Opinion: Life-threatening corruption endangers Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus
Muhammed Yunus, a frequent visitor to Utah and helper of the poor, needs support from the U.S. against baseless charges that could put him in prison
Muhammed Yunus, the 82-year-old financial wizard and friend of Utah, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for devising a microcredit program aimed at helping poor people help themselves out of poverty, is facing huge problems in Bangladesh, his home country.
The Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is investigating him as an “enemy of the people.”
“He should be plunged into the Padma River twice,” local media quoted her saying. “He should be just plunged in a bit and pulled out so he doesn’t die, and then pulled up onto the bridge. That perhaps will teach him a lesson.”
Those are ominous words from the head of a government numerous sources rank as rife with corruption. Transparency International earlier this year ranked Bangladesh 147th out of 180 nations in that regard. Gan Integrity has warned companies that “Corruption is pervasive at all levels of society” in Bangladesh.
Sources close to Yunus tell me he is in trouble. A government commission is being formed to investigate him, and it may reach a conclusion by the end of August that could result in jail time, or worse.
“There’s a certain enhanced urgency now, compared to when he was forced out of his bank,” said Sam Daley-Harris, the founder of Results, an anti-poverty lobby. He was referring to the government’s decision to remove Yunus from the board of his own bank, the Grameen Bank, more than a decade ago because, at the time, he was well past the age of 60 and deemed too old to hold a job regulated by the government. The nation’s finance minister at the time was 77.
Irony is lost on autocrats.
I’ve spent more than a decade trying to understand why Bangladesh’s government dislikes Yunus so much. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Yunus received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. All I have concluded is that, when you live in a country dominated by corruption and poverty, it’s best not to try to find a cure for both.
Why should you care about Muhammed Yunus?
Two reasons: First, not only are the charges baseless, but Yunus has done more for the poor and downtrodden in the world than any economist or banker of whom I am aware. His conviction would send an awful message to those trying to build on his legacy.
Second, he has been a friend of Utah for decades, often visiting and speaking to business leaders. I first met him 25 years ago, right after he had undergone cataract surgery at Alta View Hospital.
Yunus resonates with Utahns because he helps the poor by teaching them how to help themselves — offering them a permanent solution, not a handout. He does this within the context of capitalism and profit-making, but with a twist. As he told a Utah audience once, people are motivated by more than just money.
“If I make money for myself, I am happy. If I make other people happy, I am super happy,” he said. “You can do both.”
Nearly five decades ago, he founded the Grameen Bank by providing loans to only the poorest of poor people, at amounts of a few dollars each, and then teaching them how to use that money to start small businesses, repay the loans, then obtain larger loans as their businesses grow.
He has also formed dozens of other companies to help the poor. When I last spoke with him several years ago, he was partnering with a Norwegian company to provide affordable cellphones to people in Bangladesh. He was working on low-cost ways to provide the nutrition necessary to end night blindness, a common malady among the very poor, and to provide electricity to remote villages. He was working with a company to provide low-cost yogurt, but in environmentally friendly containers that also could be eaten.
Sources tell me Bangladesh’s government leaves those ventures alone, but they won’t leave the founder alone.
The prime minister is accusing Yunus of using his influence to persuade the World Bank to reject a loan to help build an important bridge over the Padma River. The World Bank, for its part, issued a statement in 2012 saying it rejected the loan because of “credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials” and others. The statement never mentions Yunus, who has denied the charge.
It’s the sort of accusation that Americans, who take the freedom to criticize their leaders for granted, should find particularly offensive.
Supporters of Yunus want members of Congress to begin making an issue of all this. As one told me, several members of Congress expressed strong support for him a decade ago when Yunus was removed from the leadership of his bank. Similar statements now might have an effect, perhaps stopping the investigation.
If the world’s most important democracy won’t stand up for Yunus, perhaps no one will. That would be a sad day for many of the world’s poor.