Grameen Under Attack At Home

Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen BankImage via Wikipedia
New York Times: Opinionator: Microfinance Under Fire: Both the bank and Yunus, have come under attack by the government of Bangladesh and its prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed. It has taken 35 years of painstaking effort to build Grameen into a world-class institution that serves millions of poor people. That progress could be lost if the country’s leaders fail to appreciate what makes the Grameen Bank work........ The Grameen Bank is not just the largest microlender in the world, with 8.4 million borrowers (most of them women villagers) who received more than $1 billion in loans last year, it is the flagship enterprise in an industry that, in 2009, served 128 million of the world’s poorest families. ...... Yunus, the founder of the bank, is an entrepreneurial figure cut from the same cloth as Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. He has devoted himself since the 1970s to demonstrating, institutionalizing and spreading microfinance. ...... Legally, the government owns 25 percent of Grameen and has the right to appoint a quarter of its board members, including its chairperson. In practical terms, however, the government has little justification to intercede in the bank’s operations. Today, of the Grameen Bank’s paid-up share capital, only 3.5 percent comes from the Bangladeshi government. It is the bank’s borrowers who are its majority owners. They control 75 percent of the board seats and they have supplied 96.5 percent of the paid up share capital. And it’s the savings of villagers — about $1.5 billion — that now finances the bank’s activities and growth. ......... Nevertheless, the government is proceeding to remove Yunus against the objections of its majority owners and will probably succeed. ...... Yunus is being punished for criticizing the government and making a bid to start a political party in 2007. ......... The Grameen Bank is a strong, well-managed institution with 25,000 employees. It could probably withstand his departure. Indeed, given Yunus’s age, it’s critical to pave the way for a successor. But if he is replaced in a manner that diminishes confidence, the bank could face problems. ........ the Grameen Bank depends on unusually high levels of motivation among its staff and high levels of trust among its borrowers. A forced removal of Yunus that is seen as illegitimate, politically-motivated, or vindictive could alienate thousands of employees and trigger a run on savings or loan defaults. ......... The state-owned banks have regularly extended loans to elite borrowers (who default at high rates) as a form of patronage. Unlike Grameen, which is financially self-sufficient, the state banks are perpetually in need of cash infusions from the government. ........ The Prime Minister has made it clear that she believes the interest rates are too high. ...... if the government installed a bureaucratic manager who failed to appreciate the bank’s 
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh HasinaImage via Wikipediaentrepreneurial culture, it could suck the life out of the bank. ....... Before Grameen Bank workers get hired, for example, they spend close to a year demonstrating their interest in serving the poor. They have to do things like write detailed case studies about the lives of village women to show that they genuinely care about, and understand, their clients. Managing this workforce is nothing like managing a run-of-the-mill bank. ........ Over the past few months, officials have sought to damage Yunus’s reputation, claiming without evidence that he has enriched himself at the expense of the poor, intentionally harmed borrowers, and engaged in fraud. The prime minister has called microlenders loan sharks “sucking the blood of the poor.” Her son circulated a letter which contained a litany of unfounded accusations against Yunus — the most outrageous being that the government created the Grameen Bank, not Yunus. ......... It’s not as if Bangladesh is lacking real problems that require government attention. There can be no sense in destabilizing the leading institution in an industry that provides financing to more than half of the households in the country. ........ On March 15, the Bangladeshi Supreme Court postponed ruling on Yunus’s case for two weeks........ Given that Yunus understands Grameen’s culture better than anyone, he should have a key say in any leadership change. ........ Wise governments should view microfinance programs not as adversaries, but as partners in furthering public goals — organizations that need to be regulated, but not controlled. ...... Foreign governments and multi-lateral institutions have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Grameen Bank and other large microfinance organizations in Bangladesh, and elsewhere, with the goal of alleviating poverty. They also need to remember that it’s not enough to finance development organizations. They need to protect them, too.

What the Prime Minister of Bangladesh has been up to would be like the Governor of Michigan organizing a full frontal assault on the auto industry in Detroit. It would be like the Mayor of Austin decided to drive the South By South West festival out of town.

Bangladesh has very little going on for itself. The country has been so thoroughly mismanaged for decades that Grameen is one positive thing Bangladeshis can talk about. It is not like they have a world class cricket team, or anything like that.

But no, even that one thing is too many. And so the political class in the country decided enough was enough. This guy has been getting too much respect worldwide. He has alleviated too much poverty. If the poor don't stay poor, who will vote for those politicians based on their empty promises every few years?

Grameen is the only thing Bangladesh has going on for itself on the global stage - when was the last time they won an Olympic medal, I have never heard of their name in World Cup Soccer - and it is as if that one thing is too many for the politicians in Bangladesh, the roving bandits of reeking corruption.

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