Monday, March 21, 2011

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the Noblest of them all?

I’D THOUGHT of writing about the Nobel Laureate’s ouster from the Grameen Bank last week, but fever intervened.
Mine has receded, the government’s, however, has not. Theirs is prolonged, one that continues. High state and party functionaries have repeatedly spoken of ‘irregularities’ with a feverish zeal as the Bangladesh Bank relieved Dr Muhammad Yunus of his duties as managing director of the Grameen Bank.
He had violated the country’s retirement law, they said. Sixty years is the age limit but Yunus was 70. This made him ‘too old’ to be the Grameen Bank’s chief, said the finance minister. He should have left ten years ago, said the Bangladesh Bank, instead of staying on ‘illegally’ for an extra ten years.
In a writ filed at the High Court, Yunus’s defence lawyers argued that the Bangladesh Bank’s directive was illegal. No show-cause notice had been served, this made his removal ‘illegal, mala fide and arbitrary.’ A week later, on March 8, Dr Yunus lost his High Court appeal when the judge ruled, ‘Professor Yunus has been continuing in his job with no legal basis, therefore his petition has been rejected.’ Neither Yunus nor any of his senior lawyers were present at the court. In recent months, the independence of the judiciary has been a matter of grave concern.
Yunus and nine members of the board of directors have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court challenging the High Court’s order. A full bench hearing is scheduled for March 15. The High Court’s decision was ‘entirely perverse’ said Dr Yunus and the members of his board, it was passed without issuing any ruling.
The alignment of local, national and global influentials against, and in support of, Yunus is telling. The prime minister’s son Sajeeb Wajed, in an e-mail sent to international agencies, human rights organisations, US state department officials and prominent persons, wrote: Yunus’s only stature in Bangladesh is that of a ‘Nobel prize winner’, politically speaking, he’s a ‘non-entity’. Accusing the Grameen Bank of ‘massive financial improprieties’, ‘tax evasion’ and ‘embezzlement’, Sajeeb reminded us that despite being ‘criminal’ offences, the government has not taken any ‘punitive’ action against Yunus. Its only concern is to ‘prevent further abuse of microcredit borrowers’ (dated March 5, 2011).
As I read the e-mail, I mulled, is this not the same prime ministerial offspring against whom allegations of taking a $2 million bribe from Chevron surfaced recently? A deal reportedly brokered by Dr Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy adviser, a la, also, of WikiLeaks fame? (‘People’s resistance to global capital and government collaboration is vindicated’, WikiLeaks Bangladesh I, New Age, December 27, 2010). Did not the news item (December 17, 2010) later land the editor of Amar Desh in jail? At least, that’s the connection made by some.
Sajeeb’s point about governmental concern over ‘abuse’ is difficult to sustain as news reports appear of attacks by ruling party affiliates on human chains formed to protest Dr Yunus’s removal. In Kishoreganj, activists of the Bangladesh Chhatra League and the Bangladesh Krishak League snatched banners and festoons from human chain participants and set them on fire (The Daily Star, March 12). In Barisal, BCL activists attacked Grameen Bank employees and stakeholders, snatched their banner and chased them away (The Daily Star, March 12).
I don’t know how convinced the recipient’s of Sajeeb’s e-mail were because statements of support for Dr Yunus have kept pouring in from members of the global elite. US Senator John Kerry, who heads the powerful foreign relations committee, in a statement, expressed his ‘deep concern’ at efforts to remove Yunus from the Grameen Bank. He hoped both sides could reach a ‘compromise’ so that the Grameen Bank could maintain its ‘autonomy and effectiveness’; he added, the international community would ‘watch the situation closely.’ The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called Professor Yunus to show her ‘support’ for his ongoing efforts, to express her concern over the developments that have taken place. Yunus’s international allies have organised themselves as Friends of Grameen, ‘an elite support group’ of internationally renowned lawyers, academics, former politicians and businesspeople including Mary Robinson, former Irish president, and James Wolfensohn, former World Bank president (Chris Barth, Forbes, March 8). It was their duty to protect the integrity of Professor Yunus, and the independence of the Grameen Bank, said Wolfensohn. Development projects should be run by ‘locals’, he said, while explaining Yunus’s importance as a role model; those locals who do the ‘best work’ should be rewarded.
But the tone and tenor of the government’s position had been set in place earlier, in November last year, after the release of a Norwegian documentary which alleged that the bank had shifted the funds provided by Norway’s aid agency Norad, from one legal entity to another, for tax purposes. A Norwegian government investigation subsequently cleared Yunus of these allegations, but prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s harsh words, Yunus and the Grameen Bank were ‘sucking blood from the poor’, still reverberate. They find material expression in the events outlined above, which co-exist parallely with the government’s continued support of microcredit programmes and projects in both the governmental, and non-governmental, sector.
