Barbara Weber, who worked at Grameen Foundation from 2002 to 2006, was a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar in Bangladesh and is now working on her Ph.D. in depth psychology.
Bangladesh went from being dubbed the world’s basket case in 1973 by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to becoming a beacon of development innovation that the rest of the world has since sought to emulate, thanks in large measure to its pioneering in microfinance. This renown is fast turning to infamy, however, as political vendetta cannibalizes the very source of the nation’s well-deserved pride.
The country’s acclaim reached a crescendo in 2006, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Grameen Bank and its founder, Professor Muhammad Yunus, for creating a system that has enabled the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. It has done this so effectively that its microfinance model has been studied exhaustively and replicated around the world.
What ensued next seems to have won Yunus the ire of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. In 2007, the newly ordained Nobel laureate made a fleeting and ill-fated foray into politics in a vacuum that was created when a military-backed interim government began jailing operatives of the country’s top political parties. Sheikh Hasina herself was temporarily in exile and charged with masterminding crime.
Some saw this as a potential turning point for a country that had topped Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt governments in the world. Bangladesh was number-one on that list for five consecutive years. But when national elections were held in 2008, Sheikh Hasina – who had held the post of prime minister from 1996 to 2001 – again took office. Now, she and her party in power seem intent on systematically dismantling Grameen Bank.
In apparent collusion with the current government, the country’s highest court recently upheld the ouster of Grameen Bank’s founder as managing director. The Supreme Court will have one more opportunity to review the case in a ruling that is due on May 2. In the meantime, Prof. Yunus remains managing director of the Bank while the world watches attentively and awaits Bangladesh’s next move.
Meanwhile, more trouble is brewing, as a government-sponsored review committee prepares to release a report with recommendations concerning Grameen Bank’s future. As could be anticipated, there are media reports that the ruling Awami League is setting the stage to change the composition of the Bank’s governance structure, in a move that effectively would wrest more control for itself at the expense of the Bank’s 8.3 million borrower-owners.
A hostile takeover of one of the world’s premier microfinance institutions would not only be a miscarriage of justice. If those whom Grameen Bank is designed to serve are disenfranchised, then it would be a deep and far-reaching travesty. None would pay more dearly than the millions of borrower-owners – 96% of whom are women. These are people who once may have been struggling to survive at the margins of human existence but who now have the opportunity to build better lives for themselves and their families.
Grameen Bank is different than a typical financial institution. It asks how the poor can be set up for success, and gears its operations accordingly. Its mission is based on the belief that poverty is not the fault of the poor person; rather, poverty is entrenched because of the mindsets that we hold and the institutions we build.
It is a bank of the people, by the people, and for the people. Those who use its credit and savings services to work their way out of poverty also own 96.5% of its capital structure. They are its shareholders. And elected from among the 8.3 million members are nine women who serve on the Bank’s 12-person Board of Directors. The other three, including the chairman, are appointed by the government.
To regard those elected from among the Bank’s borrowers as incapable of representing the interests of their constituents and fellow shareholders is uninformed. They are far from being ignorant players, as some in the government-aligned Bangladeshi media assert. On the contrary, their level of engagement highlights an often-ignored benefit of participating in microfinance.
As is commonly known, those who benefit from microfinance typically are better able to feed, clothe, educate, and shelter themselves and their families. Many make substantive material gains, not to mention the increase in social capital as a result of the relationships forged through involvement with the Bank and fellow borrowers. Furthermore, a woman’s sense of self can be transformed.
Anyone who has ever visited Grameen Bank and witnessed one of the weekly meetings, when women gather in their village to conduct bank business, can recognize instantly which women are new. Where a first-time borrower dressed in her tattered and torn sari with eyes cast down might demur, those who have been with the Bank over time exude a confidence and palpable sense of pride.
As a researcher who studied poverty and strategies for overcoming it, I spent a year coming to know the lives of the nine borrowers who served on the Grameen Bank Board. As a non-native, Bangla-speaking woman, I was unusually privy to searingly intimate details of these women’s lives.
One moment in particular blindsided me. Though clearly anecdotal, it captures something of what these women bring to their role as directors of the Bank.
One day, a Grameen Bank director and I stood outside the local branch office awaiting the arrival of her male escort. (Women in Bangladesh generally move about accompanied by a man, in keeping with the cultural tradition of purdah.) Eventually, I inquired into the whereabouts of her husband/son/brother/uncle. But she was waiting for no one. When my astonishment showed, she looked me in the eye and, speaking in Bangla, said, “I don’t do fear.”
When the Board of Directors met in Dhaka, what I saw was enthusiastic and vigorous participation. I saw women with opinions that were rooted in lived experience. Their voice has an essential place at the table. Stewardship of the Bank’s future is no small matter, and the interests of those whom the Bank exists to serve ought to be paramount.
Its founding managing director has a unique contribution to make in navigating the imminent leadership transition, ensuring continuity of the institutional ethos and preserving the Bank’s resilience. The Bank’s future rests on continued fidelity to its core values even – and especially – amidst change.
Grameen Bank is a bastion of human dignity. To allow its overthrow – to tolerate changes to its representational governance structure, to tolerate its directors being disenfranchised as part of a larger hostile takeover – would be tantamount to accepting its demise.
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