Muhammad Yunus

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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 su

Will the Government of Bangladesh Ruin Grameen Bank?

April 20, 2011

Barbara Weber, who worked at Grameen Foundation from 2002 to 2006, was a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar in Bangladesh and is now working on her Ph.D. in depth psychology.

Bangladesh went from being dubbed the world’s basket case in 1973 by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to becoming a beacon of development innovation that the rest of the world has since sought to emulate, thanks in large measure to its pioneering in microfinance. This renown is fast turning to infamy, however, as political vendetta cannibalizes the very source of the nation’s well-deserved pride.

The country’s acclaim reached a crescendo in 2006, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Grameen Bank and its founder, Professor Muhammad Yunus, for creating a system that has enabled the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. It has done this so effectively that its microfinance model has been studied exhaustively and replicated around the world.

What ensued next seems to have won Yunus the ire of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. In 2007, the newly ordained Nobel laureate made a fleeting and ill-fated foray into politics in a vacuum that was created when a military-backed interim government began jailing operatives of the country’s top political parties. Sheikh Hasina herself was temporarily in exile and charged with masterminding crime.

[caption id="attachment_1599" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Prof. Yunus and most of the Board directors who represent the borrower-owners of Grameen Bank tour the streets of Oslo the day before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006."]Prof. Yunus and most of the Board directors who represent the borrower-owners of Grameen Bank tour the streets of Oslo the day before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.[/caption]

Some saw this as a potential turning point for a country that had topped Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt governments in the world. Bangladesh was number-one on that list for five consecutive years. But when national elections were held in 2008, Sheikh Hasina – who had held the post of prime minister from 1996 to 2001 – again took office. Now, she and her party in power seem intent on systematically dismantling Grameen Bank.

In apparent collusion with the current government, the country’s highest court recently upheld the ouster of Grameen Bank’s founder as managing director. The Supreme Court will have one more opportunity to review the case in a ruling that is due on May 2. In the meantime, Prof. Yunus remains managing director of the Bank while the world watches attentively and awaits Bangladesh’s next move.

Day Six: Old Friends and Off to the Airport

December 21, 2009

My last day in the country was the beginning of the Bangladeshi weekend – Friday.  That meant somewhat less traffic, a blessing to be sure.  I spent three hours, starting at 10am, with my former research assistant, Abdul Mannan Talukdar.  He is the first Area Manager in the history of Grameen who started as a loan officer (a position now called “center manager”).  He is immensely proud of that, as he should be.  An area manager oversees 8-10 branches, each of which are staffed by about seven staff (almost always including a university-educated branch manager) and serves several thousand clients.  He told me about his journey, culminating in that historic promotion, dating from when I last saw him, in 2006.

Day Five: Back in the Grameen Headquarters

December 21, 2009

I arrived at the Grameen Complex at 10:30am on Thursday, after having visited my old dentist (who does quality work for a fraction of the price charged back home).  Before I began my first meeting, I noticed the almost frenetic activity around me in each office I entered.  My good friend Mir Akhtar Hossain, who heads Dr. Yunus’ person staff, was so busy he could barely catch up with me – much less indulge in our traditional lunch of chicken biryani down the road in Mirpur One.  Even after thirty-three years in existence, complacency has hardly taken root in the Grameen family of companies.

Day Three: Grameen Villages – Back to Kholshi via Narandia

December 17, 2009

[caption id="attachment_314" align="alignright" width="180" caption="Microfinance Client Shaheeda Begum"]Shaheeda Begum[/caption]

After a delicious Bengali breakfast of vegetables and paratha, I began a field trip that would ultimately bring me to Kholshi, where I did most of the research for my book Small Loans, Big Dreams.  But first I asked to see a Grameen Bank center meeting, to see how the process has evolved.  Abdul Malek, the manager, took me to Narandia, a village where there was a borrower meeting that day – this is where loan payments are made, new loans vetted, and other business conducted on a weekly basis.

Malek is still fairly new to this branch, and to driving a motorbike, so our trip through rice fields and the occasional dirt road was a bit of an adventure.  I had visited Narandia a couple of times in the 1990s.  Then as now the dominant force in this center – a federation of ten groups composed of fifty women clients – was Shaheeda Begum.  She was making payments on her two current loans that totaled about $1,000.  Only two other women in the center were able to borrow and invest amounts that large.   To a much greater extent than was true a decade ago, loans are made on the basis of investment capability, and can vary a lot from client to client.  Shaheeda was one of the most savvy businesswomen in the village.  But as she would explain to me over the course of an hour, when she began borrowing from Grameen in 1987 her conditions were much humbler than today.

Day Two: Grameen Power and Moving to the Field

December 16, 2009

[caption id="attachment_303" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Muhammad Yunus and Royston Braganza"]Muhammad Yunus and Royston Braganza[/caption]

Royston and I spent the first few hours on Monday back in the Grameen Complex in Dhaka.  The most exciting meeting was with two retired Grameen Bank officials -- Fazley Rabbi and, briefly, Abser Kamal – both of whom now work with Grameen Shakti (Energy).  Shakti, a sister company of Grameen Bank set up by Dr. Yunus in the early 1990s and that had been led until recently by Dipal Barua, has become a world leader in bringing renewable energy to rural households.  We heard how they had passed 300,000 solar home systems installed, and how they do it profitably and at a rate of 13,000 per month at present.  (The second most successful program of this kind has reached just over 100,000 installations.)

Back in Bangladesh

December 14, 2009

Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and the author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World” (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). Below is Part Two of this journey to assess the state of microfinance with Grameen Foundation partners worldwide.

[caption id="attachment_305" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Muhammad Yunus and Alex Counts"]Muhammad Yunus and Alex Counts[/caption]

After a gap of about two years, on December 13, 2009 I returned to Bangladesh – the birthplace of the modern microfinance movement and the country where I spent six of the first nine years after I graduated college.  I came here initially driven by naïve idealism – that someone (especially at my tender age!) could catalyze the spread Grameen Bank’s approach beyond the borders of Bangladesh, so it could to become a global (rather than simply national) anti-poverty strategy.  As I was to learn, even by the time I arrived in December 1988, that process was under way – a process that was much more complex than I had imagined, and one that has been the focus of Grameen Foundation since it was established in 1997.

"It was a magical moment..."

August 12, 2009

Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation.

[caption id="attachment_223" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Muhammad Yunus receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama"]Obama and Yunus_crop
[/caption]

Today’s ceremony where President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Professor Muhammad Yunus and 15 other incredibly accomplished citizens was a moment when any American, and any person, who wants the world to be a better place could feel proud. America’s highest civilian award was a well-deserved honor for Dr. Yunus based on more than three decades of accomplishment benefiting Bangladesh’s and the world’s poor, through championing microfinance and social business.

When President and Michelle Obama entered the room at 3:10pm, there was electricity unlike anything I had ever felt.

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