Muhammad Yunus Banks on Beating the Enemies of Microfinance
Monday, July 18, 2011
Muhammad Yunus is good at being calm. At 7.30am in a chilly office in central London, he talks with urbane charm and all the dispassionate objectivity of a philosopher as he considers the Bangladeshi government’s campaign against him, and the possibility that it might destroy his life’s work building up the world’s first microfinance bank.
He is Bangladesh’s most famous son, known as the world’s banker to the poor, winner in 2006 with the Grameen Bank of the Nobel peace prize, a tireless campaigner at global summits for microfinance and social enterprise who can count Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy and Mary Robinson among his many friends. But as the saying goes, a prophet is never recognised in his own country. Neither the global acclaim – nor the protestations of both the French and the US government – is making much difference to a government intent on destroying Yunus’s hold on Grameen Bank and the network of social enterprise companies he has developed over the last four decades.
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed has accused him of “sucking blood from the poor”, and others have alleged corruption despite official government inquiries clearing him last month of any wrongdoing. In the end, the only charge that has stuck is that at a sprightly 70, he is too old to be managing director of the Grameen Bank. A charge made, incidentally, by the 77-year-old finance minister.
“I’m not hurt by the vilification in the press; I’m disappointed and I’m worried. I don’t want to see an organisation which has come all this way and brought so much good to the country and brought power to the people, come to this. Many people are angry but anger doesn’t solve anything,” he says.
“I want to calm things down. If we are prepared, we can do damage control.”
This is his first interview since the crisis broke early this year. Yunus is refusing to talk to the Bangladeshi media for fear of further inflaming the controversy, and he is adamant that he will not be drawn into speculating as to why the government has forced his recent resignation. He simply says: “I can’t see the purpose, I can’t see what the country gains, what the government gains.”
There is certainly a lot to lose. Any bank depends on confidence and the last few months have been turbulent for Grameen’s 22,000 employees and 8.36 million borrowers, 97% of whom are women. So far, repayment rates on the millions of small loans are holding steady and borrowers are not withdrawing deposits – either could bring the bank to collapse. Yunus’s calmness in London is all about steadying the confidence of his Bangladeshi audience. As one of the most efficient and stable economic institutions in a desperately poor country, there are many who are hoping he will succeed and that Grameen will weather this storm.