Monday, March 28, 2011

The ‘real’ truth behind Yunus’ Grameen story

JAGDISH BHAGWATI

THE FEUD in Bangladesh between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Mohammed Yunus, the founder of the microloan-making Grameen Bank and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is being portrayed as a modern-day replay of the famous battle between the wicked Kauravas and the virtuous Pandavas in the "Mahabharata".

The suggestion is that a vindictive prime minister is playing politics in punishing the saintly Yunus, the man who pioneered microfinance, for having threatened to enter politics. Sheikh Hasina is even being compared to Russia's Vladimir Putin in his campaign against the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

But the Grameen case is more complicated, and carries a moral contrary to what Yunus' wellmanaged public-relations campaign suggests.

First, Sheikh Hasina is no ordinary politician. She is the daughter of the first president of Bangladesh , Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a charismatic leader often described as the Father of the Nation, who was assassinated in August 1975 by the army.

Hasina won office in 2009 after a landslide victory in an election that was free from fraud. She is also one of the few women to have gained the premiership not by inheriting it, but in her own right, long after her parents and some of her siblings were murdered. Sheikh Hasina escaped the massacre of her family only because she was in Germany at the time. Over many years, she patiently worked her way back into, and to the top of, Bangladeshi politics.


Moreover, Sheikh Hasina has gained political power at the polls in an Islamic country, which is no mean feat for a woman. By getting the US to side with Yunus against the Bangladeshi prime minister, secretary of state Hillary Clinton seems guilty of arrogantly intervening in the domestic affairs of a friendly, democratic government —in direct contradiction of President Barack Obama's preferred modus operandi.

Second, many of those now discounting Sheikh Hasina's credentials are guilty of inflating those of Yunus. Consider the frequent refrain that Yunus is the "pioneer" of the microfinance movement. In fact, the true pioneer of microfinance is a remarkable woman from Ahmedabad , Ela Bhatt, a follower of Gandhi who established SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association ) as a bank in April 1974, two years before Yunus founded his Grameen Bank Project in Jobra, Bangladesh. [ENDS]

First published in The Times of India, March 27, 2011