Being kicked out of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank

Local journalists warned that an interview with Nobel Laureate Mohammad Yunus, bank’s founder, would be near impossible.

Bangladesh’s Mohammad Yunus is an iconic figure, the face of microcredit. He proved that giving small loans to poor women on the condition that they create a business was profitable and also helped people get out of poverty.

A self-proclaimed “banker to the poor”, Yunus is a global celebrity overshadowing the country’s leading political figures, including the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the man who is heralded as the father of Bangladesh.

Like many people who were born and raised abroad in families that had roots in Bangladesh, I admired Yunus as a teenager, not because he won the 2006 Nobel Prize, but because he had realised a dream common to many Bangladeshis living abroad: helping fellow countrymen out of poverty.

So when I first came to Bangladesh in 2008 as a journalist, Grameen was the story I wanted to pursue. With the help of a friend, I took up a loan to buy a camera, and together we travelled to villages to meet people who had taken up loans with the bank. We met women who were heavily indebted. They were having difficulties paying back the 20 per cent interest rate on their loans.

Many of them were illiterate and couldn’t keep tabs on how much they owed to the bank. Some were crying, frightened of the weekly meetings they had to attend, when Grameen debt collectors would come to pick up the money due. I was told that one woman had committed suicide she was allegedly so terrified that she wouldn’t be able to pay back her debt.

It was intimidating to witness they come in groups, all men, all asking for their money back from a group of poor and frightened women. In fact, in the four years that I’ve been working in Bangladesh I have only ever met male debt collectors, never women. Grameen bank boasts a 96 per cent repayment rate, far surpassing the average repayment rates on loans in more developed countries.

Shocked by what I had seen, I wrote to Yunus asking him for an explanation.

Weeks went by with no response, no statements, so I sent a fax, posted the questions to his home and the bank’s headquarters. Local journalists warned me that getting an interview with Mohammad Yunus would be near impossible, especially as I was requesting the interview in Bangladesh. Yunus prefers doing his interviews abroad. One local reporter told me if only I was white it might be easier.

I laughed off their warning and went to the bank HQ to meet Lamya Morshed, Yunus’s chief of communications. She looked me up and down unfazed and prepared herself a cup of Horlicks. Without glancing up from her desk she pushed a pen and paper my way and asked me to write down my questions. I felt like a little boy faced with a stern schoolteacher. I did as I was asked and hoped for the best. Again weeks went by with no response.

I persevered, going back to the bank, this time with my cameraman, and went straight to the banks deputy managing director.

She told me I had no right to talk to Grameen bank borrowers without her permission she was angry and called security to have me locked up. It was frightening, and I literally had to run out of the bank. I felt like I’d had a small glimpse of what it must be like to owe money to Grameen bank.

Yunus says credit is a human right. But debt is a heavy burden to carry especially if you are a poor women living in Bangladesh. So when Hasina calls Yunus “a blood sucker of the poor”, it is not just a political statement to rally support, but a statement that many people in Bangladesh understand intimately.

Twenty-two million people, mostly women, are indebted to the 600 microcredit lenders in Bangladesh that operate using Yunus’s model. Overlapping debt is now a serious concern in Bangladesh, as many take out multiple loans to repay their initial loan and so they cycle deeper into debt.

It is true that thanks to these loans, many have lifted themselves out of poverty but for so many others the vicious cycle of debt and poverty continues.

Yunus is popular with Bangladesh’s small intellectual elite and civil society, and of course the West. Even for the common man, he is breath of fresh air from the two leading politicians Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia who have taken turns in power over the last 22 years. Yunus flirted with the idea of going into politics but quickly backtracked.

The government has taken aggressive steps to sideline Yunus from the bank he founded – an attempt to weaken his popularity and political ambitions. Last year, the government forced him to resign as managing director of the bank. Now the president of Bangladesh has given the government appointed chairman of the bank more power to choose Yunus’s successor, a move seen as a government takeover of Grameen Bank.

Follow Nicolas Haque on Twitter: @nicolashaque