Feb 13 2011
By Nick Stace
Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammed Yunus is being investigated for alleged corruption by Bangladesh’s government. Nick Stace defends the man who has helped millions of the world’s poorest people.
A year ago, I along with other social enterprise leaders from around the world visited Nobel laureate Professor Yunus at his Grameen headquarters in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I’m lucky that through my work I get to meet some interesting people in life, but I have met few people who can match the Yunus magic – his charisma and vision has transformed the lives of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
But ever since Professor Yunus received the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his amazing work on micro credit, and his stand against corruption in politics in 2007, he has been distrusted by the Bangladeshi government. This has now taken a sinister turn with Sheikh Hasina, the Bangladeshi prime minister, giving credence to unsubstantiated claims of corruption at Grameen. According to supporters of Yunus, this is a clumsy attempt to wrestle the world’s leading social enterprise away from the poor.
Yunus set up the Grameen Bank, which today is giving opportunities through small loans to 10 million of the world’s poorest families in 73,000 villages, in 1983. But it didn’t stop there. Through social business partnerships with global brands such as Adidas and Danone, Yunus is tackling underlying causes of poverty. These sustainable social businesses now employ over 30,000 people and deliver benefits to many millions of people.
At our first meeting in Dhaka, Professor Yunus used a vivid analogy to explain the problem that the poor face: “To me poor people are like Bonsai trees. When you plant the best seed of the tallest tree in a flower pot you get a replica of the tallest tree only inches tall. There is nothing wrong with the seed you planted – only the soil base is too inadequate. Poor people are Bonsai people. There is nothing wrong with their seeds, only society didn’t give them the base to grow on.”
“Real” banks have never wanted to loan to the poor, only loan sharks do with business models that extract bone-crushing interest rates attached to violence and intimidation. Grameen in contrast provides loans at reasonable rates, in a supportive environment. It’s inspiring stuff because it puts people at the heart of business solutions, and without political interference it will continue for the benefit of generations to come.
There is no question that Professor Yunus is challenging to the world as we see it; he turns on its head conventional thinking, which of itself can allow the seeds of doubt and suspicion to fester in an insecure regime.
It is of course a familiar story that people who suffer the most often live in parts of the world that experience higher than average levels of corruption. Transparency International confirmed in a recent report that Bangladesh is still extremely high on the world corruption league table. And as The Economist noted in 2007, “The problem is that the mafia in Bangladesh are the political parties.” For that reason Professor Yunus embarked on a mission to clean up politics, a move The Economist says earned him “powerful enemies among Bangladesh’s politicians”. Yunus began forming a political party, then quickly dropped the plan – but that was enough to put the current prime minister on guard.
The recent attacks on Yunus are over corruption allegations that were proven unfounded some years ago. In 1996 the Norwegian Development Agency thought the movement of $100 million in aid money from one Grameen entity to another was a violation of a clause in its aid contract. Grameen agreed to move the funds back and the matter was settled amicably. The Norwegian Finance Minister Erik Solheim declared that “according to the report, there is no indication that Norwegian funds have been used for unintended purposes, or that Grameen Bank has engaged in corrupt practices or embezzled funds”.
It is understandable why Yunus supporters see the attacks on him as politically motivated and fear that the government will not give up trying to ruin his reputation. According to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, “It may be that the government worries that Yunus will enter politics, or criticise politicians – and they may also be salivating at the prospect of gaining control over Grameen, which touches one person in three in Bangladesh.”
Whatever the reasons for the attack on Yunus – jealousy, personal gain, fear or loathing – if he goes under and the bank comes under government control, the big losers will be the poor of Bangladesh, as well as the micro credit movement around the world. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions affecting millions of the most vulnerable people globally.
That’s why I feel so passionate about standing up for Professor Yunus and why I’ve joined Liam Black, co-founder of Wavelength (a partner of Grameen) and Danone in supporting the birth of a new organisation called Friends of Grameen. Friends of Grameen has already attracted a unique coalition of social enterprise leaders, big corporations and political leaders from around the world. It will be chaired by Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and I believe it can help build an unstoppable momentum in support of the global icon of the poor.
Through Friends of Grameen we are putting pressure on every political leader from around the world who has basked in the Yunus glory, to now defend him in his hour of need. David Cameron met the Bangladeshi prime minister two weeks ago and through his advisors we encouraged him to raise widespread concerns about the way Yunus is being treated. In Australia the support of Kevin Rudd, the foreign affairs minister, is being sought. And Hilary Clinton, US secretary of state, has already declared her support.
There are few people in the history of the world that can have done more than Mohammed Yunus to alleviate poverty and to bring about lasting change to the world’s poorest. It’s taken a lifetime to create such a legacy and it could take just a few months to destroy it. That’s why I and others who have met Yunus feel we have a duty to do all we can, or witness a beacon of hope in a country where people yearn to get on, snuffed out by cynical political interference.