Archive for the ‘Bangladesh’ Category

“Financial Vandalism” in India, and a Way Forward

August 15, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

I was invited to give one of the closing keynote addresses to the Sa-Dhan conference, something I had been preparing for at least since I travelled to India in early July to work on an upcoming book about the latest trends in microfinance.  I had intended to arrive in time for the inaugural session on August 7, but travel delays prevented that.  (Word to the wise: when travelling to India on the non-stop flights from Newark, plan to arrive in Newark long before your onward flight is due to depart.)

Upon arrival, I was told that the conference’s mood on the first day alternated between “somber” and “angry.”  Just a few days earlier, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had announced new regulations affecting microfinance.  Though these policies rolled back some harmful policies announced a few months back and helpfully clarified others, they also introduced a controversial new rule saying that microfinance institutions over a certain size would be subject to smaller margins than they were currently allowed between the rates they borrowed and lent at.  The whipsaw nature of Indian microfinance policy at the national level, coming on the heels of the debilitating and draconian law passed in the state of Andhra Pradesh in late 2010, had justifiably enraged many of the practitioners in attendance – particularly as there had been no warning or explanation for many of the policies announced over the last 12 months.

Grameen Foundation President and CEO Alex Counts (lefts) speaks about the Indian microfinance sector at the Sa-Dhan Conference held earlier this month in that country. With him on stage are Jayshree Vyas (center), Managing Director of SEWA Bank, who served as the moderator, and Sujata Lamba of the World Bank.

Grameen Foundation President and CEO Alex Counts (left) speaks about the Indian microfinance sector at the Sa-Dhan Conference held earlier this month in that country. With him on stage are Jayshree Vyas (center), Managing Director of SEWA Bank, who served as the moderator, and Sujata Lamba of the World Bank.

The second day did not get off to a good start.  Sa-Dhan executive director Mathew Titus announced that a senior government official had canceled his opening address.  However, as the day got going, the overall mood improved.  Royston Braganza, CEO of Grameen Capital India, organized and moderated an excellent panel on “Overcoming the Barriers to Resource Flows” to the sector.  (Grameen Capital India is a joint venture between Grameen Foundation and affiliates of two major banks operating in India.)

I attended Royston’s panel and then caught the end of a concurrent panel on “business correspondent” (BC) models for MFIs working in partnership with, and essentially as agents of, fully licensed banks.  Though some recent policies about the BC model have cast doubt on the viability of MFIs being able to work effectively with banks, it was an invigorating discussion.  Mukul Jaisal, Managing Director of Indian microfinance institution (MFI) Cashpor, talked about his experience pioneering this model for providing savings services (which the MFI has been able to implement with support from Grameen Foundation).

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The Time to Defend Grameen Bank is Now

August 4, 2012

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.)

The women on Grameen Bank's Board of Directors, who represent the Bank's 8.3 million borrower-owners and are shown here with Prof. Yunus at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, are in danger of losing their ability to choose the Bank's Managing Director.

The women on Grameen Bank’s Board of Directors, who represent the Bank’s 8.3 million borrower-owners and are shown here with Prof. Yunus at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, are in danger of losing their ability to choose the Bank’s Managing Director.

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.

David Roodman Does His “Due Diligence,” and Gets it Mostly Right

February 16, 2012

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

David Roodman, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development, the country’s leading think tank on overseas aid and international development, has written Due Diligence: An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance, a remarkable book about microfinance.  It is, quite simply, the best book I have ever read about microfinance among the many I have gone through.  He analyzes the history, track record, recent developments and future of microfinance, and though I do not agree with all of his judgments, I agree with the vast majority of them and admire how he went about deconstructing such a diverse arena of human endeavor.

