Bangladeshi Government Puts Politics over Poor in Sacking Microfinance Leader

Elizabeth Hamrick /

He may have won a Nobel Peace Prize for spurring economic growth in the developing world, but on March 2 the government of Bangladesh ordered Muhammad Yunus to leave his post as managing director of the Grameen Bank, which is credited for starting the spread of microfinance across the globe.

Yunus founded the Grameen Bank and built it from the ground up to become the powerhouse it is today. Using microfinance, it has lent money to countless numbers of poverty-stricken women across the country and helped reduce starvation and illiteracy, among other problems, in Bangladesh. It has become a beacon across the globe as a sustainable solution to world poverty, providing people living in countries with little economic freedom with the capital necessary to tap into their individual entrepreneurial abilities and create their own source of income.

So why is the government forcing Yunus to step down? The government cites technical problems with Yunus’s position—namely, that his appointment was in violation of the bank’s bylaws and that Yunus, at 70, is in violation of the country’s mandatory retirement laws.

But politics is the real problem.

Multiple reports allege that the government’s hostility toward Yunus (from Prime Minister Sheik Hassina, in particular) stems from 2007 when Yunus formed his own political party. Yunus’s goal was to provide an alternative to the corrupt politics-as-usual characterizing the two major parties that dominate the country’s political scene, but it almost immediately received scathing political attacks from all sides and never took off.

In 2009, according to a TIME.com blog, “the Awami league [party] won national elections, returning its leader, Sheik Hasina, to power and putting Yunus and the Grameen Bank … back under scrutiny.” Since she was elected, Mrs. Hasina has shown pointed hostility toward Mr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank in multiple instances.

Mr. Yunus has proved himself a selfless and capable leader of the Grameen Bank, and removing him from his position for political reasons will bring only harm. Some economists fear the move may spur a run on the bank, which would chiefly hurt the bank’s borrowers, poor families in rural Bangladesh. Grameen Bank borrowers across the country have accused the government of being politically biased.

The U.S. Department of State said it was “deeply troubled” by the action taken against Yunus, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to discuss it with him while he is in Washington on March 8.

Modern history has shown that state solutions to poverty are often flawed and unsustainable. The Grameen bank is successful, not only because its loans create positive economic effects, but because it is managed privately with a system that works. The Bangladesh government should retract the central bank’s order to remove Yunus. The government should, instead, do what has been best for Grameen and has allowed it to thrive over the past 30 years: stay out of its operations and leave it to the bank’s board of directors to make decisions.