The disgraceful witch-hunt against Muhammad Yunus

"Who are you calling old?!"

Yesterday’s attempt by the Bangladeshi government to oust Muhammad Yunus from Grameen Bank is a new low in that country’s grubby politics. Using the pretext that the 70-year-old Mr Yunus is past the usual retirement age of 60, the bank’s Chairman Muzammel Huq (a government appointee) unilaterally declared that Mr Yunus was no longer Managing Director. However, he did this without the support of the board (a quarter of which is appointed by the government, and the rest by Grameen Bank’s customers) and Grameen Bank says that Mr Yunus’ appointment was entirely legal and that he is therefore staying on.

The prime mover behind a long-running campaign against Mr Yunus is believed to be Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Mr Yunus’ sin appears to have been his raspberry to Bangladesh’s political establishment when he briefly proposed launching a new political party to clean up his country’s politics. The original allegation against Mr Yunus – that he had missappropriated Norwegian aid money – has been refuted by a report commissioned by the Norwegian government.

This appears to be why his critics have switched to attacking his age. For example, the Finance Minister said last month that Mr Yunus was “too old” and that Grameen Bank needed “closer regulation”. But since the Finance Minister was born in 1934 (and is thus at least 76 years old), raising the issue of age makes one wonder why he hasn’t retired himself.

The answer to that may be that the gravy train of Bangladeshi politics is too tasty to leave in a hurry. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, though in fairness it has recently improved its performance from dire to just very bad (134th of 178 countries in the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index). As recently as 2005 it was bottom-equal with Chad. Sadly it seems to have taken a military coup to start cleaning things up.

Sheikh Hasina: more destroyer than creator

One of Bangladesh’s many problems is that it has a political class that is largely parasitic, feeding off bribes and perks while doing very little to improve the lot of their people – who are about 22 times poorer than Britons. Muhammad Yunus has devoted his life to trying to help people out of that poverty through giving them access to the savings and loans we Europeans take for granted.

Microfincance is no panacea, and more research needs to be done to find out what works and what doesnt, but organisations like Grameen Bank and BRAC have probably done more good for Bangladeshis than the whole of Bangladesh’s political class.

It is a sad to watch the parasites try to drag down the people who fight to create something better than poverty. And the spectacle can hardly do much good for Bangladesh’s international reputation. As a Dhaka businessman said to the Financial Times: “In this tug of war, the country will also pay a high price. The world will see Bangladesh as a place that doesn’t respect its own heroes.”

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Photo credits. Muhammad Yunus (top): World Economic Forum on Flickr republished under the CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.
Sheikh Hasina (bottom): The Prime Minister’s Office on Flickr republished under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

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