Most impressive is how he carries the reader through his rigorous thought process.  He repeatedly poses important questions, weighs the evidence, assesses whether there is enough information to make a definitive judgment, presents alternative answers and their implications, admits to a degree of uncertainty, and then does his best to provide an answer – all in plain language.  The hallmarks of his writing are nuance, detail-based distillations of publicly available information, fairness and dispassionate analysis.  If I had to keep one book on my desk for easy access to guide my writings, conversations, analysis and decisions, it would be his.  (Due Diligence is the culmination of research and writing process that played out on his blog, which has evolved to become a leading online source for microfinance information and analysis over the past couple of years.)

Cover of David Roodman's "Due Diligence"

Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation's president and CEO, calls David Roodman's new publication "the best book I have ever read about microfinance."

After some introductory remarks, Roodman sets the modern microfinance movement in a historical context, and does this better than I have ever seen before.  His survey also provides some important lessons for those working to expand and improve microfinance today.

The bulk of the book addresses the question “Does microfinance work?” in distinct ways. Does microfinance reduce poverty, does it improve the control the poor have over their lives regardless of whether it leads them to a poverty-free life and, thirdly, has it become a vibrant new industry that strengthens societies by enhancing ecosystems (in the broadest sense) consistent with long-term socio-economic development?  I admire how he has given equal weight to the three dimensions of “working” – I strongly agree with him that all are important and the latter two (especially the third) have been comparatively neglected by microfinance advocates and critics alike.

Due Diligence deserves to be read by anyone involved in microfinance, including those who volunteer their time or contribute and/or invest their money.  Let me summarize how he answers the main questions he asks, as well as his recommendations, and then distill how I believe someone involved with Grameen Foundation – or any microfinance network or institution – should feel about their past and future involvements, given his judgments and recommendations.

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An Update on Professor Yunus

August 24, 2011

Professor Muhammad Yunus recently paid a visit to Grameen Foundation headquarters, meeting with leaders and speaking to staff (as well as to staff from RESULTS) during a visit to Washington, DC. Todd Bernhardt, Grameen Foundation’s Director of Marketing and Communications, was part of an audience who listened to Professor Muhammad Yunus speak, and provides this update on his recent activities.

Prof. Yunus recently visited our DC office.

It’s hard to believe that it was only a bit more than three months ago that microfinance pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus stepped down from his post as Managing Director of Grameen Bank, the poverty-fighting organization that he founded in the late ‘70s. During the government’s campaign to remove him from office (read this Fact Sheet to find out more), many Grameen Foundation supporters voiced their concern about Prof. Yunus and the independence of Grameen Bank, and have wondered about his activities since then, asking us to provide an update.  A recent visit by Prof. Yunus to Washington, DC, provided us with an opportunity to catch up with him personally, while demonstrating to everyone who spoke with him that his commitment to fighting poverty through innovative solutions remains as firm as ever.


Grameen Foundation President and CEO Alex Counts welcomes Prof. Yunus (right) while Microcredit Summit Campaign Director and RESULTS founder Sam Daley-Harris listens.

Prof. Yunus stayed in Washington from Aug. 10-13, giving a keynote speech at the annual forum of InterAction (an alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs focusing on the world’s poor and vulnerable populations), making several media appearances (he spoke with NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi  and Andrea Stone at The Huffington Post) and meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He also met with a number of leaders in the international-development community – including Grameen Foundation President and CEO Alex Counts and Sam Daley-Harris, Director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign and founder of RESULTS, a anti-poverty lobbying organization – and spent a morning speaking to the staff of those organizations at Grameen Foundation’s DC headquarters.

Focusing on the Social Business
In all of his visits, Prof. Yunus emphasized the need to develop and popularize the social business, which he wrote about in his book Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism.  Simply put, social businesses are for-profit entities created primarily to serve a social goal. Such businesses strive to generate modest profits that are used to fund and expand operations, rather than to pay dividends to investors.

Since his departure from Grameen Bank, Prof. Yunus has continued to advocate for its independence from government control and to defend the interests of the Bank’s 8.3 million borrower-owners (97% of whom are poor women). Bank employees have continued to keep operations running smoothly while the Bangladesh government has seemingly turned its attention away from the Bank to unrest in the country caused by, among other things, moves to amend the constitution to remove the non-party caretaker system that oversees the country during general elections.

