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. Here is part of how Goldmark described the breakthroughs he saw during his visit more than two decades ago:
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.
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.
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 percent of the shares in Grameen Bank with the government owning the remaining 3 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?
It is critical to note that Yunus' innovations don't just stop with banking. When I look at the achievements of Grameen Shakti, it takes my breath away. Grameen Shakti installed more than 24,000 solar home systems in August and nearly 1 million since its inception. Grameen Shakti sold nearly 14,000 improved cooking stoves in August and more than half a million since its inception.
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 Yunus. Soon the U.S. Congress will present the Congressional Gold Medal to 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 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.
James Gustave Speth is a professor at the Vermont Law School. This is courtesy of the Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo.