Here's a banking chief worth protecting
Losing the battle ... Muhammad Yunus on his way to court to try to reverse the order to dismiss him as head of Grameen Bank. Photo: AP
In death, carpets of flowers were spread for both Princess Diana and Michael Jackson. And if Steve Jobs had been attacked on his way to Apple headquarters, the CNN news chopper would have been aloft before you could have said ''next bulletin''.
But when Muhammad Yunus gets mugged by the government of Bangladesh, our culture of modern hero-worship manifests as blanket indifference.
Muhammed who? Yunus and his Grameen Bank were awarded the 2006 Nobel peace prize for pioneering work in micro lending, crucial in the global fight against poverty.
Deserving rock star status, Yunus does have an exclusive fan club. His friend Hillary Clinton feted him during a stopover in Dhaka in May; and an indignant Richard Branson last week fired off a letter to the editor of The Times. But in the main, the world's media has averted its gaze while the Bangladeshi banker has been pummelled for more than a year.
At home, Yunus is an irritant, a threat. Bangladesh languishes at 146 on the Human Development Index, a UN measure of global well-being, so you'd think the government might celebrate Yunus's stellar work on poverty and then get on with confronting chronic over-population, rampant corruption and the considerable challenge of Bangladesh's vulnerability to climate change.
Instead, in what reeks of vendetta because Yunus once dared to think aloud about entering politics, the government of the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, has taken to smashing him - and at the same time, staging a crude takeover of the bank he built.
The real and symbolic value of Grameen cannot be overstated. Thirty-five years in the making, it has become an iconic institution in the service of millions - most of its 8.4 million small-time borrowers are village women, who took loans worth more than $1 billion last year.
Nine of Grameen's 12 directors are elected from among those village women and the bank's 25,000 employees are required to spend almost a year demonstrating their ability to work with the poor before being taken on.
Taking its cue from a discredited Norwegian documentary, which alleged misuse of a 1996 donation by Oslo, Dhaka used an accident of Grameen history to jemmy its way to the heart of Grameen - the government has a 25 per cent stake in the bank and the power to appoint three of its 12 directors, including the chair.
But as explained by David Bornstein, who has written a book on the bank, the government put up just 3.5 per cent of Grameen's paid-up share capital. It is the bank's village borrowers who are its majority shareholders - apart from controlling the remaining nine seats on the board, they have supplied the remaining 96.5 per cent of the capital.
In a stunning move last year, the government rolled the 70-year-old Yunus as managing director, on the spurious grounds that the mandatory retirement age in ''government'' banking is 60.
Now it has decreed that its appointee as chairman will control the selection of Yunus's successor. In a brazen bypassing of the female majority, it says the chairman is to form a separate committee to draw up a shortlist of three nominees - from which the board must select the new managing director.
"It's the beginning of the end of Grameen," Yunus told reporters. "A black day for the nation - I can't find any language to express my sorrow."
The government and its proxies have mounted a campaign of innuendo - Yunus is billed as a fraud, and micro-lenders as blood-suckers. It even attempts to whitewash Yunus out of Grameen's history, claiming the bank has always been a government institution.
As it moved against Yunus last year, the government opened a broad investigation of the bank. Then earlier this month, another probe began - to search for evidence Yunus might have been rorting bank funds or facilities.
As outlined by Yunus, the Grameen focus is on women because they are better than men at fighting poverty - they use money more effectively for child nutrition and education. But despite their seeming success, the government claims they are not up to the task of running such a big financial organisation - an argument which is read in some quarter as preparatory to removing the women, too.
Writing at nyt.com, Bornstein this week quoted from an email exchange with Yunus - "it's very important to have the women owners have the final say in the management of their bank. It sends a very important message - they are not simply passive recipients of bank loans, they have an important voice in shaping the policies.
"Grameen Bank is a vital asset to these women. They have an interest in the well-being of their asset."
Branson's letter to The Times makes two good points.
The government effectively has removed the right of shareholders to decide Grameen's future; and given that the World Bank recently pulled the $1 billion financing for a bridge project because of corruption in Bangladesh, shouldn't Britain protest by putting a stop on its promised aid for Dhaka - $1.6 billion over the next three years?
Government banks are a fertile intersection for politics and corruption in Bangladesh, according to Bornstein. "State-owned banks have regularly extended loans to elite borrowers [who default at high rates] as a form of patronage," he writes. "Unlike Grameen, which is financially self-sufficient, the state banks are perpetually in need of cash infusions from the government."
Protests by the US State Department and by the 17 women in the Senate have been ignored by Dhaka.
There is renewed debate in the US this week on what has been dubbed ''the war on women,'' as politicians - mostly men, mostly Republican - seek to dictate, interfere and restrict, applying what a Washington Post columnist describes as ''an ugly and undeniable vein of views towards women that goes well beyond abortion''.
Clearly, the assault on Yunus and Grameen is another front in the same war. Ironically, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman.