Nobel Laureate Yunus and the judgment of King Solomon:
Like many other concerned citizens of the world, I was stunned by the news that Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus has been sacked by the government of Bangladesh, from his position of managing director (Head) of Grameen Bank, a community development bank he founded in 1983. The actions seem to be politically motivated, where personal gains out-weighed the potential damage. The rushed process and the general handling of the matter lacked any semblance of logic or reasoning.
This incident matters to us and should concern us (even if one is half way around the world from Bangladesh) because bad judgments are simply bad, regardless of the “who” or “where” in question. We need to support ideas rooted in sound principles, and people who represent them; especially now as we witness the inferno in the Middle East. This fiasco with Professor Yunus reminded me of a story of King Solomon (also known as Prophet Sulayman); a fable commonly known as the “Judgment of King Solomon.”
The story goes something like this: Two women came to King Solomon, claiming that they are the rightful mother of an infant son. Both women passionately argued that the other woman is a liar, and that the infant was their own flesh and blood. After some deliberation, Solomon says ‘‘Bring me a sword.’’ He declared that the only fair solution was to split the son in two; each woman would receive half of the son.
Upon hearing this terrible verdict, the boy’s real mother cried out, ‘‘Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Just don’t kill him!’’ But the woman who was the liar, in her bitter jealously and rage said, ‘‘Neither I nor shall you have him. Cut him in two!’’
Solomon instantly gave the baby to the real mother, realising that the true mother’s instincts were to protect her child, while the liar revealed that she was misguided by jealously and did not truly love the child.
Rushing to cut a baby in half, with no care or concern, even if it is King Solomon’s judgment, would be ridiculous. But, that’s the logic those who ousted Professor Yunus from his position followed. They blindly rushed to action without considering the damage and turmoil it could cause.
The question is very simple; will we support love or jealousy?
Whatever one’s opinion of microfinance loans and Professor Yunus are, for the government to hastily remove a Nobel Laureate of Peace, of all things, Bangladesh’s most recognisable ambassador from his position due to “non-compliance” of the retirement policy and other trumped-up charges make a mockery of justice, due process and logic.
Professor Yunus is 70 years old; technically, 10 years over the age limit set for private bank heads in Bangladesh to retire. Sure, there may be legal merit to the argument, but shouldn’t one rise above the technical spattering and make decisions based on sound judgment? Especially when it may harm the very poor the government says they are trying to protect and empower. Did the government even consider the potential disruption to the lives of the nearly nine million borrowers, mostly poor woman with loans totalling to $10 billion?
What disruption you ask, how about a run on the bank? Reputational damage to financial institutions is death. We all know what happened to US banks after the financial crisis. Or, how about the reputation and credibility of Bangladesh, a country that is clamouring for foreign direct investments; will the investors line up with bag full of money with this type of turmoil and uncertainty? Well they might, but the cost of capital just went up.
There can be an orderly process instead of forcing someone into a legal roadblock. The government must have known the negative publicity their actions would generate in the international community, but they acted anyway. Did the government forget Yunus’ friendship with President Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the damage it can have on bi-lateral relations? President Obama just honoured Professor Yunus with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the USA.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, if 60 is deemed too old to serve as the head of a private bank, shouldn’t one want the same standard for those in parliament, cabinet and other key government positions? (I don’t want to debate age limits, but doesn’t competence trump age in the first place?)
The timing of this incident is a coincident but also interesting; 40 years ago this month, Bangladesh became an independent, democratic nation (after a brutal war with the undemocratic, and still undemocratic ‘‘West’’ Pakistan). (More on this topic on my next Op-Ed piece.)
What does this signal to the world at large, and most importantly the citizens of Bangladesh, about the state of democracy, when vindictive political reprisal is common? Is this how real democracies behave? The government should not be allowed to flex its muscle at will, with no regard to the consequences of its actions. Let’s not be fooled, democracy is more than elections and voting. This should serve as a cautious warning to those who are in the Middle East strategy team, trying to create functioning democratic nations.
When Professor Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the world saw a side of Bangladesh it was not accustomed with. Professor Yunus shined a bright light that showed the world, ideas rooted in Bangladesh are innovative and cutting edge. In doing so, it became clear that his light was brighter than the usual suspects of Bangladeshi politics; and that was reason enough to take him down so unceremoniously.
Dr. Yunus is Bangladesh’s most bankable, internationally respected superstar; arguably one of the most visionary businessperson in the world. He alone is half of brand Bangladesh. When one knocks him down, Bangladesh goes down too. That’s the message the government just doesn’t want to understand or acknowledge, or maybe they just don’t care. Sounds very much like a jealousy complex, doesn’t it?
It is unfortunate, when political bitterness comes in the way of progress, especially economic development. Imagine Bangladesh growing at double digit GDP growth, instead of a paltry mid-single digit, what impact that would have on the lives of the poor, and the contributions Bangladeshi people would make to the world. We all have a stake, and we all benefit when the seventh most populous nation in the world is stable, prosperous and free. What the leadership must understand, and what should not be lost in the jungles of Bangladeshi politics — Bangladesh simply cannot graduate to the next level of economic success without first resolving the petty political squabbling. The leadership of Bangladesh must use clear reason as a guide, and make sound judgments like King Solomon; which means Bangladesh must defeat jealousy with love.
On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Yunus for the first time in the early 1990s (in Ann Arbor, Michigan) when he was primarily known among those in the field of development economics. I can clearly recall how Professor Yunus spoke in a mild manner, but nonetheless was electrifying and engaging. He spoke about microcredit with passion, and challenged the audience to address the issue of global poverty with creativity and compassion. Professor Yunus had an amazing ability to connect with everyone at a deep and personal level; even when he discussed the seriousness of poverty, he was able to make the audience laugh. He changed the way the world looks at the poor, non-credit worthy borrowers, and created an innovative approach to address their needs. Bangladesh and the world will be a better place with more Professor Yunus and not when he is cut in half.
Ikhtiar Kazi is an economist and capital markets professional.