|Dec 21 2010
By Fakhruddin Ahmed
To a certain extent human beings are gullible; they have a proclivity to believe what they are told. At least initially. For many, however, first impression is their last impression, even if facts change. In an unfortunate manifestation of our lingering colonial mentality, this proclivity to believe takes a quantum leap if the message is packaged and delivered by a Westerner.
Bangladesh's lone Nobel Prize winner, and Bangladesh's face to the world, Professor Muhammad, has been the latest victim of our West-worshipping. By damaging Professor Yunus's image, the Denmark-Norway-triggered slander machine has tarnished Bangladesh's image much more.
The writer has spoken out against the machinations of neo-colonial organisations which takes devilish pleasure in highlighting the deficiencies of the developing nations, such as Bangladesh's corruption. Their surveys never target the horrendous crimes and wars the powerful nations perpetrate against the defenseless, poorer nations.
Bangladesh's corruption hurts only Bangladesh. Economic sanctions enacted by the powerful nations, and wars waged by the powerful nations destroy the economy and kill thousands of people in the poorer nations. Yet, these high crimes are never highlighted by western organisations. Unfortunately, we quote the reports as though they are the ultimate truth, and use those to club each other to death!
Professor Muhammad has been a public figure in Bangladesh for over 35 years. Of course, he has had his share of critics of his brand of microcredit, but even his harshest critic has never accused him of personal corruption. He is well known for his Spartan life style.
Yet when the Danish-Norwegian documentary questioned the transfer of funds between Grameen Bank and Grameen Kalyan, a matter that was satisfactorily resolved twelve years ago the Norwegians now tell us, without bothering to comprehend what the documentary actually said, the local press jumped all over Dr. Yunus, using incriminatory phrases such as, he "siphoned off" funds, to denigrate him.
Professor Yunus is a known quantity in Bangladesh, while the Danish journalist and the Norwegian television that aired his documentary are not. Yet, our press had no hesitation in embracing their worst allegations, and adding more negative heft of their own through their own prejudice. It is as though just because the Danes and Norwegians had said so, it must be true!
I have seen part of the documentary. At best it is shoddy journalism. They only interviewed the critics of Dr. Yunus and Grameen Bank, not their supporters. Yet, our naïve press accepted it as the gospel!
One has to wonder whether the misleading documentary offered some of Dr. Yunus's critics with the perfect opportunity to vent some of their deep-seated resentments of his success. After all, Kabi Guru Rabindranath Thakur, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in 1913, had lamented 120 years ago about the fatal flaw in the Bengali psyche, "jealousy!"
Some of the accusations leveled against Dr. Yunus are comical: if microcredit is such a panacea for poverty, why has poverty not been eliminated in Bangladesh? It is as though Dr. Yunus had been entrusted with the task of eliminating poverty in Bangladesh within a few years, and he had failed miserably! The irony is, the government of Bangladesh spends much more money on poverty alleviation annually than does Grameen Bank; this is an accusation the government should be leveling against itself!
Of course, the answer is that microcredit is one of the many tools needed for poverty alleviation. Academic studies have demonstrated that microcredit can be helpful to many people for many reasons, and that it helps the recipients survive long enough so that they have a chance to get out of poverty.
One wonders whether Professor Yunus is a victim of the war that is brewing between microcredit and micro finance. All microcredit lending institutions are not for profit organisations. Some proponents of micro finance want to take microcredit public; trading microcredit organisations in the stock market. This will take microcredit lending back to the days of usury, something Grameen is firmly opposed to. Perhaps Dr. Yunus is paying a price for his opposition to microcredit mutating into micro finance.
To conservative publications like The Wall Street Journal and the Economist microcredit was always an anathema. Targeting the poor for loans, often at subsidised, socially determined rates, runs counter to their true free financial market principals, as do the pumping back of the profits and the poor's savings to reduce rates, and into social enterprises such as education and health.
Grameen's concept of a bank for the poor, whose purpose is not solely to make a profit, is also against the true capitalistic creed. Big business wants to transform microcredit institutions into publicly traded for profit companies, something Professor Yunus has been fighting for the last 5 to 6 years. Big business and others, who share that line of thinking, constitute a significant lobby for micro finance, and against microcredit and Professor Yunus.
Before we decide to take down Professor Yunus, let us recapitulate the implications for Bangladesh. Although microcredit has existed since the days of Adam Smith, the modern incarnation of microcredit is associated solely with Professor Yunus, and through him with Bangladesh.
Over the last ten years, every major textbook on Development Economics has added a chapter of microcredit, with acknowledgment to Professor Yunus and Bangladesh. Hundreds of academic papers are published in the top academic journals every year on microcredit. It is the only major field-level poverty alleviation programme in the world. In the wake of Professor Yunus's Nobel Prize in 2006, the UN declared 2007 as the Year of Microcredit, clearly to honour the person synonymous with it.
Apart from the Nobel Prize in 2006, President Barack Obama has honoured Professor Yunus with the US's highest civilian award, the "Presidential Medal of Freedom," and both the US Houses of Congress have passed a resolution to honour him. Professor Yunus has also addressed both the Houses of the Indian Parliament. All of these honours have been bestowed on Professor Yunus alone; no other Bangladeshi has won any of them.
For a country like Bangladesh, whose foreign donors routinely withhold aid for alleged governmental corruption, to investigate one citizen who has brought so many honours for us, even though the donor in question, Norway, has said that everything is in order, is laughable. Such acts do not amuse Bangladesh's friends or donors abroad. They know Professor Yunus well enough to understand when a line is being crossed.
Whether we like it or not, Professor Yunus's name has become a significant part of the image of Bangladesh. Simply put, if we take down Professor Yunus we take down a great part of Bangladesh's image, perhaps its biggest part.