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The Yunus affair: why he was ousted

On April 6, 2011, the Bangladesh high court upheld its decision to remove Muhammad Yunus from the head of Grameen Bank. This affair made waves in the world of microfinance and brought microcredit to the headlines.

On March 2, 2011, Muhammad Yunus, 70, was relieved of his duties as the managing director of the microlending institution he founded in 1983, on the grounds that he is over the mandatory retirement age. In December, fears of his removal from Grameen sparked a large international movement called Maria Nowak (founder of ADIE), the economist Esther Duflo and Sir Fazle Abed (founder of the largest Bangladeshi NGO) are among those who have attempted to warn about the negative consequences of Yunus' departure.

While Bangladesh is painfully revisiting part of its history - the war-crimes tribunal for political crimes committed in 1971 as reported by The Economist - Yunus' removal is perceived by many as a political manoeuvre. The prime minister Sheikh Hasina has been described as being personally hostile towards Yunus since 2007 when he threatened to go into politics. In December 2010, Sheikh Hasina finally armed herself with a documentary which heavily criticizes "the banker to the poor".

The documentary serves political purposes
The documentary "Caught in Micro Debt", broadcast on Norwegian television on November 30, 2010, makes two serious charges against Yunus. In the 1990s, it is said that Grameen Bank fraudulently used funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation to finance a subsidiary instead of lending it to the poor; it is also said that Sufiya Begum, one of Yunus' first clients who supposedly broke out of poverty by using microcredit, actually died extremely poor. But according to Gayle Ferraro, a filmmaker who went into the field in December to investigate the charges, the documentary producer had been manipulated. As for the misappropriated funds, Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Minister of International Development believes that there was some disagreement with Grameen Bank about how funds would be used but there was "absolutely no suspicion of any corrupt practice in the investment of funds or any use of money for what it was not meant for." This denial did not prevent Sheikh Hasina from using the documentary to accuse Yunus of running Grameen Bank as his "personal property" to "suck the blood from the poor".

Three months later, Bangladesh's central bank, minority shareholder in Grameen Bank, called for Yunus' removal.

Muhammad Yunus, hero or vampire?

Most international organizations in the world of microcredit, such as MF Transparency and CGAP, see Grameen Bank as a model microfinance institution. Tilman Ehrbeck, the CEO of CGAP, says that Yunus and Grameen Bank have been a "powerful force and symbol for the microcredit movement". According to the BBC, the arguments over his work "mirror some of the bitter divisions within Bangladesh itself - it is a country where the prime minister and the leader of the opposition have not made much effort to conceal their mutual loathing". The BBC also refers to the international support for Yunus.

No one is a prophet is his country? Jacques Attali, cofounder of PlaNet Finance says Yunus is "full of youthful energy and wisdom" and was "one of the first supporters of intelligent regulation of the sector".

David Roodman, an influential researcher at the Center for Global Development, believes that "Yunus is a great man who, inevitably, has great faults". For Roodman, Yunus is likely a victim of "founder's syndrome" which is characterized by the difficulty in finding a successor.

Even though the future of this "wise old man" of microcredit is bright on the international stage, his departure from Grameen Bank could put "the organization's future, in jeopardy" according to Sir Fazle Abed, who manages BRAC, Grameen's main competitor. Grameen's strongest asset is indeed the trust it has built with members and clients. Would clients stop repayments because of the ousting of Yunus? This risk is real.

Sheikh Hasina's government measures about microcredit could potentially be dangerous for the entire sector; interest rates may be reduced in an arbitrary manner.

On April 21, the committee appointed by Hasina to investigate Grameen is to hand in findings. Meanwhile Muhammad Yunus will be travelling in Europe. On April 27, he will be in France to debate the "reality or utopia" of microcredit as a social business, along with Maria Nowak and Michel Rocard. He will surely be delighted to enlighten his audience about his troubles with Bangladeshis (and Norwegians).

For more information:
- all articles about Muhammad Yunus (lien)
- article in French by Maria Nowak, Michel Rocard, Michel Camdessus, Martin Hirsch and Jerome Chartier in Le Monde

Translated by Catherine Jan

Yunus, héros ou vampire?

Pourtant la plupart des acteurs internationaux du microcrédit, que ce soit l'ONG MF Transparency ou le centre d'étude CGAP, voient la Grameen comme une Institution de Microfinance modèle, «une force puissante et un symbole pour le mouvement du microcrédit», estime même Tilman Ehrbeck , président du CGAP. Mais au Bangladesh, les disputes autour de son travail «feraient miroir à certaines divisions profondes, dans un pays où le premier ministre et le leader de l'opposition ne font guère d'efforts pour cacher leur haine mutuelle», estime la BBC, qui souligne le décalage avec la réaction de la communauté internationale.

Personne n’est prophète en son pays ? Il y a de ça pour Jacques Attali, cofondateur de PlaNet Finance qui évoque en Yunus un homme «plein d'énergie juvénile et de sagacité» et dont il souligne qu'«il a été un des premiers partisans d'une régulation intelligente du secteur».

Chercheur influent au CGD (Center for Gloabl development) David Roodman estime pour sa part que «Yunus est un grand homme qui, inévitablement, a de grands torts… », probablement victime du «syndrome du fondateur», caractérisé par une difficulté à trouver un successeur.

Si l'avenir de Yunus, «vieux sage» du microcrédit, semble assuré sur la scène internationale, son départ risque de «mettre le futur de son organisation en péril» selon Sir Fazle Abed, qui dirige le principal concurrent de la Grameen, la BRAC. Car le premier actif de la Grameen est bien le capital confiance de ses membres et de ses clients. L'éviction de Yunus va-t-elle entraîner l'arrêt des remboursements par les clients ? Le risque est réel.

Les mesures que le gouvernement de Sheikh Hasina pourrait poursuivre à l’encontre du microcrédit sont également un danger potentiel pour l’ensemble du secteur, notamment sur les taux d’intérêt menacés d’être réduits arbitrairement.

Le 21 avril, la commission d’enquête sur la Grameen appointée par Sheikh Hasina devrait rendre ses conclusions tandis que Muhammad Yunus sera lancé dans une tournée européenne. Le 27 avril prochain, il sera en France pour débattre des « réalités ou utopies » du microcrédit comme social business, en compagnie de Maria Nowak et Michel Rocard. Il aura sans doute le loisir d’éclaircir les ombres qui demeurent au tableau des querelles bangladaises (et norvégiennes).

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This article is part of the special report: