Todd Bernhardt is Director of Marketing and Communications at Grameen Foundation.
As you might have read in the news this week, the Bangladeshi government seems to be moving into the end game in its longtime effort to take over Grameen Bank, a move that has been widely criticized within Bangladesh and around the world. To briefly summarize, the cabinet – presided over by Prime Minister Sheik Hasina – voted on Thursday to amend the Grameen Bank Ordinance of 1983, effectively removing the Board of Directors’ right to choose the Bank’s Managing Director, and vesting that power instead in the Board’s government-appointed (and aligned) chairman.
As troubling as that disenfranchisement of the Bank’s 8.3 million borrower-owners is (more than 8 million of these owners are poor women), equally troubling is a directive from the cabinet to the Finance Ministry to examine and report on the salaries and benefits that Grameen Bank founder Professor Muhammad Yunus received after he turned 60, which is the official age of retirement from the Bank. It also asked the Ministry to examine whether he earned foreign currency that was tax-exempt during his time as Managing Director.
(Prof. Yunus, who is 72 and going stronger than ever, was exempted from the retirement age by the Grameen Bank Board, whose decision was reviewed and accepted by the government for more than a decade before it suddenly decided that he was too old for the job; the post of Deputy Managing Director was also exempted. For more information on the government’s 21-month campaign against Prof. Yunus and the Bank, see this Fact Sheet developed by the Friends of Grameen organization. Grameen Foundation President and CEO Alex Counts also recently blogged about this issue.)
Let’s look at the second part of the cabinet’s actions first. The idea that Prof. Yunus would benefit financially from any of his activities advocating for the poor is patently absurd. Throughout his career, he has had multiple opportunities to join corporate boards as a paid advisor or even to lead for-profit organizations, for great personal gain – yet he has declined. He has consistently donated whatever money he has earned as a public speaker to social businesses dedicated to serving the poor or to other charitable causes – including Grameen Foundation, which began with $6,000 that he earned from one such speaking engagement. He lives in a small apartment on the Grameen Bank campus. All of his activities – either as leader of Grameen Bank or as leader of the Yunus Centre, which focuses on fostering social businesses – have been other-focused, rather than focused on personal gain.
As for the government’s moves to give the Bank’s chairman almost unlimited power to choose a new Managing Director and to sideline the poor women who own this successful, innovative, Nobel Prize-winning microfinance institution – well, to many, it smacks of pure desperation, and an attempt to shift public attention away from a number of public policy failures. The government of Sheikh Hasina is facing a host of challenges and embarrassments at home, including the recent cancellation by the World Bank of a loan to fund the $1.2 billion Padma Bridge project – a huge infrastructure initiative that was going to be a hallmark of her administration – because of corruption within the government and contractors involved. She herself has become more autocratic and combative, as noted by The Economist in several articles, and as demonstrated by a recent appearance on the BBC’s “Hard Talk” interview show, where – among other things – she argued with the presenter about accusing Prof. Yunus of “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation” (a well-documented quote from her referring to him) and misrepresented Grameen Bank’s interest rates, saying that it charges between 30 and 45%, when her own administration has confirmed studies showing that the Bank’s highest charge is roughly 20%, seven points below the maximum rate set by the government.
Professor Yunus, who was a surprised and disappointed as the rest of us by the cabinet decisions and directives, released the following statement on Friday:
I was very apprehensive about it for some time. Now my fear is becoming a reality. I am disappointed that we were not successful in stopping this process. It makes me immensely sad to see the poor women being deprived of their rightful ownership and their rights as owners to exercise their power over the bank. I am so shocked by the turn of events that I am left without words. I request my fellow citizens who are as shocked as I am, to try to persuade our government to realise that this is a very wrong step they are taking; they should refrain from proceeding with this. The decision of the government would destroy this well known bank for the poor, the bank that has made the country proud. I urge our fellow countrymen to come forward and save this successful national enterprise owned by the poor women. I am also urging the poor owners of Grameen Bank to appeal to the government and the citizens to come forward to help them safeguard their rightful ownership of the Bank.
What can non-Bangladeshis do about these injustices? You can take action by speaking up – Grameen Foundation has a petition that we plan to give soon to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking her to reiterate the U.S. government’s strong support for the continued independence of Grameen Bank and the rights of the poor women who own it. Microcredit Summit has its own petition on Change.org, also in support of the continued independence of the Bank, that it plans to give to Sheikh Hasina. Please sign both petitions, and urge your friends, family and those on your social networks to do the same.
We would also ask that you contact your legislative representatives, and the media, no matter where you live, and let them know how important it is to you that the world’s flagship microfinance institution remain independent and able to continue its effective, innovative role in the ongoing battle against poverty. Time is short. The Bangladeshi government’s commission reviewing the Bank and the other Grameen social businesses is moving ahead quickly, and new actions against the Bank may be announced soon, so it’s essential that you act now to defend the rights of – and opportunities for – the world’s poorest.
In the meantime, we will keep you informed about developments as they occur. Of course, with your support, we will continue our work around the world to provide the poor with access to appropriate financial services like microsavings and loans, as well as access to life-changing, real-time information about their health, crops, animals and finances. Working together, in the spirit of innovators like Grameen Bank, we can begin to realize Prof. Yunus’s vision of putting poverty where it belongs – in a museum.