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Micro-lending genius Yunus: Why he was done wrong

The Bangladeshi government's treatment of Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has lifted millions out of poverty with his micro-lending program, is shameful. And it does nothing to help the poor.

By Jacques Attali / April 8, 2011


Rarely does a man in the mold of Muhammad Yunus come along who has devoted his life to the least fortunate among us.

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Instead of living the peaceful and comfortable life he could have had, he chose to engage in a crusade against poverty through the use of mico-credit that has succeeded far beyond any expectations.

Yet, as happens so often in history, no man seems to be a prophet in his own country.

The Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2006 — along with the organization he founded back in 1983 — symbolizes for millions of people today the best chance to create “a world without poverty.” Starting from an experiment led in the village of Jobra, Yunus worked day and night, helped by a team of dedicated associates, to patiently and progressively build up the Grameen Bank. Today it is the largest and most famous organization dedicated to microfinance in the world. Its 8.4 million active borrowers — of which 96 percent are women villagers — received more than $1 billion in loans during the year 2010.

Grameen Bank has become the flagship enterprise of an industry that in 2009 enabled 190 million poor families all around the world to access financial services.

History of government interference

Even as he tirelessly pushed forward this remarkable revolution on behalf of the world’s poor, Yunus has encountered difficulties in dealing with his own government

For years the government of Bangladesh has argued against high interest rates — which are part and parcel of the microfinance system because they permit it to cover intense administrative costs and to develop sustainably — as a way to bring down Professor Yunus. Recently, an excuse was served on a silver platter to government officials.

A Norwegian documentary accused Yunus of improperly diverting funds in 1996 that had been donated by the country’s aid agency. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promptly used the opportunity given by this documentary to assert that Dr. Yunus treated the Grameen Bank as his “personal property” and claimed that he was “sucking blood from the poor.”

As a result, on March 2 Yunus, who at 70 is full of youthful energy combined with sagacity, was relieved of his duties as managing director of the Grameen Bank on the legal basis that he was beyond the mandatory retirement age of 60. This is morally reprehensible. Clearly, the more likely reason was Yunus’ criticism of the government in recent years and his 2007 bid to start a political party.

On April 6, his appeal against forced retirement was rejected by the top court in Bangladesh.

No evidence of wrongdoing

The fact that the Norwegian government has said there was no indication Grameen ever engaged in corruption or embezzlement apparently was not taken into account in the Bangladeshi government’s action.

Nor did it take into account the fact that before the Nobel Committee decided to award the Peace Prize to Professor Yunus and Grameen Bank in 2006, it had thoroughly vetted them and found nothing to question their integrity. (A later study by David Bergman showed the allegations in the documentary were untrue).


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