As I prepared to take the helm of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 1993, one of the many things I focused on was an examination of innovative ways to address poverty. I already knew about Grameen Bank and its work to give microcredit to poor women in Bangladesh but as I studied Grameen more closely, it became clear that Muhammad Yunus and his colleagues had discovered a series of strategies that were absolute breakthroughs in addressing poverty. Years before visitors had begun arriving from around the world to study Grameen Bank and to take the seeds that had blossomed in the soil of Bangladesh and transplant them in their own countries.
One of the early visitors was Rockefeller Foundation President Peter Goldmark who would later become publisher of the International Herald Tribune. Here is how Goldmark described the breakthroughs he saw during his visit more than two decades ago:
On the day I was there, the women were sitting, reporting to a loan officer, jumping to their feet, reciting their 16 decisions or pledges.
As I watched, I could see something else. I could see the smashing of ancient rules, the shattering of a traditional canon. I could see subversion. Here's what was being subverted:
"The belief that poor people are helpless people
The belief that women are the most helpless of all
The belief that poor landless people are terrible credit risks
The belief that poor people cannot cooperate, cannot plan ahead, cannot decide for themselves, cannot manage or service a loan
The belief that a lot of credit is always better than a little credit
The belief that the best form of economic development is aid for massive centralised projects undertaken by the state
The belief that you can build the economy by destroying the earth
If the old beliefs were made of pottery, the floor of the Grameen Bank would be littered with broken shardsâ€¦.
It's the only bank in the world with its own birth control policy. Its members make this pledge: 'We shall plan to keep our families small'
It's the only bank in the world with its own marriage policy. Its members make this pledge: 'We shall keep the center free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage'
It's the only bank in the world with its own sanitation policy. Its members make this pledge:'We shall build and use pit latrines'
Do you begin to see how much can be accomplished if we choose to look at the world in a different way?"
One of the ancient rules that Goldmark saw broken at the individual level, "the belief that poor people cannot cooperate, cannot plan ahead, cannot decide for themselves," was expanded by Grameen Bank to the institutional and governance level. Not only were the members making decisions about their own lives and the lives of their communities but they were also electing nine of the Bank's 12 board members who were charged with governing the entire institution. If only the commercial banks of the world could have learned this lesson from Grameen Bank and had their boards filled with clients who were invested in the success of their banks, then perhaps the financial crisis of 2008 could have been avoided.
Of course, this is what is so profoundly tragic about the government's decision to strip the selection of the managing director from the borrower-dominated board and place it in the hands of the government-selected chair. The nine women board members have been duly elected by the 8.4 million mostly women members, members who own 97% of the shares in Grameen Bank with the government owning the remaining three percent. Globally, the last several decades have seen the slow dismantling of the rampant subjugation of women, with Grameen Bank among those leading the way. And now, in 2012, this power is taken away from the women board members? Grameen Bank, for decades a global model for the empowerment of women, now, at the hands of the Bangladesh government, becomes a model for the disempowerment of women. How can that be?
Of course, empowering women goes hand-in-hand with ending poverty. Grameen Bank was born at about the time that then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called the newly independent Bangladesh "a bottomless basket case." Thankfully, time has shown how very wrong Secretary Kissinger turned out to be. Now, when the United Nations lists the countries that are most likely to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, Bangladesh shares a spot at the top of the list. Any serious researcher or development expert will tell you that that progress is grounded in the work of Grameen Bank and the other actors in Bangladesh's vibrant civil society. Why would any government put that vibrancy in jeopardy when it has made such a difference and been such a vital lifeline to its people?
It is critical to note that Muhammad Yunus' innovations don't just stop with banking. Before my tenure at UNDP, I co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute. When I left UNDP I became Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and now I teach at the Vermont Law School, a school with one of the leading programmes in environmental law. So care of our environment has been a central part of my life's work. When I look at the achievements of Grameen Shakti, it takes my breath way. Grameen Shakti installed more than 24,000 solar home systems in August 2012 and nearly 1 million since its inception. Grameen Shakti sold nearly 14,000 improved cooking stoves in August 2012 and more than half a million since its inception. With some 7 million beneficiaries and nearly 12,000 employees I must add that if only the energy companies in the rest of the world could have emulated the achievements of Grameen Shakti then we would have been farther along in averting the climate crisis we now face.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee saw the brilliance of Grameen Bank six years ago when it jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus. Soon the US Congress will present the Congressional Gold Medal to Professor Yunus who is only the seventh person in history to receive the Peace Prize, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And what does Grameen Bank receive from its own government? It receives a heartbreaking attack on its autonomy and what could be a fatal blow to the hope it has provided to tens of millions of its members and their families.
When the government seized control of the selection of the Bank's managing director from the nine women borrower/owners Muhammad Yunus said: "This day will go down in history as a black day for our nation. Our government has taken over a globally admired and Nobel Prize winning institution from its rightful owners-rural poor women-and has brought the bank under their management control. In so doing, the unique feature of Grameen Bank has been fundamentally compromised. It is very difficult for me to absorb this sad news."
I agree. It is very difficult for us all.
The writer was Administrator of the United National Development Program and Chair of the United Nations Development Group. Currently he is a Professor at the Vermont Law School.
Courtesy Prothom Alo. (This article was specially written for the Prothom Alo anniversary issue)