But many people fear that the government’s apparent lack of interest in taking control of the Bank may prove to be temporary, and that it may move again soon to amend the Bank’s bylaws and change the composition of its Board. With this in mind, Prof. Yunus urged the group assembled at the Grameen Foundation offices to remain vigilant and work with others around the world to ensure that the rights of the 8.3 million owners of the Bank are protected. “We have to stand behind them,” he said. (You can help by signing this petition asking the Bangladeshi government to keep Grameen Bank independent.)

He then reviewed the progress made by Bangladesh over the past 30 years, explaining that it was because of the power of ordinary people working together in civil society that the quality of life had improved for so many. Social business, he said, provides another way for people to work together to achieve social aims, leveraging the power of capitalism and the free market. “Business can be used to solve problems, not just to make money,” he explained. “Money is not the way to happiness. We make ourselves happy by making other people happy.”


Prof. Yunus talks to staff at Grameen Foundation’s DC headquarters about the Asian Social Business Forum recently held in Japan, while Sam Daley-Harris and Alex Counts look on.

Prof. Yunus has been traveling the world explaining the social-business concept, meeting with enthusiastic responses in the developed world (he told the group about a recent and very successful visit to Japan, which is looking at social business as an approach in rebuilding after the tsunami of last March) and in the developing world (he has been invited to visit Haiti in October to show people there how the concept could help them improve civil society).  In addition to describing a successful series of events that were held around the world on Social Business Day, June 28, he said is looking forward even more to a series of meetings in November, including the Social Business Summit in Vienna on Nov. 10-12, and the Global Microcredit Summit in Spain on Nov. 14-17.

It’s Up to Us
In taking questions from the staff at Grameen Foundation offices, Prof. Yunus emphasized the power of the individual, as well as our responsibility to empower them – all for the overall good of society. “Peace can be threatened by poverty,” he explained. Microfinance and social businesses create opportunities that “keep people from being dependent … and helps them channel their energies into positive avenues, away from violence.” Creating such opportunity, he said, also helps to address inequalities on a larger scale – between groups of people and even nations – reducing tensions and resentment.

It’s up to all of us, he concluded, to change how we view, and interact with, the world. In capitalist societies, people grow up “wearing ‘profit-maximizing glasses,’ but if you take off those glasses and put on the social-business glasses, everything looks differently! New possibilities open to you.” He gave the example of Danone, which is involved in a social business in Bangladesh that makes inexpensive, nutritious yogurt available for poor women to sell to other poor people. When Danone was starting this enterprise, and asked its shareholders if they would like to invest part of their dividends in a new business that would help people but not give them additional financial return on their investment, 98% signed up, resulting in millions of euros in investment. “Give people a choice to help others,” Prof. Yunus concluded with a smile, “and they will come through.”

Summary of Recent Issues Surrounding Grameen Bank and Prof. Yunus

June 20, 2011

A network of people who support Grameen Bank and its founder, microfinance pioneer Professor Muhammad Yunus, has put together a short, factual summary of the recent confrontation between Professor Yunus/Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh government.  It’s meant to be a quick read that will help people separate fact from fiction, with plenty of links to key documents for those who want to dig deeper.  There has been much misinformation circulated in the media and around the web about these issues, so we hope this will prove to be a reference that people can easily share, to enable supporters of microfinance to spread the truth.  This fact sheet will be updated as conditions change; to read, share or download the most recent version of this fact sheet in PDF format, visit the Friends of Grameen website.

The international media recently has been full of stories and speculation about Professor Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, joint recipients of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their work fighting poverty. Because of false accusations against Professor Yunus and the Bank – including emails and other materials widely distributed by Sajeeb Wajed, the son of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, as well as by other government officials – many of the stories were inaccurate and confused. Though Grameen Bank has responded to these allegations through the media and other means, unfortunately this disinformation campaign has continued, so we feel that it is necessary to create this fact sheet, which contains a quick review of the events as they’ve happened, as well as resources for those who want to know the truth.

