Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Grameen Affair : Time To Learn Lessons And Move On

The present phase of the Grameen affair has now ended with the official probe report in and Yunus ousted from his post as the managing director. The probe report has cleared Yunus of all theft and misappropriation charges.
However, the remit of the report was not to detect theft and the observations are about management and administrative issues which may be serious but the Grameen affair was never about that. The sponsors and writers of the report should also be congratulated for doing such a tough job under pressure.
So let’s learn the lessons from the episode and move on.
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The affair was triggered by a Norwegian documentary of dubious intent, full of innuendoes and half accusations. When the hullabaloo initially occurred, the documentary makers had pushed the charges but once challenged, they retracted on most matters including the theft charge claiming they had never insinuated it. Many in Bangladesh rushed to judgment. Some people who were always convinced that Yunus was a villain and a ‘shudhkor’ thought they had found smoking gun evidence of their prejudices and that too offered by the ‘halal’ hands of a European.
The point raised by the documentary about fund transfer issue between Grameen Bank and NORAD has actually been found to be a settled issue by the probe report though the report has made contingent observations on the process but none of which are about criminal offences. One therefore wonders what the documentary was all about if the points it raised were almost all irrelevant. Its comment on the loan system in hindsight also appears to have been a hatchet job.
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The documentary was produced at least partly by the resentment in certain Scandinavian circles about the Grameen phenomenon which is old hat. These people must have thought that as Bangladeshis were not famously critical thinkers they would swallow the accusations which of course many did.
It is good to remember that many high achievers who work in the spotlight will face such accusations over time. Even a spotless man such as Prof. Muzaffer Ahmed of TIB was charged in media once on matters related to corruption but of course it was later proved false. And a running a multi-billion taka institution like Grameen Bank will involve many glitches but they can’t become an excuse for an attack on a loan system serving the poor.
So the best protection of credibility is healthy mistrust of media materials, local or foreign which do such accusing. We do trust Western media more and they are more reliable in general compared to many Bangladeshis but when dealing with national institutions, let’s trust ourselves first on matters which matter.
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But the Grameen Bank debate goes much farther than matters concerning Prof. Yunus and his operations. It reaches deep into our collective anxieties and aspiration, social and personal about modernity and its contingent mechanisms. People became emotionally involved in this debate and perhaps rightly so because it was on fundamental issues of identity and cultural construction of Bangladeshis. Positions were not taken on the basis of evidence or occasionally, common sense.
For example, Yunus was accused of being a ‘shudkhor, a man who took interests and unfair ones at that. Micro credit was described as synonymous with some sort of foundational ‘sin while ‘interest’ and ‘loan’ emerged as codes for exploitation. The language used by many was that of describing a man who had broken the important taboos, the man who has taken ‘haram’, the ‘sudhokhor’ rejected by Islam. Marxists too have also rejected micro credit saying it is ‘capitalistic’ and tools of ‘imperialism’, terms that are socialist counterparts of ‘Iblish’ and ‘murtad’, words that don’t require analysis. For both followers, it is an issue of protecting the dogma, not arguments.
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There are almost no credible reports that are negative about micro credit and economists after economist from Rehman Sobhan down have publicly stated its benefits without singing its absurd praise as some micro credit agencies do. But it has had no impact on the mind of those opposing micro credit. They assumed their knowledge based on conceptual fundamentalism and some anecdotal encounters rather than qualified evidence or understanding of the mechanism of poverty alleviation and economics of the poor.
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Many find something deeply repugnant about loans, credit and debt. Credit and debt can never be trusted; the hated ‘rin’ which pauperised the peasantry under the British era zamindary system and of course such haram/usury can never do anyone any good.
This is a cultural issue and must be recognised as such. The middle-class, which finds the present and the future unsettling clings on to an imagined past of golden villages located in some non-existent pre-colonial era. It finds modern capitalism which is negation of such world very unsettling because it negates the village life everyone fantasises of as ‘pure and the pristine.’
