Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Yunus Takes the Plunge

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has formally announced that he will be leaving Grameen Bank within the next month in order to form his own political party. The party will be called Nagarik Shakti, which means Citizens' Power, and it is supposed to represent a "clean" alternative to the two dominant political coalitions in Bangladesh, which are almost universally seen as corrupt.

Yunus's decision is no surprise. He has been hinting at the possibility of such a move for the past month, ever since the interim caretaker government (headed by an economist friend of Yunus) postponed elections and began cracking down on corruption by arresting political leaders. The photo at the top of this post shows Yunus at a luncheon I attended on February 9th, debating the idea of his becoming actively involved in politics with a group of Grameen Bank employees.

My sense is that most of the people who are closest to Yunus have mixed feelings about his decision. In a country where politics is generally viewed as dirty--much more so than in the United States--those who admire Yunus worry that his reputation, and that of Grameen Bank, may be tarnished by his plunge into the electoral morass. A few have expressed concern for his personal safety: Politics in Bangladesh has been known to turn violent at times.

But I think that most of Yunus's friends and colleagues also understand his motivation. Bangladesh is at a turning point in its history. Over the past three decades, significant progress has been made in alleviating poverty. The country's middle class is growing. Hundreds of thousands of young people are in universities. The birth rate is down. Construction is booming in Dhaka, and millions of businesses are springing up.

The biggest missing piece is a working democracy. If anyone can give the political structure the big shove it needs in the right direction, it is probably Yunus, the most universally-respected person in the country.

Nonetheless, Yunus's announcement is stirring controversy. Most people in Bangaldesh appear to be delighted by the news. But leaders of the established parties are warning about the "dangers" posed by "newcomers" to the political scene. As for me, I think this op-ed column from The Brunei Times has it about right:
Dr Yunus is no magician, neither he has a magic bullet to right the wrongs overnight. He is aware of his ability as well as limitations. But one has to acknowledge that first and foremost he is a visionary and a doer. He dares to dream and then dares to take steps to implement his dreams. Grameen Bank was not built in a day. He had to work hard for over twenty years.

How many of us have that tenacity? Most of us even do not dare to dream! We remain happy with the crumbs offered by the corrupt governments of the day and retreat to our bedrooms to live happily ever after. That's why we are afraid to see any disruption in the system where crumbs are found in abundance. We prefer the status quo situation.

. . . . .

No one expects [Yunus] and his newly formed party to enjoy a landslide victory in the upcoming election or maybe in the one to be held five years after.

What will happen then? Will he be obliterated from the realm of politics? No. His political party having the full support of a large chunk of the saner section in society will act as a very powerful pressure group. This pressure group will keep the government of the day on its toes and take it on a roller coaster ride if it does something unconstitutional or something against the will of the people.
In any event, it's clear that the next twelve months will be a very interesting time for the people of Bangladesh. Let's hope the country's political class is ready to work with a man like Yunus rather than chewing him up alive.

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