Yunus, an unassuming Bangladeshi man and a friend to Utah, had just come from cataract surgery at Alta View Hospital, courtesy of Utah surgeon Dr. Scott Leckman. As we sat and talked, he kept marveling at how his sight was gradually returning to him, clearer and more vibrant than ever.
I wrote at the time that this was a metaphor, of sorts, for the way Yunus had removed the fog of despair from the eyes of many people who once lived amid mud and squalor.
His “microcredit” program involved giving small loans, $20 or so, to people who in turn would buy a goat or supplies to help themselves earn money on their own. These were the people regular banks ignored, but that Yunus’ Grameen Bank thrived from, even as the incremental loans lifted many out of poverty.
All of which apparently is threatening if you’re an autocratic leader trying to cling to power.
I’ve written about Yunus’ struggles against Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina many times before. A year ago, I cited a local news account that quoted her saying Yunus should be dunked in the Padma River, not to kill him, but to teach him a lesson.
Now, he faces charges in two cases that could send him to prison for years. He already had endured one court hearing and is scheduled for another on Thursday. Sources tell me a corrupt judicial system in Bangladesh seems to be making up rules as it goes, and the charges appear to be related to Sheikh Hasina’s re-election bid.
Why should you care about this? Because Yunus has been a genuine force for good in the world, and because his message has clearly resonated with business-minded Utahns. He offers permanent solutions, not handouts, and he does so within the context of a blend of capitalism and humanitarianism.
He once told a Utah audience that people are motivated by more than just money. “If I make money for myself, I am happy. If I make other people happy, I am super happy,” he said. “You can do both.”
A year ago, I lamented that American leaders seemed reluctant to speak up on behalf of Yunus. Bangladesh is the third largest supplier of clothing imports to the United States, which might have had something to do with this.
But now, with Yunus facing the real possibility of prison, Washington is slowly awakening.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has announced that anyone “believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh” would lose visa privileges to the United States. So would their family members.
Sources tell me this is a big deal, because the nation’s ruling class likes to visit here, and to send their children to the U.S. for school.
A group of Republican lawmakers has written to President Biden, urging him to “stop the human rights abuses” by the government in Bangladesh.
More recently, 106 Nobel laureates, including former president Barack Obama, signed a letter to Hasina expressing alarm that Yunus “has recently been targeted by what we believe to be continuous judicial harassment.”
One of the cases against Yunus concerns a crime that does not exist in Bangladesh, and yet he may soon face six months in prison for it, if convicted. He is alleged to have violated some rules with his Grameen Telecom company. Sources tell me those rules apply only to profit-making ventures, and his company is a non-profit.
The other case concerns alleged corruption. But Yunus does not accept any pay, benefit or dividend from any of his businesses. He owns no land, no car, no shares in any venture either in or out of Bangladesh.
As I noted a year ago, Transparency International has ranked Bangladesh 147th out of 180 nations in terms of corruption. There is no political freedom. The Economist has reported that. “A campaign rally in July by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party was met with rubber bullets and tear-gas. Human Rights Watch describes a ‘systematic’ assault on the opposition.”
A year ago, I said it would be a sad day for the poor if the world’s largest democracy didn’t stand up for Yunus. Now, the good news is U.S. leaders are slowly standing up as the fog lifts from their own eyes, but more should be done.