Removal of Muhammad Yunus and the impact on the poor

S. Mohiuddin, a Bangladeshi citizen living in the US, shares her viewpoint on Muhammad Yunus.

The world is stupefied by the Bangladeshi government’s malevolent campaign against microcredit pioneer Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus and the government’s attempts to take control of the Grameen Bank. Bangladeshis speak of a well-known grudge harbored by the country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, pointing to her own lobby for the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as to her ill-concealed acrimony towards Yunus after his short-lived effort to build an alternative political party in 2007.

Sheikh Hasina’s government has charged Yunus with everything but the kitchen sink. There are claims that Yunus is “too old” to run the bank, that his post is “illegal” and that Grameen Bank has not eradicated poverty in Bangladesh. So obvious is the culmination of PM Hasina’s longstanding personal hostility towards Yunus, that any attempts to attach “good governance” justifications behind her persecution appear to be disingenuous. Grameen Bank has appealed the government’s move to oust Yunus from his leadership post and Yunus’ position at the bank now hangs on the March 15 verdict of the Bangladeshi Supreme Court.

World leaders, development organizations, and opinion leaders have spoken out in support of Yunus. Bangladeshis, too, are vocal about their support as well as their embarrassment of the government’s 180 degree swivel away from liberal traditions and respect for civil society organizations. But no words or actions are persuading the government to relent.

Whatever schadenfreude PM Hasina seems to be feeling from tarnishing Bangladesh’s reputation, it cannot be enough to offset the misery that could befall the poorest people in her own country. Grameen Bank is 95 percent owned by approximately 8.3 million borrowers, primarily consisting of low-income Bangladeshi women. The Bangladesh government holds a 5 percent stake. The abrupt dismissal of Muhammad Yunus could create a crisis of confidence at the bank. Grameen borrowers are already anxious. According to Romila Khatun, 53, “Grameen Bank was established by Yunus for the poor people like us, not by the government. He brought attention of the world to Bangladesh through his activities and the government now is trying to destroy it.” Another borrower, Fazilatunnesa, 52, from Khulna who built a poultry farm with the money from the Grameen says: “I am really stunned to know about the removal of Yunus. Grameen loans helped me come out of extreme poverty.”

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the chair of the world’s largest NGO, BRAC has said: “A big capital of such organizations is the intrinsic community level trust that they have earned. This trust element must not be underestimated. If this trust is lost, then there may be delinquencies, intentional refusal to repay loans, or large-scale withdrawal of savings by the members.”

An organization of Grameen’s size and stature should definitely develop a succession plan for its sustainability. Yunus himself has expressed a desire to hand over his duties to a successor. What we find disturbing is the politically motivated and personal nature of the attacks that have been set in motion to remove Yunus without proper consideration of the impact of those actions. This week, the world’s leading microfinance institutions warned: “Forced removal [of Dr. Yunus] creates unnecessary risk for the more than 8 million borrowers-owners of the bank.”

Indeed, the poor have been the main beneficiaries of Yunus’ diligence and hard work in building up Grameen Bank over the last three decades. Aside from providing small loans to the poor through the bank, Yunus has created several additional initiatives which have lifted living standards for the poor, including rural telecommunications, food security and sustainable livelihoods through aquaculture and dairy resources, as well as renewable energy access in remote areas. It would be a shame to see even the smallest negative impact on such initiatives in a country where about 60 million people live below the poverty line.

Anyone who cares about global poverty should care about what is happening with Yunus and contribute in whatever way they can to preserve the integrity of a great man and the institution he has built. Yunus’ contribution to poverty reduction is indisputable. He has recast poor people from being seen as passive recipients of aid to entrepreneurial and reliable people, and has provided hope to millions of under-served women. Today, there are some 7,000 microfinance institutions serving 16 million poor people worldwide. Just as importantly, Yunus’ influence and words have moved thousands of business leaders, academics, and social entrepreneurs into further activities on behalf of the poor. It is time that advocates of the poor all around the world – irrespective of their views on the impact of microfinance –- stand together with Yunus against this gross injustice.