Grabbing Bangladesh's Grameen Bank

Apparently driven by jealousy, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed*, is seeking to have the Bangladesh government take over 51 percent of the ownership of Grameen Bank, arguably the most successful institution ever invented anywhere to provide aid for the poor, almost all women.

Hasina has been on a vendetta against the bank's founder, Muhammad Yunus, since 2006, when Yunus won a Nobel Prize that Hasina thought should have gone to her for her efforts to bring peace between warring southern Bangladesh hill tribes. The relationship deteriorated further after a 2007 coup in which Hasina and her bitter political rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, were jailed on corruption charges.

At that point Yunus led an abortive political reform movement which he quickly abandoned for good. After the two women were freed, Hasina's Awami League won fresh elections and she was reinstalled as prime minister in 2009.

Yunus, then a Fullbright scholar and professor, founded the bank in 1976 in an effort to provide small loans, known as microcredit, to poor people with no access to financing. More than Bangladeshi 8.4 consumers, mostly extremely poor women, have taken advantage of the bank's loans, made on the theory that the poor have skills but need financing to put them to use.

The bank has been phenomenally successful, loaning more than US$11 billion to poor women, with a recovery rate of more than 95 percent. It has since expanded into a wide range of other successful businesses such as fabrics, telephony and energy. The microcredit phenomenon has since been expanded into many other countries.

Yunus was forced to resign as founding managing director in 2011 by the Hasina government on the pretext of his age ? over 70 years. Although the government was successful in removing him from the bank, he continues to lead a number of sister organizations with the Grameen tag. Sheikh Hasina is said to still consider him a potential political threat despite his public abandonment of politics for good, as millions of Grameen families adore him.

The recent controversy started when the government formed an inquiry commission last year to scrutinize the bank's legal status and financial transactions, with few probable changes envisioned in the functioning of the institution.

Today, however, the government wants to increase the government's currently minimal stake up to 51 percent, with the clear implication that government representatives will take over policymaking, as in any other state-controlled industrial bank. Second, it wants to split the bank into 19 smaller entities with independent management structures but under control of the government.

The Grameen Bank Commission is scheduled to present its recommendations in a workshop to be held in Dhaka on Tuesday in the presence of the Bangladesh finance minister AMA Muhith. The workshop is scheduled to present a working paper titled 'Future Structure of Grameen Bank: Some Options'.

Under fire from the opposition, Finance Minister Muhith told Parliament that the government has no intention to change Grameen Bank's structure.

"The government has yet to do anything centering the Grameen Bank. The bank is running the way it was operating in the past," he said.

Hasina was present during the discussion in the parliamentary session, during which the opposition lawmaker Moudud Ahmed criticized the government for its decision to split the bank, saying that if the Bangladesh Nationalist Party returns to power in the next general election, they would return full independence.

Meanwhile, the recommendations remain. The reaction has been swift and negative. The strongest message came from Yunus, who slammed the recommendations as an extreme abuse of political power. He also commented that the "options offered by the commission are totally irrelevant and unworkable."

In an email, Yunus told Asia Sentinel that Grameen bank is a unique institution created under a unique legal structure and any drastic change in this structure would be devastating for the bank.

"The effectiveness of this legal structure has been successfully demonstrated over the last 30 years by the organizational efficiency and power of the bank's operations," he said. "The current legal structure has led Grameen Bank to the peak of global recognition, won it the Nobel Peace Prize, brought a ray of hope into the lives of 8.4 million women and their children, made poor women the owners of a nationwide bank. What offense has Grameen Bank committed that it must be broken into pieces?"

He added that the bank is a "source of national pride and an inspiration to many around the world, owned and managed by poor women borrowers. It has never taken money from government or other donor organizations."

The Central Bank of Bangladesh has never questioned the quality of the bank's management, rather it has praised it each year, he said. "The borrowers have been pleased about the way the bank is run. Why has the inquiry commission all of a sudden come up with a bizarre proposal for replacing the bank's legal structure? Will the inquiry commission explain to the people of Bangladesh why a bank that operates with its citizens' own money surrender 51 percent or more of its shares to the government, knowing fully well that will be extremely risky, to say the least?"

On June 24, nine bank of the 13 bank directors ? with the remaining four representing government -- addressed the media in the Dhaka based Jatiya Press Club to term the proposal to break up the institution as suicidal. The all-women directors asserted that they would not allow the Grameen bank to snatch away from the hands of millions women borrowers.

The main opposition party BNP, led by Khaleda Zia, has already warned the government against its intention to humiliate Yunus on different occasions. The party, which is expecting a huge anti-Hasina and pro-Yunus votes in the forthcoming general election scheduled in the early months of 2014, asked the Hasina led government to refrain from any conspiracy against the bank in general and Yunus in particular.

*Prime minister's name mispelled by editing error *