Politics, Poverty and the Professor

Written by Ayesha Kabir  •  Cover Stories  •  March 2011 PDF Print E-mail

If anyone or anything has put Bangladesh on the world map, it is Dr. Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank. Muhammad Yunus is the micro-credit guru, the banker of the poor, the founder of Grameen Bank. Supporters and detractors alike, anyone will have to admit he has changed the face of rural Bangladesh. Armed with their micro-loans, the hitherto purdah-clad women have emerged from behind the curtains with the proud new identity of entrepreneurs. And the Grameen Bank model is being replicated the world over, like Khushali Bank in Pakistan to similar institutions as far as the U.S. state of Arkansas.

Indeed, Grameen Bank’s success has made Muhammad Yunus into an icon of micro-credit, particularly in the western world. He received one international award after the other, the icing on the cake being the Nobel Peace Prize. He became an international personality and the darling of the West. If there were any anomalies in Grameen Bank, this was covered in an avalanche of praise and adulation from abroad.

However, he has had his fair share of detractors too, both at home and abroad. There were the skeptic economists who felt the Grameen model was not sustainable and led the poor to a worse poverty trap. Then there were the local political quarters who felt the professor was stealing their limelight. They were waiting to pounce on the Professor and drag him down. And then, very recently, the moment arrived. It was a report from Norway that dragged the Nobel Laureate into a quagmire of controversy.

In a documentary telecast on Norway’s state TV channel, it was said that Yunus has channeled funds given by various European donors for Grameen Bank, to a different organization called Grameen Kalyan. This occurred back in 1996, apparently, and the matter was settled when the funds were transferred back to Grameen Bank in 1998. Whatever the matter be, this report created a stir in the media, both inside the country and outside. Yunus’ hard-earned reputation was put to question. And this report, amounting to blatant character assassination, was a slap in the face for Bangladesh who took so much pride in their Nobel Laureate.

It was certainly shocking, though, that at this time of crisis for the Nobel Laureate, the Bangladesh government did not stand by his side. Though the Norwegian government cleared his name by saying the matter has been resolved, the Bangladesh government and its ruling party Awami League lost no time in virtually declaring a jihad against Yunus. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her characteristic harshly sarcastic style, lost no time in publicly declaring him a usurer, a blood-sucking moneylender. Other ministers and leaders of the ruling party were fast to follow suit in decrying Yunus in no uncertain terms. If fact, he is even having to appear in court due to a case filed against him by some insignificant person. And the central bank is now investigating Grameen Bank’s programs.

It was on December 1 last year that the local news agency released a news report based on the report, ‘In the Micro-Credit Debt’ by Tom Heinemann. This report had been aired on Norway state TV on November 30. The very next day most newspapers in Bangladesh picked the report stating that Yunus has misappropriated crores of taka. Anti-Yunus quarters immediately took up the issue and began spewing put criticism. It was as if he had pilfered their money into his own pocket. However, Finance Minister Muhith did say, “If funds are transferred with an understanding, there is nothing wrong.” The Prime Minister was not quite so understanding. She spoke in her trademark caustic manner about Yunus, “It has been proven that no one can live off the blood of the poor. This was sheer siphoning off of poor people’s money. The people have been used as guinea pigs. We never approved of this.”

There was a general feeling that the Prime Minister should not have so publicly castigated a national figure like Yunus. The public may wittingly or unwittingly say many things, but Hasina as Prime Minister of the country could have displayed more restraint. Another influential leader of Awami League directly accused Yunus of being corrupt. People naturally began to question why this arsenal was being fired at Yunus.
Hasina’s criticism of Yunus was nothing new. Her aversion for Yunus surfaced towards the end of 2006 during the caretaker government of Dr. Iajuddin Ahmed. The BNP-led four-party alliance had just stepped down from power and the Awami League-led “grand alliance” had instigated chaos in the country. At this juncture Yunus, as a respected member of civil society, called upon the President and advised him not to succumb to any pressure, but to adhere to any decision that he feels best. This did not please Awami League who felt that by approaching President Iajuddin (originally selected by BNP to be President) Yunus was displaying a bias in favor of BNP. And BNP, to Awami League, is the arch enemy and so they were up in arms against Yunus, taking for granted that he was of the BNP camp. Thus began their Yunus-phobia.

