Saturday, August 18, 2012

Microfinance pioneer Grameen Bank weakened by government meddling

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh seems bent on destroying the best elements of the Grameen Bank, whose loans to poor women inspired a global movement now enabling more than 135 million borrowers to become self-employed. More than a year ago, she engineered the spectacularly illogical dismissal of Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize-winning founder and managing director of Grameen Bank. 

Hasina rode roughshod over the bank’s own board’s decisions and bylaws in imposing a mandatory retirement on Professor Yunus, ostensibly because of his age. (She seems not to have been troubled by issuing that dictate through her minister of finance who, himself, was many years older than Yunus.)

But not content to have removed Yunus, whose worldwide fame seems both Bangladesh’s most notable asset and Prime Minister Hasina’s most aggravating cause of envy, she has now moved to gut the Grameen Bank’s fundamental premise of governance: that the women who comprise the bank’s clientele should have a controlling voice in its policies and programs. In a region not notable for women’s rights, this leadership position by the Grameen Bank has been salutary for the bank, a model for other institutions and an inspiration to all those seeking to advance the well-being of women and their families.

What exactly is Prime Minister Hasina’s latest plan? Very simple: Trash the Grameen Bank’s historically successful model of a borrower-dominated board that has the power to elect the managing director of this bank, in which the borrowers are the leading shareholders. And replace that process with what? Let’s see. 

What could be the most disempowering, backward, ham-handed, intrusive alternative one could imagine? 

Eureka! Have the government-appointed chair of the board summarily appoint the managing director! Forget about the decades-long organic evolution of women’s leadership in both governance and management at Grameen Bank. Just empower Hasina’s crony chair to install a managing director, who will reliably turn the bank into a compliant arm of the Hasina administration — an administration whose appreciation of this international treasure, if such appreciation exists, is no barrier to envy-driven decisions that simultaneously compromise both the bank’s all-important independence and the administration’s own already shabby reputation. 

It would be easy, and wrong, to dismiss this as a tempest in a teapot. Beyond its role in pioneering microfinance and poverty-reduction programs that have now been adopted worldwide, Grameen Bank is a shining global model of what it means to empower women — even, and especially, poor rural women. These women not only comprise 97 percent of the bank’s borrowers, but they actually own more than 95 percent of the equity in the bank. Accordingly and appropriately, women hold nine of the 12 seats on the board. And it is little noted but no small thing that the Nobel Peace Prize accepted by Muhammad Yunus was actually awarded to him and to those women — that is, to the bank itself, which they have built and, until Prime Minister Hasina butted in, have successfully controlled.

At this moment, a hand-picked Bangladeshi government commission is “studying” Grameen Bank to find ways to “improve and protect” it. Rodgers and Hammerstein captured this situation perfectly in “The King and I,” when the king, reflecting on foreign “allies” increasing their role in Siam, sings, “Might they not protect me out of all I own?” 

What can be done? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Dhaka in May to urge Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Dipu Moni to take no action that would undermine Grameen Bank. In addition, the 17 women who currently serve in the U.S. Senate have sent a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Hasina. 

And this communiqué was issued by our State Department earlier this month:

“We call on the Government of Bangladesh to respect the integrity, effectiveness, and independence of Grameen Bank. We urge the Bangladeshi Government to ensure transparency in the selection of a new managing director who has unquestioned integrity, competence, and dedication to preserving Grameen Bank, its unique governance structure, and its effectiveness in bringing development and hope to 8.3 million of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable citizens, mostly women.”

It has seemingly always been the case that enlightened advances forged over decades by millions of dedicated people working together can be trashed with astounding finality by one misguided ‘leader.’ We owe it to those who created Grameen Bank, and to history, to show that such travesties are not inevitable. Citizens wishing to add their voices to this urgent call for preservation of a global treasure can sign on to a petition by searching ‘ Grameen Bank.’” 

This is not a futile exercise. The worldwide firestorm over the ousting of Muhammad Yunus still reverberates in Hasina-administration deliberations. A fresh onslaught of petitions on this new issue may give them some pause. And perhaps even more important, our loud protests can mobilize the voters of Bangladesh, who, ultimately, must decide if their democratically elected prime minister should be allowed to demolish their country’s most celebrated contribution to its own people and the global community.


The Assam clashes are about land and livelihood, not religion

Bertil Lintner
AS BERTIL LINTNER mentions in the introduction of Great Game East, the expression “Great Game” was originally used to denote the struggle between two western powers to wrest control of energy-rich Central Asia. Across the Himalayas, in the east, another great game has been on for some time now between the two Asian giants — India and China. The fight began over Tibet and now includes Northeast India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Indian Ocean. Lintner has even devoted one chapter to Indo-Bangladesh relations in his book. Here, he talks to Kunal Majumder about the ongoing violence in Assam and how the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), once a nationalist movement, ended up becoming a pawn in the great game.


Your book has an entire chapter on the relationship between Assam and Bangladesh. What is your reading of the ongoing situation in Assam?

TEHELKA described it quite well. It’s not religious. It’s not Muslims versus Hindus. It’s a struggle for land. There is a lot of pressure on land both because of increase in internal population and massive migration from Bangladesh. Naturally, people from Bangladesh are Muslims and that adds that dimension to it.

But certain interests in India are calling it a grand design to Islamise Assam. Do you find any credibility in such assumptions?

It is possible. But I’m not sure if it is the main reason people are moving from Bangladesh into India. Certainly, Islamic groups will want to take advantage of the situation. Migration to India, first from East Pakistan, and then Bangladesh has always been there. One reason this happens in Assam is votebank politics. If you look back at the Assam Agitation, it was a movement against the so-called foreigners moving into Assam. Not only Bangladeshis, Nepalis too were being evicted. It is not about religion, it is about land and livelihood.

Isn’t it ironical that the ULFA based its politics on an anti-Bangladeshi immigrant stance but eventually accepted Dhaka’s help to fight India?

The ultimate irony is that the movement began as an anti-foreigner movement — less Nepal, more Bangladesh — and they have been exiled in Bangladesh. Assamese militants I met in Bangladesh were not happy to be there but they thought they had no choice. They were being used by Bangladesh intelligence services to create trouble in India. The Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), more than the Awami League, were behind this policy. Things shifted in Bangladesh depending on who was in power. If the Awami League was in power, the ULFA was sent to Thailand. When Sheikh Hasina came to power for the first time in the 1990s, the entire leadership arrived in Bangkok save Paresh Barua, who was too useful for the Bangladeshi security establishment. He was close to Pakistan’s ISI as well.

The ULFA has now split. Almost everyone in the top leadership is negotiating with the Government of India. Where does Paresh Barua’s future lie?

I first met Barua in 1985 in a Naga camp in northwestern Burma. The Burmese army attacked the camp. He was an excellent fighter, much better than any other Naga. Unlike Arabinda Rajkhowa, who was more intellectually motivated, Barua was the most militant of all ULFA leaders and more politically motivated. The second time I met Barua was in Bangkok. He had come from Singapore, where he revealed that the ISI were encouraging the ULFA to increase their activities in Assam because troops were being withdrawn from the Northeast for Kashmir. It was in Pakistan’s interest to reignite some kind of unrest in the region so that India could move its troops back from Kashmir. This was quite telling. I was quite surprised he was ready to tell me that. I met him for the third time in a safe house in Dhaka, escorted by two Bangladeshi intelligence officers, who were not particularly happy to see me around. Whether you sympathise with them or not but from being a nationalist movement, the ULFA became a pawn in the hands of the establishment of all countries.