Monday, October 21, 2013

The never-ending trial of Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus

RASHIDUL BARI


Muhammad Yunus is the first person since Dr Martin Luther King Jr to achieve the trifecta of the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal, and the US Congressional Medal. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh put him on trial for a second time. The prime minister alleged that Yunus had received his earnings without the necessary permission from the government, including his Nobel Peace Prize earnings and the royalties from his books. This trial has puzzled billions of people around the world, from 8.3 million underprivileged women of Grameen Bankto President Barack Obama. Who is right: the leader of his own country or the leader of the free world? To answer this, we need to look at the first trial. 

Prime Minister Hasina launched the first trial against Yunus in December 2010, one month after the release of Caught in Micro Debt, a documentary by Tom Heinemann. Screened on Norwegian television on November 30, 2010, the film broadcast the allegation that Yunus stashed approximately $100 million in 1996 into Grameen Kalyan, a sister company of Grameen Bank. After completing a full investigation, the Norwegian government found Yunus innocent. However, Prime Minister Hasina used the situation as an excuse to increase a sustained attack on Yunus. She fired him from Grameen Bank, citing that he was older than the mandatory retirement age of 60, even though nine of the bank's directors-who were elected by 8.3 million Grameen Bank borrowers-allowed him to stay on the job after he had crossed that threshold. Many people thought the prime minister would not take further damaging action against Bangladesh's only Nobel Laureate, yet she continued her assault on Yunus and Grameen Bank. She brought more pressure against Grameen Bank by reducing the power of the bank's directors and breaking the bank into nineteen pieces. However, in September 2013, her mission to destroy Yunus took an even more drastic turn: She decided to put him on trial again. Yunus has challenged the allegations against him and has claimed that they are baseless, politically motivated charges. The Obama administration urged the Prime Minster to treat Yunus in a fair and transparent manner. 

Prime Minister Hasina's political vendetta against Yunus could be understood as a modern-day replay of the famous conflict between Archimedes and General Marcellus. Roman soldiers killed Archimedes because, instead of meeting with General Marcellus, he said, "Don't disturb my circle." In a similar reactionary spirit, Hasina, who labeled Yunus as a "blood sucker of poor people," unleashed her entire regime to destroy Yunus just because he asked her not to disturb his Grameen Bank. 

Yunus not only founded Grameen Bank but also nurtured it with his world-acclaimed, highly influential concepts of microcredit and social business. Yunus formulated microcredit in 1974 as an innovative idea to spur entrepreneurship among underprivileged people. In 1981, he formulated social business as a visionary new dimension for capitalism. In my new book Grameen Social Business Model, I show how these two concepts started as theories yet have evolved to become practices adopted by leading universities (e.g., Glasgow University), entrepreneurs (e.g., Franck Riboud), and corporations (e.g., Groupe Danone) across the globe. 

Yunus believes that people who are poor can achieve success if they have access to microcredit. That does not mean that microcredit is the perfect remedy to end all poverty; however, it seems to be the best option available. In a sense, microcredit is like education; one can succeed only if he or she puts in the extra effort. Simply building more schools in remote villages will not educate everyone. By the same token, Grameen Bank does not turn everyone into a successful person. Yet a microcredit loan may indeed increase an individual's chances of rising out of poverty. For example, Taslima Begum, who lives in Shibganj Upazila, took out a loan worth Tk 1,500 from Grameen Bank in 1991 to help her husband run a mechanic's shop. The couple are now self-reliant. Begum received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Grameen Bank from the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, at Oslo City Hall on December 10, 2006. Begum was merely 1 of 8.3 million borrowers; thus, we get a sense of how Grameen Bank successfully empowers women. Yunus and Grameen Bank's 8.3 million borrowers became a family. For the last three decades, they worked together, prayed together, struggled together, attacked poverty together, and even won the Nobel Peace Prize together. Hence, Yunus refused to allow Prime Minister Hasina to break Grameen into nineteen pieces, much the same way Archimedes refused to leave his beloved circle. 

Roman soldiers killed the father of mathematics because they were ignorant; they thought meeting with General Marcellus was more important than contemplating a geometric circle. Do Prime Minister Hasina's actions mirror this ignorance? Regardless, three factors contributed to her brash decision: the Nobel Peace Prize, hingsha, and politics. 

First, Prime Minister Hasina did not agree with Yunus winning the Nobel Peace Prize; she thought that the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee would award it to her for signing a peace treaty, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), in 1997. Second, Hasina experienced hingsha, which is a Bangladeshi word meaning jealousy or hatred. As Yunus won more awards and became more famous, Hasina feared his reputation would soar above that of her father, Shikh Mujib. Third, in an interview with the AFP news agency in 2007, Yunus remarked that politicians in Bangladesh work only for money, saying, "There is no ideology here." In 2013, he decided to join in cleaning up corruption by launching a new political party, Citizen Power. However, he never went through with his plans. 

Yunus is not a divine being or free from mistakes. Rather, he is a man, and no man in the world has never made mistakes. One does not have to be a Newton or Einstein to understand that the works of great people are tied to trials and tribulations. Every idea, invention, theory, and concept has its own humiliating shortcomings, from Newton's theory of gravity to Yunus's theory of microcredit. Indeed, Yunus should have known better. Perhaps he should have done more for the poor people of the world or published more books. Instead, he became Prime Minister Hasina's target for name-calling, accusations, and expulsion from Grameen Bank. 

I really do not know how the prime minister will end this trial. But I can only hope that she will never unleash her soldiers on Yunus the way General Marcellus unleashed his on Archimedes some 2300 years ago. President Obama remarked, "Professor Yunus was just trying to help a village, but he somehow managed to change the whole world." I hope he does not have to continue reminding Prime Minister Hasina that this is not 212 BC but 2013 AD.


 in TheTimes of India,