Last Gasp Support for Grameen Bank and Microlending?

Muhammad Yunus

New York City   To see George Shultz, a former US Secretary of Labor, Treasury, and State and Madeleine Albright, a former UN Ambassador and US Secretary of State, co-sign an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal as a last gasp move to prevent the Bangladesh Government’s takeover of the path breaking micro-lending institution, the Grameen Bank, is a good sign that Hail Mary passes are being thrown in desperate last minutes to save any semblance of shareholder control of the institution.

We’ve talked about microlending before in these pages.  We’re skeptical.  We do not see such programs as poverty reduction mechanisms so much as we see them as interest bearing instruments for job buying.

Nonetheless, we have never supported the controversial ousting of Muhammad Yunus, the original director and widely recognized “father” of this movement, because it looked fishy and though technically within the power of the Bangladeshi government, still seemed to be political retribution for Yunus public comments about starting a separate political party.  Despite worldwide recognition and the lion’s share of a Nobel Prize, Yunus was booted last year without much ceremony.

Shutlz and Albright do the right thing by emphasizing that the Nobel was awarded to Yunus but also to all of the small shareholders, who number in the millions, and have had the ability, much like a cooperative, to elect their own manager, which was the job Yunus had held.  The government holding a minority number of board seats (outnumbered 2 to 1 by the smaller holders) is moving to acquire the right to appoint the manager directly.

All of these former Secretaries of State oppose this move, as they should, and the current Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has spoken forcefully in support of Grameen’s current structure as well.

Well and good, but one gets the feeling reading between the lines that the die is cast and the government is already the winner here.  Grameen was a bank with a high interest, daily collection set of loan products, not a democratic, activist, peoples’ organization.  Under attack, there was no way to move a base, because the base was passive and captive.  There is no way to pretend that bank shareholders are the same as the membership of a progressive and activist organization, and in Bangladesh the silence of the shareholders speaks volumes about the limits of financial “democracy” and its ability to confront autocratic state power.

Like it or not, you can mark your scorecard now:  Government 1, Grameen Bank 0.

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