In late November 2010, a Norwegian television network aired a documentary called “Caught in Micro Debt” that made a number of false accusations about Professor Yunus and Grameen Bank. For example, it said that funds received from a Norwegian aid agency, NORAD, were improperly transferred between Grameen Bank and Grameen Kalyan, its non-profit sister organization. This matter was clarified and settled between NORAD and Grameen Bank in 1998. After the documentary aired, Norway promptly investigated the transaction again, and again said there was no improper use of funds.

The documentary also claimed that Grameen Bank charged from 30% to 200% interest, but a study of Grameen Bank’s interest rates by leading authority MicroFinance Transparency noted that “Grameen has an extremely simple and transparent pricing system,” while a report by the Review Committee appointed by the government (see below) to examine the Bank noted that it has the lowest interest rates of any microfinance institution in Bangladesh, with 20% being its top rate.

Even though Prof. Yunus has resigned his post as Managing Director of the bank he founded, the Bangladeshi government has continued to pursue efforts to take over Grameen Bank, and even to take control of unrelated social businesses that share the Grameen name.

Even though Prof. Yunus has resigned his post as Managing Director of the bank he founded, the Bangladeshi government has continued to pursue efforts to take over Grameen Bank, and even to take control of unrelated social businesses that share the Grameen name.

Even so, the Bangladesh government – led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who reportedly has viewed Professor Yunus as a political rival since he looked into setting up a political party in 2007 – led a campaign to force Professor Yunus from his post as managing director of Grameen Bank, with the 77-year-old finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, claiming that the 70-year-old Yunus was “too old” for his post. At a press conference following release of the documentary, the prime minister stepped up the rhetoric, accusing Professor Yunus of “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation.” Other officials of her government, including the Foreign Minister, the Agriculture Minister, top Awami League officials and special advisors, made repeated false allegations and personal attacks against Professor Yunus.

Muhith repeatedly asked for Yunus’s resignation, but Professor Yunus declined, reminding Muhith that – according to the Grameen Bank Ordinance of 1983 – only the Grameen Bank Board of Directors had the right to hire or fire the managing director, since the Bank is an independent entity. (The Bank’s board comprises 13 people, three of whom – including the chairman – are appointed by the government, with nine being elected by the Bank’s 8.3 million borrower-owners, and the managing director as the remaining member.)  The government then stepped up the pressure by appointing a disgruntled ex-employee and vocal critic of Professor Yunus, Muzammel Huq, as chairman of the Grameen Bank Board in January.

In early March, the Bangladesh Bank (backed by the Finance Ministry) informed Grameen Bank that Professor Yunus had been acting as managing director without its consent, which it claimed was a violation of its rules.  The letter also cited his age as a factor, and called on the Board to take appropriate action. Grameen Bank immediately responded to these allegations, showing that the Bangladesh Bank had given express approval of his appointment, and that his appointment had been extended formally and indefinitely. Professor Yunus and the nine independent Directors then began a legal process to declare the letters invalid.  After the country’s High Court summarily dismissed the petition, the petitioners turned to the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, which in early May also dismissed the petition, despite well-reasoned and impassioned arguments from Grameen Bank’s attorneys.

Grameen Bank has fully cooperated with a Review Committee set up by the Bangladesh government to examine the Bank’s operations. The Review Committee’s report, submitted to the Finance Ministry in late April, confirmed that there was no wrongdoing involved in the transfer of Norwegian aid funds, and acknowledged that Grameen Bank’s interest rates are the lowest in the country. The Committee found no evidence of mismanagement or personal corruption among Grameen Bank employees, complimented Bank staff on their cooperation, and acknowledged the tremendous contributions made by the Bank on the country’s socio-economic condition. However, the Committee’s incorrect assumptions that Grameen Bank is a “government bank” and other incorrect findings prompted a detailed refutation by Grameen Bank.

