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Nobel laureate economist Yunus may be victim of petty jealousy

The popular pioneer who was ousted from Grameen Bank, a microfinance institution, may be too successful for others' liking in Bangladesh, where hingsha, or vindictiveness, is a hallmark of national politics.

March 06, 2011|By Zain Mahmood and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and New Delhi — He's won the Nobel Peace Prize. He's been hailed as a pioneering economist who brought hope to millions of poor Bangladeshis. And he's adored by the international community.

Maybe Muhammad Yunus was just a bit too popular.

Bangladeshis have a word for it: hingsha, meaning jealousy or vindictiveness. Analysts say hingsha is a hallmark of national politics, and they say it may have played a role in Yunus' ouster last week from Grameen Bank, the microfinance institution he founded nearly 30 years ago.

"This is hingsha," said Golam Hossain, a professor with Dhaka's Jahangirnagar University. "It's a very active part of the culture in our society."

Yunus, a global pioneer in lending small sums of money to the poor, has come under growing scrutiny by government finance regulators for alleged weak oversight and poor management of the bank.

The nation's central bank, which holds a minority stake in Grameen, announced Wednesday that Yunus, 70, had been removed as managing director on what some saw as a technicality: violating the government's mandatory retirement age of 60.

Yunus and nine of Grameen's directors said they had filed separate legal challenges to the government's move in Bangladesh's High Court.

Some speculate that the economist's downfall has the whiff of politics about it.

Yunus has been an outspoken critic of endemic political corruption in Bangladesh. In 2007, he briefly floated the idea of forming a political party.

"I was living in Bangladesh when he said he was thinking of forming a political party, and we looked at each other and said, 'The guy's insane,'" said Graham Wright, India program director with MicroSave, which advises microfinance organizations.

"Politics in Bangladesh is dynastic, with quite an entrenched system in the villages, reinforced by bribery and goonery," Wright said. "Yunus was not cut out for that."

Yunus tested the waters and quickly came to the same conclusion, analysts said. But his national and international stature and support among foreign governments, villagers and civic society represented a threat to Bangladesh's two mainstream parties.

"Most likely, the perception is still there," said Salahuddin Aminuzzaman, a professor at Dhaka University. "Some analysts say this could be a factor now on why he's been ostracized from the bank."

In December, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheik Hasina Wajed accused Yunus and Grameen of "sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation."

"I daresay if Yunus had joined one of the two mainstream political parties, he would be fine," said Minhaz Zia, a financial analyst at Dhaka-based AT Capital, a consulting firm. "But he tried to create a third force and envisioned a greater role for civil society. That made him a target."

As the crisis has come to a head, foreign governments, civic groups and luminaries have backed Yunus. The "Friends of Grameen," a group of internationally renowned lawyers, academics, former politicians and businesspeople led by former Irish President Mary Robinson, warned in a statement of "politically orchestrated" attacks.

"The United States is deeply troubled by the process to remove Professor Yunus," James F. Moriarty, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, told reporters Thursday. "It strikes us that it is an unusual way to handle a Nobel laureate, who is considered outside the country one of the greatest Bangladeshis."

Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith conceded Thursday at a news conference that Yunus' removal wouldn't improve the nation's image but said the central bank acted in accordance with the law.

"There is no political or personal vendetta," he said.

In addition to the retirement issue, Yunus has been cited for using a family-affiliated printing company for some of the bank's printing, a possible conflict of interest.

And a documentary aired on Norwegian television alleged in December that Yunus improperly transferred $100 million donated by a Norwegian aid agency into a Grameen affiliate rather than into the bank's main account. An inquiry by Oslo confirmed the questionable transfer but said the entire amount was shifted back to the proper account with no money misused.

Bangladeshi newspapers criticized the government for its heavy-handed treatment of Yunus.

"The manner in which Yunus was removed smacked of a lack of decency," the Daily Star said in an editorial Friday. "Can a technicality be the main measure of judging a man of Yunus' stature?"

Hingsha became a prominent feature of national politics during the 1990s, analysts say, at the expense of policy, cooperation and, at times, broader national interest.

"Unfortunately, it's become a function of our parliamentary democracy, fighting each other," Aminuzzaman said. "But the young, middle class and urban are sick and tired of hingsha and want an end to this, so I hope it will change."

But he's not holding his breath. A joke making the rounds in Bangladesh has it that in hell, every other nationality is kept in guarded cells but the one housing Bangladeshis remains unguarded.

"Why is that?" someone asks the devil.

He replies, "Because if anyone tried to leave, hingsha ensures the others would pull them back."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Special correspondent Mahmood reported from Dhaka and Times staff writer Magnier from New Delhi. Anshul Rana of The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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