AFP PHOTO/Farjana K. Godhuly Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus in a file photo.
By Fakhruddin Ahmed
In an irony of Orwellian proportions, the man who brought impoverished Bangladesh unprecedented honors and its only Nobel Prize, Muhammad Yunus, is being miscast as an incarnation of Emmanuel Goldstein, “1984”’s “enemy of the state,” by his own government.
Instead of Orwell’s “two minutes of hate,” however, Yunus was the target of a two-year witch hunt that resulted in his forced resignation as the managing director of his brainchild, the microcredit lending institution Grameen Bank, on the silly pretext that, at 70, Yunus was too old.
Yunus offered his resignation when he turned 60, and again when he turned 70, but on both occasions, the bank’s board of directors, with the full acquiescence of Bangladesh’s central bank, requested him to continue.
But under a directive from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, the central bank suddenly decreed Yunus’ ouster in March 2011.
Grameen was created by a government ordinance in 1983. Currently, the government owns only a very small percentage of the bank’s shares; by far the greater amount is owned by poor women. All nine bank board members, elected by the poor women, and Yunus challenged his dismissal in court.
Appointed by the party in power, the justices of the High and Supreme courts in Bangladesh generally defer to the government’s guidance. First, the High Court, and then the Supreme Court, summarily dismissed Yunus’ petition without offering any legal justification, forcing Yunus to resign in May of last year.
But the government was not finished. Last month, it forcibly took over Grameen Bank, though it owns only 3 percent of the shares. And it continues to demonize Yunus.
In its denial of a $1.2 billion loan for the construction of a major bridge in Bangladesh in June, the World Bank specifically cited corruption in the government as the prime reason. Yet, without offering any evidence, from the prime minister on down, many in the government are parroting the lie that the reason for the denial is that super patriot Muhammad Yunus lobbied against the loan. It is as though Yunus has veto powers over World Bank loans!
From an impoverished nation synonymous with natural and man-made disasters, Muhammad Yunus has transformed Bangladesh into a pioneer in reducing poverty through microcredit lending. Over the last 30 years, Yunus’ microcredit phenomenon, offering loans to the poorest of the poor without collateral, has slowly but subtly changed the socioeconomic landscape in Bangladeshi villages for the better. The Grameen model is being successfully replicated all over the world, including here in the U.S.
Yunus’ ouster from Grameen Bank has delighted religious fundamentalists, who oppose him because microcredit empowers women. The real victims of the government’s vendetta are Bangladesh’s 8.4 million poor women, who borrowed money from Grameen, deposited their savings back into the bank and own 97 percent of the bank. The government has disenfranchised the poor women shareholders and placed them at the mercy of dictatorial bureaucrats with no expertise in microcredit and no stake in the bank or its poor shareholders.
Thanks to Yunus, Grameen Bank, the co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, is by far the most efficiently run institution in Bangladesh. Without Yunus’ stewardship, Grameen will deteriorate into just another corruption-ridden, nondescript Bangladeshi bank.
Yunus had recently branched out into social business, focusing on poor women’s health and their children’s education. With his removal, such efforts on behalf of the poor will languish. Although these units are not affiliated with Grameen Bank, there has been speculation in the media that the government is planning to grab these, as well.
Supporters of Bangladesh had unsuccessfully pleaded with the prime minister to appoint Yunus as Bangladesh’s goodwill ambassador to the world so that Bangladesh can tap into the enormous reservoir of goodwill the world has for Yunus. Instead, Yunus is being hounded like a criminal at the behest of the prime minister herself.
Many inside and outside Bangladesh conjecture that the source of Yunus’ harassment is the prime minister’s mistaken belief that Yunus had a hand in her mistreatment by the military-backed caretaker government that administered Bangladesh between January 2007 and December 2008, and Yunus’ ill-advised brief foray into politics during that period. Yunus has categorically stated that he has no interest in entering politics ever again.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pleaded with the prime minister to ease up on Yunus, as have former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Irish President Mary Robinson as well as other world statesmen, entrepreneurs and citizens, to no avail. On the contrary, the vicious, government-sponsored attacks on Yunus continue to intensify.
President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Yunus in 2009, and the Congress awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010.
I should like to request that Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell), a member of the Congressional Bangladesh Caucus, take up the matter of the character assassination of Muhammad Yunus by the Bangladesh government with President Barack Obama. Perhaps the president can convince Prime Minister Hasina that Bangladesh stands to gain much more by honoring Muhammad Yunus than by demonizing him.
Fakhruddin Ahmed, D. Phil. is a Rhodes scholar and a native of Bangladesh. He lives in West Windsor.
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