Senate Letter Garners Support for Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus

July 3, 2012
by Allison Grossman, Senior Legislative Associate

Last week, all 17 female members of the United States Senate, led by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), sent a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh expressing their support for Grameen Bank and it women borrowers, and urging the Prime Minister to protect the autonomy of Grameen’s operations. RESULTS volunteers in the home states of these senators led the effort to secure the signatures of all 17 women on the letter.

But why was this letter needed in the first place? Some background might be helpful.

For decades, Grameen Bank has been a groundbreaking microfinance institution providing small loans to the poor at extremely low interest rates. The structure of Grameen distinguishes it from other institutions – it is owned primarily its borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women. And nine of the 13 members of the Board of Directors are women elected by the Bank’s client-shareholders. Grameen Banks and its founder, Professor Muhammad Yunus, were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for their years of poverty reduction work.

Despite this history, Prime Minister Hasina has been leading a politically-motivated campaign of intimidation against Grameen Bank. After a series of efforts by the government in the spring of 2011 targeted specifically at Professor Yunus, he was finally forced to resign his position as managing director in May 2011. Now, the government has appointed a commission to review the operations of Grameen Bank and make recommendations as to its future, instead of allowing the existing Board of Directors to conduct an independent process to select a new managing director. (For more details on these various issues, take a look at this fact sheet created by Friends of Grameen.)

This attempt to take over the operations of Grameen from its borrowers and Board of Directors is an extremely worrying threat to civil society space and to the progress Grameen Bank has helped to make in empowering poor women in Bangladesh.

In sending their letter, the female senators joined Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in publicly standing with Grameen Bank. Earlier this year, during a visit to Bangladesh, Secretary Clinton told a group of Bangladeshi youth, “We do not want to see any action taken that would in any way undermine or interfere with the operations of Grameen Bank or its unique organizational structure where the poor women themselves are the owners.”

While we wait for the official results of the government-appointed review commission, which are expected later this summer, the letter has certainly added to the pressure on the government. Professor Yunus reported back to RESULTS and our allies that the letter was included in newspapers and on television news reports across Bangladesh.

The Daily Star, the biggest English language daily in Bangladesh, ran a story on letter on June 30 with the headline, “issued a statement, saying, “Their letter is a powerful signal of urgent concern and of solidarity with the women borrowers and owners of Grameen Bank… Any additional interference by the government in the authority of Grameen’s Board of Directors would be an enormous setback to the human and legal rights of these women.”

There is still just over a month until the commission is set to release its findings on the future of Grameen Bank. We hope Congress and the Administration, along with governments around the world, will continue to urge Prime Minister Hasina to protect the independence of the Bank and its millions of borrowers.

And many thanks are due to the RESULTS volunteers who successfully secured the support of all 17 women senators, helping to create an impressive bipartisan display of support for the poor women of Bangladesh!

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