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                              Dhaka, Monday March 21 2011

    Grameen Bank: Difficult to build, easy to destroy

    Munir Quddus

    There is a saying in many traditions that generally makes the point that it is difficult to build something, but easy to destroy. The Chinese version goes like, "Any fool can throw a stone down a well, but it takes a wise man to get it out." In every society and community, we find builders, and sadly a few who enjoy tearing down what others have painstakingly built. The builders commit themselves to the long and arduous task of creating and nurturing an institution, or completing a task that will improve the lot of perhaps one person, one family, or millions. They make numerous sacrifices in their private lives for the sake of the greater good of the community. They are often laughed upon, challenged, and criticized because others cannot see their vision. However, for those who are persistent, their dream often comes to fruition.

    Professor Muhammad and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed are modern day examples of institution builders. Both men have created world class organizations of their visions. Indeed, many others helped them realise their dreams since you need a team of many to build something significant. Many in and outside the government, at home and abroad, helped them build their institutions. However, credit must be given where credit is due. Without the visionary leadership, talent and dedication of leaders such as Yunus and Abed, we would not have the Nobel Prize winning Grameen Bank, and the world's largest and most innovative NGO, the BRAC. Let us take the case of Muhammad, who is, unfortunately, much maligned in some section of the media.

    By taking a simple idea that the poor are bankable and credit worthy, Yunus elevated the position of Grameen Bank into one of world's most admired organizations that has helped millions of low-income women and their families improve their lives. In the process, he made a measurable and lasting contribution to the social and economic development of Bangladesh. Economists may differ on the measurement of this impact, but few will argue on the impact. Moving from micro-credit to building new businesses such as the Grameen Phone, the nation's largest private company employing nearly 5,000 workers and serving roughly 30 million clients, Yunus helped revolutionise communications especially for the poor who are now able to participate in the world economy. Again, the idea of utilising mobile phones to help the poor may not have been entirely his, but he championed it and used his considerable managerial skills and network to remove the many roadblocks.

    Through the work of Grameen Shakti, Dr. Yunus has assisted in energising nearly half million households in rural Bangladesh who are taking advantage of the wonders of solar power, and all the benefits that come with renewable source of energy. More recently, by creating a host of social businesses in partnerships with companies such as Reebok and Danoe, among the best known global brands, he has put Bangladesh on the map of global investors, and as an exciting place for innovative business models for poverty alleviation.

    In 1996, as the Science and Technology Advisor in the Caretaker government led by Justice Habibur Rahman, he served the role of a dedicated public servant. In his 2007 testimony to the US Senate pleading the case of duty free access to the US markets for Readymade Garments (RMG) exports from Bangladesh, he ably served the cause of millions of women garment workers who spend long hours every day to power this dynamic $10 billion export sector. Through his books and lectures on the power of micro-credit, technology and entrepreneurship, he has inspired many, especially young generation, across the world to work for the greater good of their communities and societies.

    In sharing the 2006 Nobel Prize for Peace with the Grameen Bank, Prof Yunus filled the hearts of millions of Bangladeshis with immense joy and pride for their country. By winning the United States President's Medal of Freedom (2009), the Congressional Gold Medal (2010), and numerous other awards, Dr. Yunus has served a goodwill ambassador for his country, and a model citizen of the world. On September 24, 2010, citation of the Congressional Gold Medal to Prof Yunus for microfinance work states, "Dr. Muhammad believes overcoming poverty is not just a gesture of charity; it is an act of justice," While reading the citation, Durbin Holt Bill further said, "For more than thirty years, his theory of micro enterprise has become a phenomenon touching the lives of more than 100 million people around the world. It is hard to think of any single idea in our lifetime which has lifted so many people out of the deepest depths of poverty. He is truly deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal and I am honored to call him a friend."

    What an honor of for Bangladesh!

    The unseemly manner in which the present government of Bangladesh has sought to remove Professor Yunus from his position as head of the Grameen Bank makes us sad. It seems the leadership of this government, for reasons one can only guess, is determined to destroy the work and legacy of the man fondly known as the "banker to the poor." They have used sections of the media to spread malicious information about him. The campaign to destroy the good name of Dr. Yunus is unbecoming of a free press, and a democracy. The honour and dignity of a national treasure such as Muhammad should be above partisan politics. If history is any guide, these efforts to destroy the Grameen Bank, an institution that has transformed the lives of millions will be unsuccessful, will fail.

    In our everyday personal and professional life, we face choices, either to build something or tear down what someone else built. God gives us the ability to listen to our better angels and build something small or great. Through our acts and thinking we make a conscious decision to help build a better world, or to destroy what others have built. Those in politics, government or media would do well to remember that, if history is any guide, only the legacy of the builders will be remembered and celebrated a hundred years from now.

    Bangladesh should salute leaders like Dr. Muhammad and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed for their vision and success in building great organizations which continue to lift millions out of poverty everyday in Bangladesh and globally. They are among the true nation builders.

    The writer is a professor of economics of a business school near Houston, US, and can be reached at e-mail < This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it >

  Banker to the Poor Banker to the Poor GF USA