A banker of poor women who fell into disfavour with the authorities

Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus

‘If I could be useful to another human even for one day, it would be a great thing’. This is what Bangladesh professor of economics awarded with the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Mohammad Yunus said about himself. He received the honour together with the bank he founded, giving loans without collaterals, namely Grameen Bank – ‘rural bank’ as the name reads.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee when awarding Yunus and his bank expressed the opinion that fighting against poverty was the major domain of fighting for peace and reminded in the justification that ‘the development from below additionally serves the development of democracy and human rights’.

In the 165-million people Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries of the world, it was thanks to micocredits that in the 1990s poverty could be lowered by 1 per cent annually, afterwards twice as fast. The total of 128, 000, 000 families have benefitted from them, almost exclusively women taking the loans, usually with a very definite goal in mind, as in Bangladesh they have a stronger entrepreneurial drive than men, which Yunus himself underlined on a number of occasions. The Prize for the Bank was received by Mosammat Taslima Begum, one of its first customers who thanks to the loan of 18 dollars in 1992 to buy a goat, promoted to the Management Board of Grameen.

Yunus thinks that the right to take a credit should be ranked among human rights. His idea was conceived in the mid-1970s. The first loans came from his own money which he lent shocked by the greed of usurious lenders. $ 27 were enough to solve problems of 40 individuals. Later on he continued the process by securing other poor people’s loans.

In 1983, Grameen Bank won the support of the government. It operates as a credit union. The Management Board of 12 includes 9 members from among the lenders, while 3 together with the President are appointed by the government.

Providing service to more than 81,000 (over 97 %) villages, the bank carries out an organic work: credit repayment is done in weekly meetings in the course of which women are taught rudiments of hygiene, family planning, economy. Bank employees visit villages on weekly basis, on a bike, and not in armoured vehicles or with armed security.

The bank soon established a Grameen Group bringing together ca. 30 social enterprises ranging from the one focused on mobile phones, via the ones applying renewable energy, educational undertakings, up to the non-profit Grameen Fund.

Serving as a social enterprise, Yunus set up cooperation with international concerns, such as BASF, Intel, Danone, Veolia, Adidas. Moreover, he allocated his part of the Prize money to establishing a company which yields ‘neither losses nor dividends’ and makes low-cost, high-nutrition food for the poor, as well as to founding a hospital.

In Yunus’s view, the free-market economy in its current shape has failed. ‘The system based on money greed and irresponsibility is the source of all the crises: in economy, food, environment, energy’, and it is high time we ‘replaced the obsession with money with the obsession with man’, he emphasized during his first visit to Poland.

The microcredit system has inspired similar institutions in over 100 countries. It became the focus of interest of the United Nations which called 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. The concept has been followed by various institutions, also banks. In autumn 2012, Tesco announced the intention to provide microfinance to the impoverished regions in Scotland with the assistance of the Grameen Scotland Foundation. What is more, the rural bank from Bangladesh has its branches in the USA.

The trust in Gramseen Bank and Yunus personally was shaken due to the political vendetta carried out by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed (1996-2001, and since 6 January 2009). Her activities in Asia have been compared to Putin’s attempts at eliminating Khodorkovsky. Yunus’s biographer Rashidul Bari drew a parallel to the conflict of Pope Urban VIII with Galileo and to that of Socrates with Alcibiades.

In March 2011, Yunus was dismissed as Managing Director of Grameen due to having exceeded the retirement age. Despite the intervention of some Western politicians, Yunus’s appeal was dismissed by Bangladesh’s High Court.

Prior to that, there had appeared allegations of embezzlement and fraud. In December 2010, after a documentary aired on Norwegian television which claimed that Yunus had diverted millions of dollars from Grameen Bank, the Prime Minister accused him of ‘sucking blood from the poor’. Although shortly after the documentary the Norwegians officially disproved the allegations, explaining that no funds had been embezzled and everything was officially closed and cleared in 1998, the issue of the ‘Norwegian funds’ has been used for attacking Yunus.

In the summer of 2011 in the BBC Hard Talk interview (the infamous toughest interview in the world), Sheikh Hasina claimed that Grameen operations did not seem to have alleviated poverty. She additionally quoted false information on the interest rate (‘40, 45, 30 per cent’). Shortly afterwards she made an enquiry whether Yunus should not return the remuneration he had been receiving after having gone past the retirement age.

From that moment on the attack was targeted at the Bank’s structure. A year ago the promise was made that larger prerogatives would be the privilege of appointed directors. Last May the head of Bangladesh Central Bank Atiur Rahman assured ‘that there was no crisis’ and ‘after Yunus, Grameen was operating well’.

According to Yunus’s opponents, he surrounds himself with flatterers and treats the criticism of the bank as the criticism of himself. Apart from accusing him of being too dependent on foreign politics and sponsors, and that he resents the domestic media, Yunus is also criticized for not having invented the microcredits himself. His adherents refute this by pointing out that Grameen does not take any collaterals for the loans.

However, even Yunus’s followers agreed that when attempting at establishing a political party in 2007 he listened to bad advice. This coincided with the interim military-supported government in Bangladesh. In the result of struggle against corruption, some politicians and business people accused of that crime were given high sentences. Sheikh Hasina was also in court for corruption during her term of office. Moreover, she was under home arrest. At that point Yunus declared that politics had to be cleared from broad corruption and that he wanted a thorough ‘re-masculinisation of the present political parties’; while in Bangladesh it was almost exclusively women alternating at the position of prime minister.

In late May this year, after the collapse of the building with five garment factories near Dhaka, Yunus proposed that international companies commissioning the garments should establish a minimal pay in textile industry. He proposed 50 cents an hour for Bangladesh (an average monthly pay in the country is ca. $ 40 ).

Moreover, Yunus launched a series of Projects in Brazil where the Bank of America is establishing the Yunus Social Business Fund in Brazil, a leading business school (ESPM) launches the Yunus Social Business Centre, while the food giant Brazil Foods (BRF) is establishing such an enterprise in Haiti.

On 23 May he inaugurated the 1st EuroAsia Social Business Forum in Istanbul in the course of which the Istanbul Social Business Charter was signed; each signatory promising to set up one such business within a year.
‘Business is a very beautiful mechanism to solve problems, but we never use it for that purpose. We only use it to make money. It satisfies our selfish interest, but not our collective interest’, Yunus told the audience of financiers in London. He also pointed to the fact that in the one-dimensional world focused on money-making, ‘we have been turned into robots’. And he concluded: ‘Yes, we are selfish, but also selfless, but we don’t allow that to be brought out’.
Following this, ‘The Guardian’ reflected: ‘A paradigm shift is unlikely to happen soon. But after spending a couple of hours listening to Yunus, you begin to wonder whether maybe it could just happen – one day’.
Yunus, a professor at Chittangong University, since recently Chancellor of the Caledonian University in Glasgow, honoured with the US Congressional Gold Medal, was born in 1940 to a Muslim family of a goldsmith as the third of 14 children. He studied in Chittangong, later as Fulbright Fellow in the USA, and returned to Bangladesh after his PhD.

Tłumaczenie książki Junusa „Przedsiębiorstwo społeczne. Kapitalizm dla ludzi” ukazało się w Polsce w lutym 2011 r. (nie tłumaczę, bo chyba nie ma znaczenia dla obcokrajowców)

Monika Klimowska (PAP)

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