Muhammad Yunus’s New Crusade

Can Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for revolutionizing credit for the poor, do anything about the dismal state of politics in his native Bangladesh? The country, currently under a state of emergency, has been riven by bitter political rivalries ever since it split away from Pakistan in 1971.

Now Yunus, whose Grameen Bank has raised the living standards of hundreds of thousands of poor women through microcredit financing, says he is willing to try. He is seeking to set up a new political party although all political activities are currently banned after the emergency was declared 11 January.

The party will contest parliamentary elections, Yunus announced, once they are finally called.

In Dhaka recently, the soft-spoken economist told Asia Sentinel he is mentally ready to “start politics from a new angle”. In his eyes the country’s politicians have destroyed democratic practice and corrupted the society.

“I know politics makes people controversial. But I am ready to take that risk if you think my involvement would help create a new political ambience,” Yunus said in Dhaka last week. A former economics professor at Chittagong University, he announced in the Bangladeshi capital Sunday that, "I seek your support to form a political party. Please write letters or call me to give your opinion. I am waiting for your response. If you say, go ahead, I will join politics and form a party."

Certainly Bangladesh needs the participation of an outsider but it remains to be seen if a man who made his reputation by loaning tiny amounts of money to desperately poor market vendors and peasants has the stomach for the tough and sometimes terrifying world of politics in Bangladesh. It is a country that has been saddled by corruption and internecine fighting since rival political matriarchs – Sheikh Hasina Wazed, head of the Awami League, and Begum Khaleda Zia, who leads the Bangladesh National Party ‑ wrested power from the dictator Hussain Mohammad Ershad in 1990. Their onetime partnership has degenerated into perhaps the bitterest feud in the democratic world.

The rivalry is blamed by many Bangladeshis for the country’s problems, which include a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency that is growing while they squabble.

The state of emergency was called by caretaker President Iajuddin Ahmed because the enmity between Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda had resulted in a stalemate so complete that new elections could not be called after Begum Khaleda’s five-year term ran out last year. Rioting and street fighting between supporters of the two camps had paralyzed the capital for months.

In an attempt to put the country back on an even keel, the caretaker military government has arrested a significant number of Bangladesh’s continually warring political classes on corruption charges, including members of the previous parliament, a move that so far has provoked popular support from a populace weary of the infighting.

Certainly, Yunus’s decision to form a new political party is a long shot. Fed-up Bangladeshis began asking him to enter politics after he and Grameen Bank were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Peace in October. He was reportedly proposed to head the caretaker government that has run the country while the opposing parties wrestled over election rules, but he rejected that idea, saying at the time that “if necessary, I will join politics to lead the government.”

But he has given no information on how he would fund the party, and despite his standing as a revered public figure, both major political parties are certain to oppose his efforts. The military has given no indication if or when an election would even be held, and some observers believe Yunus’s public declaration was an attempt to stop the army from consolidating its power.

Famously known as the 'banker to the poor,’ Yunus was in the India city of Kolkata this week to receive the 'Shera Bangali 2006' award (best Bengali 2006), which was decided with the input of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in India through cell phone text message voting. The award was organized by ETV Bangla, the Bengali broadcast of the Hyderabad-based Eenadu Television.

Yunus’s story as the father of microfinance has been told and retold often. When he decided to establish a bank for the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, seasoned bankers scoffed at him because he talked about disbursing loans in smaller amounts and without collateral. Ultimately, he would prove the poor are creditworthy and that small loans are also capable of making a huge difference to the deprived. The movement he began helped inspire similar efforts that have spread through much of the developing world.

Today the Grameen family includes more than 6.6 million members in nearly 71, 000 villages in Bangladesh, 97% of whom are women. Grameen has grown to include a series of enterprises, including a cell phone system, rural electrification and agricultural assistance.

Yunus says he dreams of training young rural women to be Internet Service Providers operating from cyber kiosks. He has also established a loan fund to assist children of Grameen clients to complete their education.

Yunus takes pride in saying that the combined savings of Grameen Bank's borrowers is nearly US$200 million. "Today if they wish, they could buy the largest enterprise in Bangladesh. My message is, do not ignore them because they are poor. Together they are rich", Yunus told Asia Sentinel recently during a chat in Dhaka.

Can he bring the same kind of success to an outsider’s approach to Bangladeshi politics? It will mean changing his status from a cherished livelihood provider to someone who will have to face the hard choices demanded of any politician.

"If I join politics, I will no doubt leave the bank, because politics and Grameen Bank cannot go together," he told reporters on returning from Kolkata.

Earlier on Sunday, Yunus made public an open letter seeking views on his idea of forming a party with a goal of presenting a fresh democratic political culture.

"I have got tremendous support from the people for launching a new political party and I will announce 'yes' or 'no' within this month," he said.

More information: Grameen Bank