 1974 when, as a Bangladeshi economist at Chittagong University, he took his students on a field trip to a remote village. When he met a bamboo-stool seller who was forced to pay back lenders at an interest rate as high as 10% each week, leaving her with pitiful profits, he realised that the kind of economics he taught was fundamentally wrong. Against the advice of banks and government, Yunus arranged microloans at market interest rates and in 1983 formed the GB – “village bank” – founded on principles of trust instead of so-called collateral.

Yunus’ first battle was with other banks. “Bankers told me that lending to the poor was absurd. They said, ‘Banking is a process in which you lend money to people who need it’. But I replied, ‘You lend money to people who already have lots of money but you don’t lend money to people who have nothing’.”

Yunus learnt how conventional banks went about their business – and then he did the opposite. “I created a bank that was almost the mirror image of the traditional bank. They go to the rich, we go to the poor. They choose cities, we choose remote villages. They focus on men, we focus on women.”

And it worked. By 2015 in Bangladesh, GB had 2,568 branches with 21,751 staff serving 8.81 million borrowers in 81,392 villages. Of the borrowers today, 97% are women. The loans are paid back at a higher recovery rate (97%) than any other banking system.

Yunus is often referred to as the “world’s banker to the poor”, but has anyone ever stopped to call a private wealth manager the “world’s banker to the rich”? The value in thinking opposite and what happens when you do is the gauntlet that Yunus has thrown down – something I plan to remember in 2017.

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