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.