Director’s Statement on Yunus’ removal from Grameen Bank:
At the end of the film, I briefly mention that a film came out in November of 2010 called Caught In Micro-Debt, which basically looks at when microcredit does not work. The film also claimed that Yunus misappropriated funds. After that film aired the Prime Minister of Bangladesh publicly stated that Yunus was “sucking the blood of the poor”. Even though Yunus had been fully cleared of any wrong-doing by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, within months he was forced to retire, due to an ordinance that bank workers cannot work past the age of 60. Yunus was 70 when he was forced out.
I chose not to go further into this in the film for several reasons. I was mostly finished with the film when it came to light and it is both a convoluted story and a brief moment in time compared to his four decades of service to the poor. However, as many people are curious about the events, I am sharing the some further information here.
Historically Bangladesh has ranked at the top of most corrupt countries in the world. When I started filming in 2007, they were near the bottom at 162. There was an interim government in place for 2 years that was trying to clean things up and ensure a fair election. As of 2011, they are at 120. The current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed, along with her rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, have been in and out of power since the 90s. During the time I filmed, both former prime ministers were in and out of exile for corruption charges and 23 senators in jail for corruption.
As I mention in the film, a government probe looked into the interest rates and found that Grameen has the lowest interest rates of any Bangladeshi microcredit program. He is clearly not “sucking the blood of the poor”. However, this whole fiasco was also unfolding at the same time as heat was building around the abusive practices of SKS Microfinance in nearby Andhra Pradesh, India. Yunus had warned the founder of SKS Microfinance, Vikram Akula, that microcredit should not be for maximum profit and put on the stock market. Akula has now validated Yunus’ concern: “Yunus was Right” SKS Microfinance Founder Says.
Many believe that Yunus’ preliminary quest to run for office in 2007 was what created the animosity. Beyond taking Yunus from his position as the Managing Director of Grameen Bank, the government also brought several other cases against Yunus. He was taken to court for defamation for saying that “all politicians are corrupt”; as the head of the phone company he was taken to court for one phone bill that was exorbitantly high; and he was taken to court for two cases of “tainted” yogurt. The Prime Minister has seen to it that many court cases were held against him (and in Bangladesh you have to appear in court on the first day of any trial against you) and it was reported that she was said that she would continue to create cases so that he would have to stay in the country. The only thing that they could get him on was that he was 10 years past the age of retirement. And he had even tried to retire at 61 but his board of directors have asked him to stay on.
Additionally, the prime minister continues to mislead people about the interest rates of Grameen Bank, such as in an interview in the Washington Post on October 11, 2011 where she says: “Tell me one thing. If I give you $20,000 can you pay 40 percent interest every week?” Even though Grameen Bank’s basic loan is just under 18% APR.
The cases when the loans didn’t work were few, and the majority of those were for health issues. The others cases of failure I heard about were when people were borrowing from several organizations and getting in over their heads, but I didn’t personally see this happening. This is also like when some people here get in over their heads with too many credit cards or have too high of a mortgage than what is appropriate for their income. I did see Grameen Bank trying to prevent that, by only allowing higher loans incrementally as they proved they could handle higher amounts. And Grameen did their best to assure that loans were for income generation and not for everyday purchases.
These types of failure cases was what I read about with SKS Microfinance in Andhra Pradesh, they would use the loans for purchasing, not income generating activities and those groups had interest rates almost double that of Grameen’s interest rate.
The other big difference with Grameen compared to a lot of other microcredit programs is that the borrowers own the bank. They all buy in with a 100 Taka share. Therefore, what is good for the borrowers is also good for the bank.
As the Government forced Yunus to retire, they also presented a list of recommendations that make me wonder about their motives. They suggest that they board of directors of Grameen Bank be reduced from 9 borrower members out of 12, to 6 so that they would not be the majority. And they also suggested that Grameen Telecom should become a part of Grameen Bank. Grameen Phone is the largest and most profitable company in the country.
Another thing I found odd is that Yunus was blacklisted from the Prime Minister’s office, when Yunus wanted to try to resolve any misunderstanding, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.
In September when the female board of directors came to Dhaka, 6 of them were harassed. And Jannat, who has Grameen since the beginning and runs the international division, had her house raided while she was out of town. Additionally people who were on Grameen’s side during the turmoil – some of them were taken and beaten up, including one journalist I interviewed with there.
And Grameen Knitwear had their factory catch on fire, even they are up to code. Luckily nobody was hurt. Then Grameen Knitwear also had employees starting to protest for higher wages on the day that their manager was traveling to India. At the time of the protest they are the highest paid employees in the garment industry in Bangladesh and within the top 5 benefit givers. In my opinion, these all seemed very suspicious.
Finally, when I went to try to sell Bonsai People to 4 TV stations – the managers all openly talked to me about the government censorship and that they probably would not be able to air it while the current prime minister is in office.
I believe that is just about this one government with a hidden agenda, I think they are after the money of Grameen Companies, and are therefore trying to make these private companies publicly owned, as you can see from their 14-pt blueprint to raise government stake in Grameen.