With the risk to America’s working class due to union busting, it’s easy to overlook economic exploitation abroad. Exhibit A: the sacking of Bangladeshi (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Muhammad Yunus from Grameen Bank, a pioneering institution which he founded, and which has provided millions of dollars in aid to the poor. Yunus was fired last week on the grounds that he was past retirement age, and had been wrongly appointed in 2000.
There are those who say Yunus’ firing was politically motivated: not only has he spoken out against the Bangladeshi government, Yunus tried to form his own political party in 2007. However, the Prime Minister has accused Grameen of charging high rates of interest and exploiting the poor.
In a telling interview for Deutsche Welle, Badruddin Umar, a Dhaka-based activist and author of “The Poverty Trade of Dr Yunus,” states that the higher ups at Grameen Bank were afraid of the praise and admiration Yunus received, and of the people who viewed him as a “demigod.” Yet the poor are unafraid to critique him. As Umar puts it, “The common man does not think that criticizing Yunus will bring international shame. When you go to the countryside, most people will say that he is sucking people’s blood… now more news reports are emerging that people have had to sell their land, utensils and domestic animals to repay the loans, and being unable to repay the loans people have committed suicide.”
Although Yunus himself has questioned why people who are badly affected by loans borrow money from Grameen, Umar states that microcredit finance agencies fill the “credit gap” that banks cannot. “Lending to the poor is nothing new,” Umar says. “It is similar to old times when the same social relations and circumstances forced people to go to the old feudal moneylenders.”
Unfortunately, other microcredit agencies are no better than Grameen Bank. Women are hit especially hard by loans, as they are the principal borrowers. James Melik tells the story of Joba Rani, a formerly self-sufficient farmer left unable to repay her loans after floods in her village of Jamlabaj. Badruddin Umar is not the first critic of microfinance: Dr. Qazi Kholiluzzaman Ahmad of PSKF, which monitors microfinance, describes microfinance in such damning terms as a “death trap” for the poor, who frequently borrow without thinking of the consequences; furthermore, 60 percent of people borrow from multiple sources. According to Dr. Ahmad, “There is no understanding that it might take 10 or 20 years to repay their loan.”
As for Joba Rani, she was forced to sell three of her six cows at half market price in order to repay her loan in what Ahmad and Badruddin might describe as an all too familiar story.
The Deutsche Welle interview casts a damning light on a man named one of Bust magazine’s A Few Good Men in 2010, who then said of his project, “We had male opposition, and it was translated into religious opposition. People said we were destroying their culture; that women needed to be kept at home because they weren’t supposed to have or handle money. I said, ‘You keep your culture; I am creating a counterculture.”
Sadly, he has not.