Memo to Bangladesh: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Ask any American what they know about Bangladesh, and you’re likely to hear one of two things:  1) It’s a pitifully backward place cursed with floods and droughts and overpopulation and insuperable poverty; and/or 2) It’s the very fortunate place where social innovation supported by donors, the government and the poor themselves has provided leadership to the world, a phenomenon exemplified by Muhammad Yunus and his microcredit revolution.   His work has enabled eight million poor women in Bangladesh to borrow tiny sums, start cottage industries, and work to lift their families out of poverty, for which Yunus and the Grameen Bank he created won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2006 and has inspired countless others to adopt the model in other countries including the United States.

A shining example of private enterprise at work, these women who began with nothing but a small loan now own 75% of the shares in the Grameen Bank and 96.5% of the paid-up equity of the bank. Their success has been emulated around the world, and now more than one hundred twenty-five million borrowers are proving that the poorest among us are not only creditworthy but capable of extraordinary entrepreneurship.  Who wouldn’t want to emulate and perpetuate such a brilliant success?

Unfortunately, the answer is “The government of Bangladesh”.  Its central bank, the Bank of Bangladesh which regulates Grameen Bank, has instructed the board of Grameen to immediately remove founder Muhammad Yunus as Grameen’s Managing Director.

The order was a sudden and baffling effort to overturn a decision made more than a decade ago by the Grameen board (which consists of nine women who are clients and shareholders, plus three government officials) to grant an exception to its normal retirement provision so that Yunus, now 70, could continue to serve as Grameen’s Managing Director.  This dictatorial interference completely contradicts the government’s own longstanding insistence that banks operate as independent private institutions, foregoing government ownership, not to mention its forbearance for ten years of Yunus’ leadership beyond the originally stipulated retirement age of 60.

One could fill pages with speculation about what is really going on here—politically inspired media hatchet jobs might be a good place to start—but it is more important to understand the implications and to use our influence to mitigate the potential damage of this ill-advised intrusion.

The whole world benefits from the Grameen Bank.  It may be located in Bangladesh, but it is a global icon and serves a global purpose.  Arguably, more than one hundred twenty-five million microcredit borrowers around the world owe their access to financial services to the model and standards set by Grameen which served to catalyze the microfinance movement globally.  Any toxification of this wellspring diminishes its longstanding role as a source of hope to poor women everywhere and deprives newer microcredit lenders in one hundred thirty other nations of the movement’s most respected champion.  At a time when some unprincipled profiteers are attempting to mimic microcredit while inflicting usurious rates that would make a loan-shark blush, we can ill afford to lose such a beacon of integrity.

The genius and essence of Grameen Bank is rooted in its total commitment to its borrowers and no one else.  Governmental interference can only unsettle borrowers’ reciprocal commitment as demonstrated by their extraordinary rates of loan repayment, their ownership of the bank’s equity, their depositing some $800 million in the bank (two-thirds of Grameen’s total) and their highly successful management of its board and mission.  Bangladesh has until now shown remarkably good judgment in protecting the independence of its banks.  It would be beyond comprehension if it were to violate that policy now with regard to the most independent bank of all.

Yunus has written, “The microcredit movement, which is built around, and for, and with money, ironically, is at its heart, at its deepest root not about money at all.  It is about helping each person to achieve his or her fullest potential.  It is not about cash capital, it is about human capital.  Money is merely a tool that unlocks human dreams and helps even the poorest and most unfortunate people on this planet achieve dignity, respect, and meaning in their lives.”

Let us all call on the government of Bangladesh to continue its long-standing tradition of respecting the independence of Grameen Bank.  Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are already expressing their concerns to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and we should encourage our own representatives to join in this protest.  And making calls to Bangladesh’s Ambassadors to the United States and the United Nations will also make it clear that the world is waiting to applaud their government’s reaffirmation of Muhammad Yunus’ remarkable voice and spirit.

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7 Responses to Memo to Bangladesh: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

  1. Eskaie Hahn says:

    Thanks for this article Eliot. If I could be blunt, we all know Dr Yunus has been a target of Prime Minister Hasina’s resentment towards him.
    The Bangladesh Government is talking about legalities. Now when Bangladesh did became a Mecca for Justice??? We need to remember that Prime Minister Hasina herself was charged for corruption. After, she came into power the second time, she has used her power to acquit herself of these charges. The president of this government Mr Jillur has used his special power to grant clemency to 20 convicted murderers who belongs to the student wing of Awami League. Sheikh Hasina is the President of this political party.
    I think Bangladesh will be blessed to be free of Prime Minister Hasina who was termed as a “mad woman’’ by her departed Husband and Prominent Scientist Dr Wazed Mia. As a result of making this statement Dr Wazed spent the rest of his life being imprisoned in his own home.