3-2It was then, at a juncture when the caretaker government was carrying out an operation to clear the country of political debris and “minus” Hasina and Khaleda from the political scene, that Yunus was bestowed with the hallowed Nobel Peace Prize. The country was agog with pride and joy. Perhaps the adulation went to his head. With the blessings of the caretaker government, he decided to form a political party of his own. After all, ostensibly the main objective of the caretaker government was to clean up corrupt and sick politics that had entered the very pores of the nation. And Yunus seemed to be just what the doctor had prescribed. But he soon learnt that he may be the guru of micro-credit, but politics was quite a different world than the development scenario. This was a dog-eat-dog world.

While others remained non-committal about his forming a political party, Sheikh Hasina called him a shud-khor, an insulting term for usurer or money lender who lives off the interest of his loans. Awami League’s zero-tolerance reared its head. Anyway, the new political party never really took off the ground. The people, as it were, could not emerge from the political tunnel vision where only Hasina and Khaleda existed. Yunus, to them, was not an alternative.

While Yunus may have enjoyed the bright image abroad as Banker of the Poor, he was no demigod to the poor people of Bangladesh. He was just another NGO leader who gave them micro-loans at high interest rates. So when he plunged into politics, the people did not respond as he had expected them to and he was not welcomed. His timing was perhaps all wrong -- the right man at the wrong time. Even the more politically conscious public was skeptical. They felt he had taken full advantage of the military-backed caretaker government’s “minus two” operation to come up with his “King’s Party.” The caretaker government spared no pains to belittle the politicians, but the fact remained that Khaleda and Hasina were by far more popular than Yunus. Yunus’ initiative fell flat.

Elite urban circles did support Yunus at the time because he was much more respected and liked by foreign leaders and dignitaries than Khaleda or Hasina. But the revered economist got his math all wrong. Politics is power play and that was just not his forte.

However, even after he shed his political dream and went back to the work of poverty alleviation, politicians remained wary of him. He always seems to hang above their heads like Damocles’ sword. The caretaker government was replaced by a political government through elections, and despite their massive mandate, they have been failing to meet the people’s expectations. There were speculations of a national government to replace the failed political government and rumors were that Yunus was still waiting in the wings.
However, ground reality remains that the two political forces of the country are Awami League and BNP. Everything else revolves around them. Even parties like Ershad’s Jatiya Party or Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh depend on these parties for their existence. Without Awami League, Jatiya Party would be reduced to their status of “old autocrats” and without BNP, Jamaat is condemned as “razakars” or collaborators of the 1971 war. They have to be affiliated by one or the other if they are to survive. The two parties are unwilling to allow any new kid on the block. They protect their turf fiercely against any possible third force, civil or military. In this matter, both the parties are in consensus. Neither Khaleda nor Hasina are ready to make way for any other replacement. So Yunus finds himself left out in the cold when it comes to politics.

In the meantime, Yunus’ leadership within Grameen Bank has also been questioned. From the very outset Yunus has remained at the helm of Grameen Bank. There is no second man. At home and abroad he champions democracy, good governance and rights. How does he explain his dictatorial style of management? However, even the persons who accuse him of being a dictator in the bank, have never accused him of corruption. It was only Awami League and its leaders who have directly called him a corrupt man. When Hasina saw that Yunus’s ‘strength’ was questioned on an international level through the Norwegian news report, she took full opportunity.

Yunus is still the darling of the West and there are reports that U.S. Secretary of State, a personal friend of Yunus from his student days, gave Hasina the figurative rap on the knuckles for her shoddy treatment of the man. Queen Sophia of Spain is another international personality who is open of her admiration for Yunus and has on more than one occasion visited Bangladesh specifically to study the Grameen model. Even so, there are quarters in the West who question the sustainability and efficacy of micro-credit as a tool for poverty alleviation. But then Yunus also believes in changing and adapting for constant upgrading of his development model. He has been replacing social work with the term ‘social business’. Critics say by attaching the term ‘social’ to business, he can do away with certain taxes and tariffs applicable to regular businesses.

Telenor, Grameen Phone’s mother organization, is at loggerheads with Yunus over business matters. Some say that it was Telenor who instigated reporter Tom Heinemann to report about discrepancies in Yunus’ dealings.

So will Yunus bid farewell to any political proclivities he may have been nurturing in his heart? Only time will tell. 

Ayesha Kabir is a senior journalist and is presently Editor of the Dhaka-based news magazine: PROBE . Her focus of interest is South Asian security and politics.

Ayesha Kabir is a senior journalist and Editor of the Dhaka-based news magazine, Probe. Her focus of interest is South Asian security and politics.

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