On May 12, Professor Yunus announced he resigned from his post as managing director of the Bank, handing the position to Deputy Managing Director, Nurjahan Begum, while the Board conducts a search for a permanent replacement.  In a letter to his colleagues at the Bank, as well as a letter to the Bank’s borrower-owners, he emphasized the importance of maintaining the Bank’s independence, which the government is threatening to take away.

Professor Yunus has worked tirelessly to create other independent social businesses committed to promoting social good.  It now seems as if the government is now looking to take control of these enterprises, too.

Throughout this period, a network of supporters inside and outside of Bangladesh – millions of everyday people, as well as well-known politicians, diplomats and business leaders – have contributed their time and effort to protect the reputation of Professor Yunus and the independence of Grameen Bank. In addition, 3.7 million of Grameen Bank’s borrower-owners signed a petition asking that Professor Yunus stay involved with the Bank in some capacity.

You can help spread the truth and defend the independence of Grameen Bank by sharing this document with your friends, by voicing your opinion on social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.), and by keeping informed about the latest Grameen Bank and Yunus Centre news.

It’s vitally important that the following points are reinforced in advocacy efforts:

  • Grameen Bank must remain independent and free of government interference.
  • Professor Yunus should be made chairman of Grameen Bank’s Board of Directors, to ensure smooth transition of the Bank’s management.
  • The government must respect the authority of the Bank’s Board of Directors, and not change its composition or reduce the number of elected directors, which would weaken the voice of its borrower-owners.
  • Other Grameen organizations, established as independent social businesses, should remain independent and free of government interference.

Thank you.

Statement from Alex Counts on the resignation of Prof. Muhammad Yunus

May 13, 2011

Statement from Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, on the resignation of microfinance pioneer Professor Muhammad Yunus, winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of Grameen Bank.

The resignation of Professor Muhammad Yunus yesterday marks an important transition in the work and mission of Grameen Bank.  For 35 years, his deep commitment to the world’s poorest people and unshakeable belief in their power to help themselves escape poverty have shaped the work of the Bank and its more than 26,000 employees in Bangladesh.  His ideals, which have inspired countless others and helped to build a global movement to empower the poor through access to financial services, do not end with his term as Grameen Bank’s managing director.

Throughout his career, Professor Yunus has never been afraid to speak his mind nor challenge the status quo, earning both praise and criticism in many quarters.  He dispelled prevailing notions about the abilities of poor people by creating Grameen Bank, which today serves more than 8.3 million people across Bangladesh.  His recognition of poverty’s complexity also led to the creation of the Grameen family of companies, which focus on solving problems related to a range of issues, including hunger, educational disparities and access to affordable energy. (For more information about the Grameen family of companies, see M. Khalid Shams’ paper, Accelerating Poverty Reduction in Bangladesh Through the Grameen Family of Companies: Building Social Enterprises as Business Ventures].  That voice of reason will continue to echo, as will his unrelenting quest to promote social businesses and other changes that benefit poor people.

Prof. Yunus has always focused on serving the poor in Bangladesh, and around the world.

Prof. Yunus has always focused on serving the poor in Bangladesh, and around the world.

His bold vision of a world free from poverty has unleashed a powerful force that will continue, both in Bangladesh and abroad.  I’m proud to say that he planted the early seeds of Grameen Foundation.   He also played a pivotal role in launching the Microcredit Summit Campaign in 1997, which achieved its nine-year goal of reaching more than 100 million poor families with microcredit – and has now launched a second goal of reaching 175 million by 2015.  Equally important, he has inspired individuals in such diverse places as Haiti, India and Nigeria to launch organizations modeled after Grameen Bank to provide hope and opportunity to poor people in those countries.

We salute Professor Yunus for urging us all to do more and press further to make poverty a thing of the past, and will continue to work with him to reach this admirable goal.  We also look forward to Grameen Bank and its 8.3 million borrower-owners continuing its long, proud tradition of being a beacon for the microfinance community, and call on the Bangladesh government to respect the independence of Grameen Bank during this new era.  As Prof. Yunus said in his resignation statement, “I hope Grameen Bank will continue to operate, maintaining its independence and character under the Grameen Bank Ordinance and move toward even greater success.”

