Nobel Winner Removed From Bank He Founded

The government of Bangladesh is trying to remove Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunis from the bank he founded nearly three decades ago to help the country's poorest people. Grameen Bank pioneered the use of micro-loans to give the poor an opportunity to start small businesses — or make other sound investments in their future. These loans are almost always repaid in full and on time. The government says Yunis has violated laws setting a mandatory retirement age of 60. But many suspect the government is merely trying to gain full control of a politically powerful organization, which serves some 8 million borrowers, most of them women. Some critics also suggest that authorities are punishing Yunis for his outspoken criticism of government corruption. Grameen is expected to challenge his dismissal in the courts.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Muhammad Yunis is fighting for his job. He is the Bangladeshi economist known as the godfather of microfinance. The Central Bank of Bangladesh ordered Yunis removed as the director of the bank he founded. He and the bank won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the fight over Yunis's job is partly political and partly economic.

ANTHONY KUHN: Bangladesh's Central Bank ordered Professor Yunis sacked from his job as managing director of the Grameen Bank, which he founded in 1983. The Central Bank pointed out that according to the country's retirement law, Yunis should have stepped down at age 60.

But, asks University of Oregon anthropologist Lamia Karim, why is the government only bringing this up now?

Dr. LAMIA KARIM (Anthropologist, University of Oregon): Professor Yunis is 70 years old right now, and he is 10 years beyond the mandatory age of retirement. How could it take the government 10 years to find out?

KUHN: The answer, says Karim, is that this is a politically-motivated attack, aimed at discrediting Yunis.

Yunis helped to make Bangladesh the crucible of a global microcredit movement aimed at combating poverty and empowering women. In a 2008 interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Muhammad Yunis explains why his bank targeted women.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. MUHAMMAD YUNIS (Founder, Grameen Bank): Then we saw that money going to the family through women brought so much more benefit to the family than money, same amount of money, going to the family through men. Children are better taken care of, and women have a longer vision to improve their life as fast as they can.

Today, we have seven and a half million borrowers. Ninety-seven percent are women, and the bank is owned by them.

KUHN: But Lamia Karim says that the current feud masks serious problems that have cropped up in the microcredit sector and that the government urgently needs to address.

Dr. KARIM: Women, poor women in particular, are getting deeper and deeper in debt. And this is largely because, similar to the banking industry in the U.S., microfinance for a very long time has been an unregulated industry. So people could go out and extend loans to people without any kind of oversight.

KUHN: Last year, Bangladesh's government capped microlending interest rates at 27 percent. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has accused the Grameen Bank of sucking blood from poor borrowers.

Yunis and Hasina have been at odds for some time. Four years ago, Yunis began forming a political party when Hasina was in jail on corruption charges, and the country was under a military-backed interim government. Now, says Lamia Karim, people who borrow from microlenders constitute a formidable voting bloc, which makes the government wary.

Dr. KARIM: You know, Grameen Bank has almost eight million borrowers plus, you know, the members of those families that are indirect beneficiaries of these loans. So they can ask all their group members to vote for, you know, X or Y. So that's what makes them very nervous.

KUHN: Despite the Central Bank's orders, the Grameen Bank said in a statement that it was in compliance with all laws and that Muhammad Yunis was not giving up his job.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bangkok.

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