It is a contradiction which has led to questions being raised by critics of the government and of its imperial backers. If Dr Yunus is a blood-sucker of the poor, why does the government not initiate a detailed and exhaustive investigation of the Grameen Bank’s microlending practices, asks economist Anu Muhammad. Why have the Bangladesh Bank’s audit reports of Grameen been kept secret? If allegations against the microcredit model, against the Grameen Bank’s irregularities are not properly investigated and made public, writes Anu, the government’s decision is liable to be interpreted as stemming from a ‘personal’ conflict, aimed at nothing more than a takeover of the bank by other interested quarters. At benefiting a different set of people (‘Khudro Reen Model Hya, Yunus Na — Keno?’, March 10).
While Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper, in a live TV talk show, posed the question thus, if the government is taking an anti-imperialist stance, should it not be extended to asserting control over the country’s natural resources? Why are their extraction and the benefits to be attained being turned over to transnational and multinational companies, and to their national accomplices?
Suspicions about it being a personal conflict were revived when the attorney general said after the High Court’s decision, ‘if anybody in Bangladesh deserves the Nobel Peace Prize’, it’s Sheikh Hasina and Santu Larma, they deserve it for ‘what they did’, they brought peace to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, unlike Yunus, who apparently got it for the position or office (‘managing director’) which he held. This has given rise to pop psychologistic theories in which both international media and overnight national experts have contributed; a Los Angeles Times report informs us that hingsha, jealousy, vindictiveness, is a hallmark of Bangladeshi national politics, citing a Bangladeshi academic who says, hingsha is a ‘very active part of the culture of our society’ (‘Nobel Laureate economist Yunus may be a victim of petty jealousy’, March 6). Fake explanations as far as I’m concerned, for, as I argued in WikiLeaks Bangladesh I, the so-called ‘battling begums’ discarded their hingsha at the drop of the US ambassador’s hat, unitedly falling in line with his suggestions regarding Asia Energy’s open-pit mining project.
Others point to Yunus’s failed attempts at forming a political party during the Fakhruddin-led military installed caretaker regime’s period of rule (2007-2008), when the minus-two formula—getting rid of the battling begums and their respective political parties—had been put in play, apparently with the backing of western governments and international agencies, admitted as much by the World Bank vice-president Praful C Patel on a visit to Dhaka in December 2007. ‘What [had] looked possible before,’ he said, ‘like the minus-two approach’ no longer seems possible (‘Re-constructing the nation. Imperial designers at work’, New Age, December 22, 2008). If that is indeed the case, I cannot help but wonder whether Sheikh Hasina is still peeved at that, whether Dr Yunus’s public humiliation springs from past events, or whether, new precipitative events have occurred since. More recently. We will not know with certainty unless someone in the know thinks it is the public’s right to know.
Microcredit empowers women. By enabling poor women to make economic decisions and to increase family income, it helps them to break out of the cycle of poverty and patriarchy, has been Grameen’s logo. A message put across rather emotively (and orientalistically, too) in a recent article appealing to all to fight against what is ‘taking place right now in Dhaka.’ Vivian Norris writes, ‘How many of us in the so-called “developed” world know what it feels like to be considered less valuable than a cow? How many of us hide our faces and stare at the ground because we have never been spoken to, nor asked our advice or point of view?’ (Huffington Post, March 9).
But, while it is true, as anthropologist Lamia Karim points out in her highly insightful doctoral study of microcredit and the Grameen Bank, that Grameen has taught women the importance of managing money, of keeping basic account of expenditures, that it has introduced some new forms of social identity among village women (weekly meetings where women can speak without men dominating), has challenged social conventions by making it obligatory for women to utter their own, and their husbands names publicly and so on, Grameen, and other NGOs which advance microcredit, manipulate cultural notions of ‘women’s honor and shame in the furtherance of their capitalist goals.’ Although Grameen insists that in spite of forwarding non-collateral loans to women (97 per cent of its borrowers are women) it has a 98 per cent recovery rate, in reality, writes Lamia, it is the (traditional) honour and shame codes that ‘act as the collateral’ of loans forwarded by modern institutions like Grameen. Poor women police other poor women, they evict poorer members from the group in fear of losing future income, these include women marching off together to scold the defaulting woman, shaming her or her husband in a public place, going through her possessions if she cannot pay the full instalment, taking away her possessions which range from her gold nose-ring (symbol of marital status, its removal signals divorce or widowhood) to the family’s rice, grains, cows, chicks. In cases of large default, the defaulting member’s house is broken and sold off, the ‘ultimate shame of dishonor in rural society.’
Alfred Nobel’s fortune, bequeathed to those who benefit humanity through science, literature and efforts to promote peace, was made from the invention of dynamite. It is a product that is not known for having led to peace, either then, or now.