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  • Is this the way to treat our Nobel laureate? Print
    By Mahfuz Anam
    Friday, March 4, 2011
    Can a technicality be the main measure of judging a man of Yunus' stature?

    So after all the talk of "blood sucking" and "siphoning off billions" the real guilt of our one and only Nobel Laureate and globally admired microcredit pioneer and Grameen Bank (GB) founder, is that he is too old to continue as the Managing Director and that his reappointment was not endorsed by the Bangladesh Bank. Did he become too old yesterday or in the recent past? Prof Muhammad Yunus is now more than 70 years old. So what was the Bangladesh Bank, the finance ministry and the several governments that came and went in the meantime, doing for all these years? Why was the so-called irregularity in his reappointment not corrected earlier? Why the process was not challenged either administratively or in the court of law? Why something that was not an issue for ten years, has suddenly become one?

    The answer is simple. The government does want him to go and so he must go. The prime minister made her views clear in a recent press conference when she accused him and microcredit of "Sucking the blood" of the poor asserting that "business in the name of the poor will not be allowed". Suddenly Yunus became a villain and was being denigrated in a section of media with false and highly derogatory propaganda. Absurd cases began to be lodged with even more absurd accusations.

    Of course, someday, Prof Yunus will have to relinquish responsibility of leading the bank he founded. If he is intelligent enough to win a Nobel Prize, he must be intelligent enough to know that he cannot be Grameen Bank's MD forever. So his succession is but a natural question. But the way the government has so far proceeded clearly shows its malicious intent based neither in the interest of millions of poor borrowers of GB nor in the interest of its better management but on a political and personal vendetta that will greatly harm the image of Bangladesh and the reputation of microcredit as a poverty alleviation tool.

    Since the matter of his reappointment is now in the courts we will wait for it to guide us on the legal issues. Our focus today is on what Yunus' work represents.
    Ever since the end of the Second World War, numerous attempts were made at poverty alleviation but none caught the imagination of the world as microcredit did. Country after country, spread through all the continents, now practise this particular model of extending credit to the poorest segment of society. From countries in the advanced capitalist world of the West, including the USA, France, Spain to the socialist world including China, monarchies like Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, several countries of Africa and Latin America have now embraced microcredit. As this model of poverty alleviation spread so did the reputation of Bangladesh and of Yunus with the result that the man and the institution he created won the Nobel Peace Prize bringing boundless pride to our people.

    How much microcredit has succeeded in alleviating poverty continues to be debated. But the fact that it has helped the poor in some ways is beyond question. There are many studies that prove it.

    Those who argue that microcredit entraps a borrower into a cycle of debt focuses on few hundred (may be thousands) failed microcredit users and ignores the millions who have benefited. Today there are more than eight million borrowers of GB alone. Together with other microfinance institutions there are about 20 million borrowers. How many of them have become entrapped into a cycle of borrowing -- may be several thousands. Compared to 20 million what percentage is that? This debate needs to be more fact based rather than ideology or prejudice based.

    Financial aspect is only one of the total impacts of Prof Yunus' work. No financial institution before GB placed women in the centre of its work. For Bangladesh it had revolutionary consequences. Yunus gave rural Bangladeshi women access to money which they never had. They proved to be judicious and incisive investors and remarkably dependable borrowers with 99 per cent return rate. With money in their hands, women gained confidence, self respect, and a say in the affairs of the family which had been monopolised by men. They invested well and changed the face of participation of women in rural economy.

    While women's movements may have brought gender issues to the fore, it is the work of GB, followed by others later, that transformed our rural women, changing forever their mindset, worldview and leadership ability. If money speaks loud, especially in a setting of poverty, then financial empowerment of women that GB brought about gave louder and louder voice to our women. This led to their greater participation in national and local elections and demanding quota in local bodies.

    Most importantly the work of GB and numerous NGOs empowered our women, making them conscious of their rights and thereby stemming the possible rise of fundamentalism in our countryside. There can be no denying of the role of our NGOs in fighting fundamentalism, and GB's central role in this process.

    With women in the centre of all its activities GB led the fight against early marriage, dowry, domestic violence, misuse of fatwa, etc. Through the formation of borrowers' group GB launched a socialization process that created a fraternity among women who, by standing by each other in times of societal and male oppression, created a type of collective resistance that led to the erosion of rural power structure. No wonder religious extremists always hated NGOs and especially the work of GB.

    We have written about women at some length simply because women's emancipation lies at the heart of Bangladesh's future and GB's role in it needs to be fully appreciated.

    Under visionary leadership of Yunus, GB moved into innovative partnerships with global companies like Danone, Adidas, Viola, etc. to provide nutritious yogurt, cheap shoes and safe drinking water at affordable prices. Its stunningly successful partnership has been with Telenor of Norway, leading to the formation of GrameenPhone (GP), by far the most successful mobile company in the country, now the highest taxpaying company at Tk 900 crore annually.

    All this Yunus did without a single taka of profit for himself. His salary remains fixed at what he gets as MD of GB (which is equivalent to that of a secretary of the government, without its perks) and he receives nothing from the nearly two dozen companies he has set up. His office is austere with book shelves and some wooden chairs and a square desk for himself. He shares his quarters with four other senior GB officials in a small five story building, each occupying a floor. Till his Nobel Prize he had no personal transport but used the bank's microbus when moving around. His trademark Grameen check (a home grown handloom product) attire is now a well known global trademark that projects Bangladesh's clothes and designs wherever he goes which, these days, is pretty much everywhere.

    We in Bangladesh are always complaining that the world is not recognising our achievements and that international media always focuses on the negative. Well the world recognised Yunus, and the global media have written ceaselessly about him mostly in his praise. Finally when someone takes Bangladesh to the global stage, we 'sack' him, call him a "blood sucker" an "exploiter of poor" and lodge false cases against him. How beautifully we project our country's image!

    He has not only received the Nobel Prize, but many other prestigious awards in the world. Perhaps no individual in the recent past has received as many awards and accolades as Prof Yunus. Numerous world famous universities run courses on his work. Many have centres and departments named after him. There is hardly any university of standing that has not asked him to lecture and very few recent gatherings of world leaders where he has not been asked to speak. Few noteworthy bookstores around the world would not have works written by him. The above brief description of Yunus' achievements is an attempt to bring home to the readers the magnificent level to which he has taken Bangladesh. No other individual has done remotely as much to make our country known to the world as Prof Muhammed Yunus did.

    Is this the way to treat a man who has brought us so much honour, dignity and recognition?

Banker to the Poor   Banker to the Poor Banker to the Poor GF USA