Statement of Prof. Yunus Regarding His Removal from Grameen Bank

May 7, 2011

Statement of Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus on the Occasion of Supreme Court Verdict on May 5, 2011 Regarding His Removal from Grameen Bank.  Professor Yunus voiced his concern after revelations surfaced surrounding violence against employee leaders of the Bank.  Those interested may also want to read in the Bank’s point-by-point refutation of the allegations brought up in the government’s Review Committee report, as well as by the nation’s government-aligned media.

You have already heard the verdict from the Supreme Court.

Why did I appear before the Court? Why did I want to contest the order of Bangladesh Bank? Why there is so much concern about this issue at home and abroad? There may be some confusion regarding these questions. Please allow me to share my feelings with you to remove this confusion. I went to the Court for a specific reason. Bangladesh Bank sent a letter to Grameen Bank, removing me from my post as Managing Director of Grameen Bank. The letter also mentioned that I held this position for the last eleven years illegally. Bangladesh Bank did this without giving me a chance to explain my position. I felt that this letter was not legally correct, and through this letter, not only was I been wronged, but so was Grameen Bank. Nine elected members of the Board of Directors of Grameen Bank felt the same way. That is why the nine members of the Board and I filed separate writs in the High Court. We wanted these wrongs to be corrected. Therefore, we had to seek justice through all avenues offered in the Bangladeshi judicial system. This is what we have done.

The fate of 40 million poor people connected to this
In the event that the Honorable Court stated in their final decision that the letter from Bangladesh Bank was issued without lawful authority, I could continue my work with Grameen Bank and make the transition to a capable management as smoothly as possible. But, if the Court verdict went against us, the Board may be forced to take steps to implement the content of the Bangladesh Bank letter. This was the only reason for me to take this matter to the Court. I had no option but to seek justice in this matter.

It is indeed a much wider and much more significant issue to save the future of Grameen Bank and also to protect the hopes and dreams of the over 8 million borrowers. These borrowers are also the owners of 96.5% of the Bank’s shares. The Bank is connected with 40 million microcredit borrowers in Bangladesh, and its impact on all these people cannot be neglected. What happens to Grameen Bank influences the future of the millions of Bangladeshis who benefit from microcredit activities, as well as the future of the institution of microcredit itself. It is actually a great concern for me, and many others, that I properly fulfill my responsibility to safeguard their future before and after leaving the post of Managing Director of Grameen Bank.

Some have said that, instead of going to the court, it would have been more honorable for me to resign from my position as suggested by the Finance Minister. I do not think so. In that case, the end result would have been the same, so far as my exit is concerned. But I would have suffered from carrying the guilt of knowingly accepting an unexpected proposal and putting the borrowers and their families’ futures at risk. I could not do that.

Millions of borrowers like the ones seen meeting above could be adversely affected by a government takeover of Grameen Bank.

Millions of borrowers like the ones seen meeting above could be adversely affected by a government takeover of Grameen Bank.

Some people felt that I intend to cling to the position of Managing Director of Grameen Bank. But, the nation knows that this position is not my life’s goal. I was, and am, conscious of the fact that my future work will not be based on my holding on to this position, but rather, it would be working with the young generation, from other platforms to address the problem of poverty at home and abroad. I want to do that without jeopardizing the interests of Grameen Bank. This is the thought which prompted me to write the letter to the Honorable Finance Minister one year ago. I suggested two options to him for a transition that could take place without creating any waves within the Bank.  I did not get any response to these proposals.  I was, instead, told to quit. It is, therefore, unfair to me to suggest that I am holding on to the of position of managing director unjustly or to allege  that I am not co-operating in the process of transition.

For the last few months, a section of the media devoted itself fiercely to campaign against me, Grameen Bank, and the concept of microcredit. Everyone has his own explanation why this is happening.

