Breaking the bank

Breaking the bank

Elliot Wilson, Spectator


‘It is all lies,’ says Muhammad Yunus, his voice quiet but firm. ‘The media in Bangladesh attacks me unceasingly and I cannot stop them, but the accusations are untrue.’


I believe him absolutely. Yunus is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has done perhaps more than any other living person to alleviate global poverty. Grameen Bank, the microfinance operation that he founded nearly 30 years ago, has (by lending to even the very poorest families) transformed the lives of millions of his fellow Bangladeshis and become a model emulated across the world. But he is now living in fear of his government, which seems bent on discrediting him. ‘My voice is not heard. They will find a way to create mud and then make it stick to me.’


In the past few months Yunus has been hounded out of his bank: he must retire, says the government, because the law states that no one over 60 can run a financial institution in Bangladesh. So why, asks Yunus, who turns 71 in June and has been happily running Grameen for the past decade, did no one mention this before? His final appeal was dismissed on 5 May by the country’s supreme court, leaving him bereft and unemployed.


Yunus’s mortal enemy, and the source of his misery, is the country’s prime minister and ruling matriarch, Sheikh Hasina Wazeb, who many believe is orchestrating the attacks on him via a pliant media and legal system. Hasina has referred to Yunus as a ‘bloodsucker’, and accuses Grameen of predatory lending and of charging extortionate interest.


This is just not true. Grameen’s rates of interest are reasonable, and Yunus himself is a humble man who lives with his wife in a one-bedroom flat. But perhaps that is the problem. The more obviously decent he is, the more the world reveres him, the more of a threat he is to local politicians. Yunus is suffering what Australians call ‘tall poppy syndrome’.


There is a Bangladeshi word for this too: hingsha, meaning vindictiveness or jealousy. Take the Nobel prize. Hasina, says one Dhaka-based politician, feels her work to bring peace to the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a remote part of eastern Bangladesh, has been overlooked internationally. When Yunus won the Nobel, it drove her crazy. ‘She thinks she’s Nelson Mandela,’ says one colleague. ‘Yunus, in her mind, was a just a better lobbyist.’


Hasina’s official biography mentions the peace treaty over the Chittagong Hill Tracts four times. A government-sponsored lecture tour bearing the title ‘Global Peace, Role of Sheikh Hasina’s Peace Model to Combat Terrorism through Empowering People’ has passed through both Oxford and Harvard this year. A businessman who attended called it the ‘weirdest piece of personality-cult propaganda you’re ever likely to see’.


Yunus hasn’t always made it easy for himself. At the height of his powers in early 2007, he flirted with the idea of entering politics. Overnight, he went from being a harmless chap with a beatific smile to a potential political heavyweight rival to Hasina.


Yunus appears to regret his foray into politics. Having announced the creation of a new party, he found even his more influential friends remained silent, fearing the vengeance of the entrenched elite, so he quickly dropped the idea.


‘Politicians in Bangladesh only work for money,’ says Yunus resignedly. ‘There is no ideology here. I have stated many times that I have no political ambitions now. I am not a political threat to anyone, let alone Sheikh Hasina. I don’t know why the present crisis could not have been resolved amicably.’


But he fears that the cycle of retribution has only just started. Yunus usually drifts around Dhaka, friends say, floating Zen-like above the city’s filth. But this gentle elderly man now lives another life, fearing for his family and for his ‘second family’ at Grameen Bank. His great worry is that Grameen will be nationalised, and stuffed with financially illiterate government cronies.


‘I want to see Grameen Bank remain in good hands,’ he says. ‘It’s my lifetime work and I don’t want to see its legacy disintegrate. The government thinks of Grameen Bank as a government bank. It isn’t. It’s a good, well-run private bank, 97 per cent of which is owned by poor women. It lends out more than a billion pounds a year to very poor rural women.’


There is some hope that fences can be mended. Yunus tentatively suggests clear-the-air talks with Hasina. ‘I want to get back to what I do best, to help Grameen grow, to ensure its legacy. I’ll happily sit around a table any time to talk. Anything can be sorted out, any compromise can be reached, by talking.’


If that doesn’t work, perhaps the only way to bring the sides together is for Bangladesh’s big donors to stand up to Hasina and cut off Dhaka’s supply of credit. This is where Britain could and should help. DFID, our Department for International Development, is by far Bangladesh’s biggest source of foreign aid. We give the country £170 million a year, and aim to raise that to at least £300 million by 2014. Over the next four years the British taxpayer will hand out £1 billion in foreign aid to this one troubled nation — more than Germany and the United States are giving combined.


So if any single country has the leverage to help Yunus, it’s Britain. Yet inside DFID it’s clear that he is a sensitive subject. There is talk of the ‘incredibly sad’ way that Bangladesh’s favourite son is being treated and the Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, calls Yunus ‘an inspiration’. He told The Spectator: ‘We are keen that Professor Yunus’s reputation is preserved.’ But does that extend to doing anything for him? In a clear attempt to curry favour with the Hasina administration, Mitchell opts for the easy way out, referring to the decision to remove Yunus from office as a ‘matter for the Bangladeshi courts’.


This is a cowardly and weaselly approach. After all, others have made their support for Yunus clear. In March, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund delayed the transfer of a long-standing £300 million loan to Bangladesh, blaming rising corruption. Officials close to both institutions said the real reason was the treatment of Yunus. The same month, a group of American congressmen warned Hasina that her behaviour over Yunus had started to ‘overshadow’ the strides Bangladesh was making elsewhere.


And while Britain’s high commissioner in Dhaka, Stephen Evans, has refused to comment, others have been less circumspect. In March, the American ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty, said: ‘It strikes us that it is an unusual way to handle a Nobel laureate, who is considered outside the country one of the greatest Bangladeshis.’


As our conversation drew to a close, Yunus and I discussed whether big donors could put pressure on Hasina and her cronies. Perhaps then his legacy can be salvaged, and the bank saved from the strangling hand of the Bangladeshi state. America and its development agency, USAID, have made it clear how much they disagree with the Hasina administration, so why, he laments, can’t other leading donors do the same thing?


The words ‘Britain’ and ‘DFID’ aren’t used directly, but they hang reproachfully in the air. David Cameron has been outspoken about his enthusiasm for enterprising philanthropists, so why hasn’t he added his voice to those defending Yunus? If the Big Society means anything, then this man — an entrepreneur who has devoted his life to the world’s poor — is its global champion. It’s time for Andrew Mitchell and David Cameron to stand up Muhammad Yunus and for what they say they believe in.