    • Rev Sandra Mackie says:

      Maybe I missed something, but where should we write or should we use your article to send messages to elected representatives? What kind of advocacy are you asking?

      • admin says:

        Given the urgency of the situation (the Bangladesh Supreme Court is to rule next week), I recommend a phone call to the offices of Holt, Menendez, and Lautenberg as well (more important, really) making calls to Bangladesh’s Ambassadors to the United States (202/244-0183) and to the United Nations (212/867-3434). The message to leave for the ambassadors is simple: Please do no deprive Grameen Bank and the rest of the world of Muhammad Yunus’ leadership.

    • Shahed, Mohammad Muslehuddin says:

      As a Bangladeshi, I appreciate your concern for our asset Dr Yunus, Mr Eskaie Hahn. Dr Yunus has been so unfortunate to fell victim of Sheikh Hasina, who is a very vindictive person. During her previous regime between 1996-2001, the honorable court declared her ‘wrong-headed’ because of her comments and actions against the court and provoking her party’s activists against judges. She and her disciples are now playing and talking like circus clowns just to ventilate their anger against Dr Yunus.
      This should come to an end.

  2. Shair Khan ( Facebook name : Shayer Khan ) says:

    ACTUALLY FOR ME , THERE HAS BEEN A MIS COMMUNICATION SPECIALLY IN BANGLADESH . I AM FROM DHAKA , BANGLADESH . SIR PROFESSOR MUHAMMAD YUNUS STARTED THIS MICRO FINANCE IN 1974 AND GRADUALLY EXPANDED IT ALL OVER THE WORLD . ALTHOUGH OUR LOCAL POOR WOMEN HAVE BEEN BENEFITED , BUT THIS FANTASTIC SOCIAL BUSINESS WAS NOT MUCH WRITTEN OR DISCUSSED ABOUT IN BOTH PRINT AND ELECTRONIC MEDIA . MOST OF THE POLITICAL SCIENTISTS THINK – NOW THE NOBEL LAUREATE IS UNDER POLITICAL PRESSURE AND TECHNICALLY BEING MALTREATED BY SOME OTHER GOVERNMENT SECTORS ( WHICH IS NOT EXPECTED ) . THEY ALSO THINK THAT THESE THINGS ARE BEING DONE – OUT OF JEALOUSY OR THINKING THE NOBEL LAUREATE AS A FUTURE POLITICAL RIVAL . NOW HERE IS A FUNNY INSTANCE : WEEKS AGO THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF BANGLADESH SUPREME COURT SAID THAT SHEIKH HASINA ( THE HONORABLE PRIME MINISTER OF BANGLADESH ) AND SHONTU LARMA ( THE TRIBAL SEPERATIST LEADER ) DESERVE THE ‘ NOBEL PRIZE FOR PEACE ‘ ( FUNNY AS BECAUSE HE IS NOBODY TO ANNOUNCE WHO WILL WIN THE PRIZE ) . THE REASON FOR IT WHAT THE POLITICAL SCIENTISTS THINK – THE PEACE TREATY WAS DONE BETWEEN THESE TWO PERSON AROUND 12 YEARS AGO ! BUT THE BREAKING NEWS IS : JUST 5/6 DAYS AGO BLOOD SHED WAS THERE IN THE FIGHT BETWEEN THE TRIBAL AND LOCAL BANGLADESHI PEOPLE AND AT LEAST 5 PEOPLE WERE KILLED , LOTS WOUNDED ! TENSION IS STILL THERE . NOW THE CIVIL SOCIETY OF BANGLADESH WANT TO ASK THE ATTORNEY GENERAL : WHICH PRIZE SHOULD BE AWARDED TO THESE TWO LEADERS ( HE SELECTED FOR NOBEL PEACE PRIZE ) JUST AT THIS MOMENT ? WE EVERYBODY SHOULD TALK SENSE , SHOULD NOT WE ?

  3. Ronnie Ahmed says:

    You hit spot Eliot, I am of Bangladesh origin residing in Los Angeles. We are known for natural calamity, corruption, poverty or Dr. Yunus, I rather be known for the Dr. Yunus. This has been a trend there for while, all the good people are being pushed aside by evil ones, lost all hope for that poor place.

  4. Dear Mr. Daley,

    thank you very much for your article I received from Jannet – I am Grameen Student and co-founder of Kopeme Group in Togo, where we have already more than 8.000 borrowers as well as in Sierra Leone, where 400 former war widows are on their ways out of extreme poverty. Without Grameen we would not be able to do so. Professor Yunus is my mentor and spiritual guide and all I know about Microfinance and Social Business is sourced in Bangladesh. So I appreciate very much that there will be no stop to demand “Yunus back” – and to point out the background behind the attacks towards him and Grameen Bank. Thanks thus for your article.
    Heike Eggers from Germany

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