An unfriendly atmosphere is not helpful for a smooth change of leadership
The cause of my concerns, as well as those of the nation and the world, lies here. These concerns are more for Grameen Bank and the future of its millions of borrowers, than for me. For this reason, I have been reminding you repeatedly that undertaking the transition process of Grameen Bank’s management in an unfriendly environment will only cause harm to the future of the Bank. I have always wanted to make sure that the transition takes place in a friendly, mutually supportive environment, so that the achievements of Grameen Bank may continue without interruption. There are many issues related to this. The big questions are: whether Grameen Bank can maintain its independent existence, and whether it can be successful in keeping itself away from political influences. What actually happens to financial institutions in our country if political influences start playing a role in these institutions is common knowledge. This experience will not inspire trust in the borrowers.  We all know how important the role of trust is in the operation of Grameen Bank.

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Two Steps Backward for Innovation to End Poverty

May 5, 2011

A guest post from Sam Daley-Harris, Founder of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, which seeks to reach 175 million poorest families with micro-loans, and of RESULTS, which seeks to create the political will to end poverty.

The deed is done.  On May 5th, the appellate division of the Bangladesh Supreme Court agreed that the Bangladesh Bank, the nation’s central bank, was justified in firing Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Muhammad Yunus from his post as Managing Director of Grameen Bank, the institution he founded more than three decades ago.  Prof. Yunus’s lead lawyer, Dr. Kamal Hossain, one of Bangladesh’s most distinguished attorneys and a drafter of the nation’s constitution, was scarcely able to hide his disgust at the Appellate Division order, when he said, “I [apparently] have to take admission to university again to newly learn the constitutional laws of the 21st century.”

The dismissal is not the lone action of one government institution, but is part of a premeditated campaign that starts at the highest level, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.  Their reason for sacking Prof. Yunus?  He’s “too old.”  Never mind that the 70-year-old Yunus maintains a rigorous schedule or that the Finance Minister, another key player in the sacking, is at 77 somehow not “too old” for that post.

The dismissal of Prof. Yunus from his post as Managing Director of Grameen Bank could portend ominous changes by the Bangladesh government.

The dismissal of Prof. Yunus from his post as Managing Director of Grameen Bank could portend ominous changes by the Bangladesh government.

Their excuse would be laughable if it were not for the calamitous impact it portends.  What makes the decision to remove Prof. Yunus so disgraceful is not that he would be out of a job – any university in the world would welcome him with open arms as a visiting professor.  No, the atrocity here is the fact that the independence and integrity of one of the world’s premier poverty-fighting institutions is now at grave risk.  Grameen Bank, an extraordinary institution with more than 8 million microcredit borrowers that took 35 years to build, could be destroyed in a matter of months by incompetent government action.

The government’s action cannot honestly be in response to accusations by a Danish documentary maker about an improper transfer of Norwegian aid funds more than a dozen years ago, because both the Norwegian government and Bangladesh’s own review committee have found that Grameen Bank did nothing wrong.  It cannot be due to the documentary maker’s charge of excessive interest rates, because Microfinance Transparency and the government’s own review committee found that Grameen Bank has the lowest interest rates in the country.  Instead, most observers see this as an inexcusable political vendetta by the Prime Minister against Prof. Yunus, stemming from his short-lived attempt to start a political party in 2007.

Consider these groundbreaking innovations that Prof. Yunus’ poverty-fighting laboratory has brought to the world, and what could be lost in the future from his unwarranted ouster:

  • In 1976 he made loans of less than US$1 each to 42 desperately poor Bangladeshis to start or build tiny businesses – and the microcredit revolution was born.  It has made its way all around the world.  While others have seen microfinance as a way to make big money for investors, Prof. Yunus has never once diverted from his original intent to empower the poor.
  • In 1997 Grameen Phone Ladies started bringing cell phone technology to remote villagers throughout Bangladesh – providing the dual benefit of creating jobs and increasing communications, which enhanced others’ work.
  • Grameen Shakti, an energy firm, has installed more than a half-million solar home systems and sold more than a quarter-million improved cooking stoves.
  • In a joint venture with Danone, the yogurt maker headquartered in France, Grameen Danone is bringing low-cost fortified yogurt to malnourished children throughout the country – and creating a business opportunity for the poor women who sell it.
  • College scholarships and loans have gone to 180,000 students. Most remarkably, in almost all of the cases, these are the children of illiterate parents who have had the help of Grameen Bank in breaking the bonds of inter-generational illiteracy.

