Friday, August 24, 2012

Is Yunus facing the fate of Socrates?

This piece of article is being written at a time of rising tension between Sheikh Hasina, the prime minster of Bangladesh, and Professor Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist famous for his two theories -- microcredit and social business -- as well as for his successful practical work through Grameen Bank, which has already helped millions of poor women break the cycle of poverty. The former unleashed state institutions (e.g., Bangladesh Bank, Bangladesh Supreme Court) to remove the latter from Grameen -- the bank he founded in 1983. On August 2, 2012, Sheikh Hasina's mission to 'destroy' Grameen took an even more drastic turn: she approved a draft of "Grameen Bank Ordinance 2012" to increase government control over the bank.

Currently, that power resides with the bank's directors -- consisting of nine poor women -- who were elected by 8.3 million Grameen borrowers. The prime minister also ordered a fresh investigation into the activities and financial transactions of Yunus in his latter years as Managing Director of Grameen, but people see the move as nothing more than an attempt to destroy his image. Why would Hasina unleash state institutions to perform a character assassination on a man whom Bill and Hillary Clinton regard as the "saviour of poor people"?

This political vendetta by Hasina against Yunus could be understood as a modern-day replay of the famous conflict between Socrates and Alcibiades. Socrates who was sent to trial on the basis of two notoriously ambiguous charges: Corrupting the youth and impiety. A majority of the 501 dikasts voted to convict him and forced him to death by drinking Hemlock. In a similar reactionary spirit, Hasina, who labeled Yunus as a "blood sucker of poor people" -- unleashed Bangladesh Bank to remove him from Grameen -- and used the Supreme Court to justify her illegal decision.

Why did Alcibiades insult the Father of Western Philosophy? Because he thought that Socrates would become his political threat. Why has Hasina insulted the Father of Microcredit? There are three reasons: Nobel Prize, Hingsa (jealous) -- and politics.

The number one offence of Yunus against Hasina was wining the Nobel Peace Prize. As a result helping millions of poor people from below, in 2006, Yunus won the ultimate honor the world bestows upon its illustrious citizens, the Nobel Prize. Hasina did not like it. In fact, she thought that the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee would give her the prize for signing a peace treaty, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in 1997. On March 9, her attorney general revealed the attitude when he famously said, "She should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize…" He went on to challenge the wisdom of the Nobel committee for not awarding the prize to his boss, Hasina, for the CHT accord. The second reason is 'Hingsa': in addition to wining the Nobel Prize, Yunus also won a number of the world's most prestigious awards, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the award ceremony, President Obama said: "Professor Yunus was just trying to help a village in Bangladesh, but somehow he managed to change the world". As Yunus grew more famous, Hasina became more jealous, fearing Yunus' reputation would soar above her father, Sheikh Mujib. The Bangladeshis have a word for her emotion, 'hingsha,' meaning jealousy or hatred. The third of Yunus' offense against Hasina was trying to form a political party: in an interview with the AFP news agency in 2007, Yunus remarked that politicians in Bangladesh only work for money, saying, "There is no ideology here." On February 25, 2007, I accompanied Yunus on a tour to India, and, as a response to my question on Hasina, he said, "Neither peace nor economic development can be bought at the expense of political corruption." Later this year, Yunus decided to join in cleaning up corruption by launching a new political party, Citizen Power -- saying he had a mission to enter the political arena in his nation in the hope of changing its identity from "bottomless basket" to "rising tiger." However, Hasina not only warned Yunus to stay away from politics -- but also removed him from Grameen. Now she is trying to take the control of the bank by amending "Grameen Ordinance 1983".

However, like Socrates, Yunus did not fear his rival's power. In fact, he refused to obey this illegal order and told the bank's 8.3 million borrowers not to fear injustice when they have done nothing but stand up for their own rights. "This government decision will destroy the bank of the poor and the country's bank of pride," said Yunus, "I request the poor owners of Grameen to urge the government and their fellow countrymen so that they do not curb their rights to exercise ownership."

Yunus founded Grameen and nurtured it with his two world-acclaimed concepts: microcredit and social-business. But microcredit is not magic. In fact, microcredit is just an economic theory that does not work unless one tries hard enough and goes the extra mile with it. In this way, microcredit is no different from education; one can succeed only if one puts in the extra effort. In fact, building more schools, for example, in remote villages does not educate everyone, although it does increase the chances of that happening. By the same token, Grameen does not turn everyone into a successful person like Taslima Begum, for example; however, the microcredit loan it dispenses increases an individual's chances of rising out of poverty. For example, Taslima, who lives in Shibganj upazila, took a loan worth Tk 1,500 from the Grameen in 1991 to help her husband Abu Hanif run a mechanic's shop, and the two are now self-reliant.

Grameen considers the poor as 'bonsai' people -- they can unleash their potential if given a proper base from which to grow. Today, Grameen financially assists about 8.3 million poor, helping them unleash their potential. At the deepest level, the Grameen approach is about revealing unseen possibilities that can release the capacity within each poor person to break the cycle of poverty. All borrowers become owners of Grameen, by purchasing shares of the bank, a requirement when they register as members. In the three decades since Yunus gave his first loan to a group of Bangladeshi women, the number of Grameen borrowers has grown to over 8.3 million.

In fact, Yunus and Grameen's 8.3 million borrowers became a family. For the last three decades, they worked together, they prayed together, they struggled together, they attacked poverty together, and they even won the Nobel Prize together. When Grameen was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006, the bank randomly chose one of its typical borrowers -- Taslima Begum -- to represent it at Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. If we multiply Taslima by 8.3 million borrowers -- we get a chance how Yunus' concepts and his Grameen Bank successfully empower women. This is why 8.3 million poor women regard Yunus as the father of Grameen. So the question is obvious: how can one remove a child from his father? However, Hasina removed Yunus from Grameen anyway. Now she is even trying to destroy it. This is why, 8.3 million poor women are very angry now.

Their anger may not see public expression in front of the prime minister's office, or at the Bangladesh Bank or the Supreme Court. However, it does find voice around the premises of Grameen Bank. It does find voice around the respective homes of these 8.3 women. In fact, a similar anger rages within 22,000 Grameen employees. However, they will not hold their anger in the closet forever. The anger is real; it is powerful. Hasina should not undermine the power of 8.3 million poor women, who are supported by all poor people of the world. She will make a big mistake if she ignores the roots of their anger: 8.3 million poor women do not want to see their Nobel Laureate humiliated by Hasina. Unless the Bangladesh government recognizes the right of 8.3 million poor women, its future is doomed.

I choose to support Yunus rather than Hasina's powerful regime because I believe abrupt and forced removal of Yunus from Grameen could damage confidence in the bank, which has 8.4 million mostly women borrowers and holds $1.5 billion in villagers' savings. One does not have to be Einstein to understand that the work of great people, including Socrates, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, is tied to trials and tribulation. Every idea, every invention, every theory, every concept (e.g., microcredit or social business) has its own humiliating shortcomings. Yes, we can argue that Yunus, you should have known better. You should have done more for poor people of Bangladesh. You should have published more books. Instead, our government turns on him and says, "Yunus, you are a blood-sucker."

While the whole world -- including Bill and Hillary Clinton -- considers Yunus as saviour of the poor people, why would the prime-minster of his own country removed him from Grameen? While the whole world considers Yunus as innocent as Socrates, why would Hasina consider him as evil as "Blood-sucker"? Let's hope she won't force him to drink the Hemlock for "sucking the blood of poor people".

Rashidul Bari, a biographer of Muhammad Yunus, most recently authored the Grameen Social Business Model: A Manifesto for Proletariat Revolution.