Muhammad Yunus ought to be considered a national treasure in Bangladesh. The 71-year-old founder of the Grameen Bank and the father of an international micro-credit program, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and has lifted thousands of his fellow countrymen from poverty.
Instead, he is being persecuted by his own government and by Prime Minister Hasina Wajed, who orchestrated an effort to remove him as managing director of the bank he began nearly 30 years ago. Yunus has been an outspoken critic of his government, and apparently the government isn't confident enough in itself to take it. Yunus has appealed to the nation's supreme court. Unless it rules in his favor soon, the best hope for ending poverty and establishing liberty in a troubled region will face an enormous setback.
Yunus caught his vision in 1974 when he was a young university professor trying to understand why economic theory didn't work in reality. He met a young woman who made attractive bamboo stools but earned only 2 cents per day because she relied on someone else to supply the bamboo in exchange for the finished product. He loaned her $6, which was enough for her to buy bamboo. Immediately, her earnings jumped to $1.25 per day, which made her middle class and allowed her to pay back the loan.
He was so impressed he founded the Grameen Bank to give out small loans to help other impoverished people develop greater self-sufficiency.
As of 2009, more than 128 million of the world's poorest people had received such loans. More than $10 billion has been loaned to 8.35 million people in Bangladesh alone, bringing hope to people who otherwise had none.
Now the government claims Yunus has broken the nation's law mandating retirement at age 60. The charge is laughable. Not only did the bank's board unanimously decide years ago that the age limit should not apply to Yunus, but the nation's finance minister, who has been outspoken in defense of the government's action, is 77. The government claims a 4 percent ownership of the bank, which it believes gives it the right to assume control.
Washington has expressed grave concerns about this move, as well it should.
Bangladesh is a nation in which "weak institutions, poverty, and corruption undermine economic development and fuel social and political unrest," according to the Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. That corruption and unrest make for a tenuous hold on power by the ruling government, which no doubt fuels its suspicion of any critic.
The irony is that the loans Yunus makes through the Grameen Bank hold the promise of stemming some of that poverty and unrest. More than that, however, his example has led to micro-loans throughout the world. To silence him now would be a blot on Bangladesh and its rulers.