Sunday, March 27, 2011

Grameen Bank Undermines the Work of the Government

If you have yet to see the excellent documentary by Gayle Ferraro, To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America, March 31st would be the perfect time to do it. Not only would you see an inspiring portrayal low-income Americans struggling to lift themselves out of poverty with the help of Grameen America, but your presence in the theatre that day would send a message of support to Professor Yunus who, incredibly, finds himself under attack from political elements in Bangladesh that threaten to turn his Nobel Prize winning financial institution into an instrument of patronage and corruption.

Many commentators attribute the attacks on Grameen Bank and its founder to Professor Yunus’ audacity to criticize the Bangladeshi government and suggest he might form his own political party and run for office himself. However, as David Bornstein noted in his op-ed piece “Microfinance Under Fire” in the New York Times on March 21, 2001:

Bangladesh has a long history of banks and cooperatives being used as political instruments. The state-owned banks have regularly extended loans to elite borrowers (who default at high rates) as a form of patronage. Unlike Grameen, which is financially self-sufficient, the state banks are perpetually in need of cash infusions from the government.

Perhaps it is just the existence of a bank that serves the poor without government assistance that is anathema to Bangladeshi politicians. Bornstein also suggests an ideological reason in a subsequent New York Times column, “Grameen Bank and the Public Good” (March 24, 2011) that “people in the government, as well as across Bangladeshi society…don’t think microfinance helps the poor and…that socially-minded businesses, like Grameen Bank, undermine the work of the government.” So, the solution to global poverty lies in getting out of the way and letting the government do the work?!! Why didn’t we see that? Amazing.

Clearly, what is upsetting to politicians in Bangladesh and elsewhere, and maybe even in the United States, is a solution to poverty that involves empowering the poor. As Professor Yunus states in the trailer to the film which you can see here, Grameen wants to bring a new kind of development theory where “banks lend money, not to make money, but to help people.” Now, there is a novel concept that is sure to disrupt governments' efforts to help the poor!

The film is being screened in 227 theatres throughout the United States on March 31st and attendance will be an important barometer of support for microfinance and Professor Yunus. The Grameen Foundation and the Yunus Center are beating the drums for supporters to turn out and, if necessary, host screenings of the film in their local areas if none is currently scheduled. By going to this link you can buy tickets for venues already in place or offer to host one yourself.

It would be impressive to see a large turn-out driven by the power of social media especially given the very short notice.

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