This anxiety of the middle-class with the modern era and its tools is perhaps the most disturbing revelation of the episode. It shows how deeply our peasant past, our religion and our imagination of halal –social or religious — economics plays a role in our perceptions of managing the future. In the end, it is our anxiety with modernity that becomes obvious.
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Debt and credit are as impersonal as its management and in a capitalist economy there can be no option other than institutional credit to carry out economic activities. Every entrepreneur is in debt and should seek more credit for enterprise. What happened to ancient Arabia or colonial Bengal, two sources of credit stigma, doesn’t apply to us now. When we condemn loan, credit, debt and tools of the modern world, etc. we condemn without understanding how our present and future works.
Caught between a world which never or no longer exist and a world we resist because we don’t know how to cope with it, we live in denial and look for reassurance that our Rupashi Bangla can exist, free of debts and poverty, free of the modern.
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Yet Bangladesh has millions of capitalists but they are not those who crowd the stock market floors but live in the villages, the micro entrepreneurs. Capitalism didn’t arrive in limousines in muddy Bangladesh, but in bullock carts. And without credit, it is impossible to participate in capitalism. How can people living in such a land-starved economy depend on land for farming? It is no accident that one third of the population is extreme poor. For all living below the poverty line, enterprise is a way out. What are they supposed to do for a living?
Most of us have never seen a micro-credit operation or studied it yet we claim that something nasty must be going on. From this affair, the most important lesson we learn is about ourselves. We are still not sure about evidence based thinking or matters and facts that challenge our emotional and intellectual comfort zones.
We are also deeply into a patron-client culture where we the elite, middle-class or otherwise, assume that we know what is best for the poor. So we are not ready to accept that millions are navigating their lives with tolls that we don’t approve. In the end, we who do nothing for the poor, insist we can decide what is good and bad for them although for nearly 40 years they have been doing it quite well, increasingly without our involvement.
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Micro credit institutions also need to demystify micro credit. That it is nothing more than credit operations serving the poor who can have no access to loans. That micro credit is part of a bigger project and it is not a complete package for poverty alleviation.
Our relationship with private or civil society institutions is always uneasy vis-à-vis the government making us the ultimate victims of the colonial imagination. We believe that the sarkar bahadur is not kind but it alone has the right to deliver social goods because all power comes from the government. We don’t want to be in charge because we have never been in charge and we don’t know how to. Khoirat (charity) particularly official khoirat is preferable because it reeks of doya (mercy) rather than credit which is so impersonal.
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While the middle-class wallows in this mindset, the poor have escaped it though not by choice. Left out there and forgotten by the state, it is the poor who out of survival instincts have left the past more than others. Their world view of other matters is not threatened by the nature of their economic transactions. The middle-class who has no stake in the micro credit system have attacked it because it shakes their world views but not their economics. They feel safe to criticise what doesn’t affect them.
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Another reason why this mess occurred is because of the lack of conversation between the NGOs and the urban elite who influence or control public opinion. Had they been properly exposed to the micro credit process, everyone would have benefited. The NGOs adopt a “we-can-ignore-them” attitude which doesn’t work in today’s world. The government also thought that it could do the same with Grameen ignoring the international friends of Grameen and Yunus. In today’s interconnected world, everyone is part of everything. The NGOs, the governments, and the media should learn this valuable lesson.
Nor can anyone take an arbitrary path of management which ignores accountability while running public institutions like Grameen, BRAC, etc. No matter who founds, transparent and accountable governance is a pre-conditional and obligatory for all.
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Finally, let’s not overdo the prize bit. Yunus got the Nobel Prize but so what? As events show he was not above the law, criticisms, mistakes, self glorification and what have you. It is not something which just the admirers of Yunus should know but members of the present regime as well, who regularly demand a Nobel for Sheikh Hasina. And she should remember when her sycophants speak that her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the most successful Bengali ever, never got a Nobel Prize. Greatness doesn’t need a medal as proof nor shallowness any certificate of evidence.