Two Steps Backward for Innovation to End Poverty

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May 05, 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.”

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