A government that so rashly and ruthlessly ousts this innovative and transformational leader cannot likely be trusted to continue his revolutionary work.

But the deed is done.  Here is a sample of the visionary voice that Bangladesh has likely lost in this despicable government act.  Reflecting on the 1997 Microcredit Summit, Prof. Yunus wrote: “In teaching economics I learned about money, and now as head of a bank I lend money.  The success of our venture lies in how many crumpled bank bills our once starving members now have in their hands. But 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.”

An Update on Grameen Bank

April 29, 2011

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.

The ongoing saga of the confrontation between the Bangladesh government and its allies in the local media on the one hand, and Professor Yunus, the Grameen Bank and its 8.3 million borrower-owners on the other, has taken some surprising turns in the last 10 days.  On April 20, representatives of Grameen Bank’s employee association held a well-attended press conference, covered by The Daily Star and other print and electronic media, where they presented the signatures of 20,103 colleagues who urged the government to either allow Prof. Yunus to remain as Managing Director or, failing that, to appoint him as Chairman of the Bank’s Board of Directors.  This follows a similar effort by the borrower-owners of Grameen Bank, 3.7 million of whom signed hastily circulated petitions several weeks ago demanding that Prof. Yunus be allowed to remain as the bank’s chief executive.

Professor Muhammad Yunus listens to some of Grameen Bank's borrower-owners at a local Center meeting.

Professor Muhammad Yunus listens to some of Grameen Bank's borrower-owners at a local Center meeting.

More recently, the so-called “Review Committee” appointed by the government to probe into the affairs of Grameen Bank and its sister organizations submitted its report – spanning more than 100 pages, according to some sources – to the Minister of Finance.  While the report has not been officially released, portions of it have been leaked to government-aligned media outlets.

Soon after receiving the report, the Finance Minister commented on it to the press.  His two principal messages, as covered by the AFP wire service, were that there was no improper diversion of Norwegian aid funds in the 1990s, as had been reported in the media, and that Grameen not only did not charge “excessive” interest rates, but that it in fact charges the lowest rate of interest among microfinance organizations in the country.

Neither of these “findings” were surprising to anyone who has been following this story closely and without bias, but it was noteworthy nonetheless that a government-sponsored commission publicly affirmed these facts.  However, this did not stop hostile elements in the Bangladeshi media from seizing on the submission of the report to make new unfounded allegations against Professor Yunus. This has prompted Grameen Bank to issue a detailed “Response to the Various Issues Raised in the Review Committee Report as Reported in the Press“.

With the government-appointed committee finding that two often-repeated criticisms of Grameen Bank had no merit, hopes are rising that around the time of an upcoming Supreme Court ruling (expected May 5), Bangladesh’s judiciary or perhaps the leadership of the ruling party will put forward some kind of plan that will respond to the desires of Grameen Bank’s employees, clients and nine elected Board members to ensure the continued involvement of Prof. Yunus.  That would be welcome news and enable everyone to briefly celebrate and then get back to the work at hand – reducing the grinding poverty that remains the daily reality for millions of families in Bangladesh and around the world.

Those interested in this issue might also want to listen to a special donor update that Alex conducted by conference call on March 23, 2011. In it, you’ll hear a brief summary by Alex of the situation, as well as an enlightening question-and-answer session where Alex gives his views on the causes of the government’s actions, possible scenarios going forward, what this means for the microfinance sector as a whole, and how changes at Grameen Bank could affect Grameen Foundation.