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Jake Whitney: Muhammad Yunus and His Bonsai People

September 29, 2011

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A new film about Muhammad Yunus, Bonsai People may be a moving tribute to the Nobel Peace Laureate, but the Bangladeshi government isn’t showing Yunus much love.

By **Jake Whitney**


Jake Whitney.jpgIn a basement auditorium of the Holy Family Church on East Forty-Seventh Street, just a stone’s throw from the U.N., I sat with fifty people on folding chairs last Thursday in front of a small projection screen. We were there to see Bonsai People, a new film about Muhammad Yunus by the director Holly Mosher. Yunus was to make an appearance.

It was an incongruous setting given Yunus’s world stature, but there was an electricity in the air from the hubbub outside. The general assembly was convening, foreign dignitaries roamed the block, and a rally against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blared across the street.

Bonsai People: The Vision of Muhammad Yunus is a moving portrait of a group of Grameen Bank borrowers in rural Bangladesh, and, as the title suggests, it is an unapologetic tribute to Yunus. It highlights not only the positive impact micro-loans have had on the lives of several Bangladeshi families but also how these loans empower women to become community and familial leaders.

I interviewed Yunus for the August edition of this magazine, and he talked about his recent troubles. He speculated (he spoke of “theories”) that his firing as managing director of Grameen Bank, the Bangladesh-based lending institution he had launched thirty years ago to help his country’s poor, was part political vendetta and part government power grab—not merely the technicality that the government claimed it was (he was too old).

What particularly surprised me during our conversation was his assertion that the Bangladeshi government was considering taking over his fifty-five businesses along with his bank. These businesses, which he calls “social businesses,” were established specifically to address social problems, such as malnutrition, health care, clean water, and clean energy, not to make a profit.

The anti-Ahmadinejad rally had broken up, but the electricity in the air remained.

A government takeover would throw their effectiveness into question. Bangladesh continues to rank high on corruption indexes, though it remains a Wall Street darling because of its emerging market status. Was the state’s goal to turn these “non-loss, non-dividend” companies into profit-driven enterprises? I had come today to see Mosher’s film but also to ask Yunus about the status of his social businesses.

Mosher was wrapping up her post-screening Q&A when Yunus bounced in, smiling broadly and causing a minor stir.

“The traffic was terrible,” he half-joked. It was obviously true given the U.N. proceedings, but he had arrived on foot, so it probably wasn’t the traffic that had delayed him. In front of the audience, the cracks continued; when Mosher interrupted him to adjust his microphone, he quipped: “You can tell who the director is here!”

Yunus is surprisingly tiny. Despite his diminutive size, he radiates an enormous amount of warmth and bonhomie. He wore a green tunic and gray vest, his silver hair gleaming in the church spotlights. After a brief standing ovation, he fielded questions from the crowd, which were almost worshipful.

All but one questioner began by thanking Yunus for his work pioneering micro-credit—the policy of lending small amounts of money to the poor, for which he won his Nobel prize in 2006. Several asked how they could help his cause. Yunus explained that he had established a micro-credit bank in New York called Grameen America (which has 6,000 borrowers, I was surprised to hear), and so they should inquire there.

Mosher sat, beaming, to Yunus’s right.

Although Mosher mentions it only in passing, Bonsai People could be seen as a response to Tom Heinemann’s Caught in Micro Debt, the 2010 documentary that focused on micro-lending horror stories and accused Grameen Bank of an illegal transfer of Norwegian aid money. Heinemann’s film sparked an investigation by the Norwegian government, and though Yunus was cleared of wrongdoing, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s administration fired Yunus as Grameen’s director soon afterward.

Sheikh Hasina has gone on to call Yunus a bloodsucker of the poor, which is hard to fathom in light of studies that show Grameen Bank offers lower interest rates than other micro-lending institutions. Recently released Wikileak cables have Hasina barring Yunus from her office and agreeing that he is “ungrateful” for her government’s help launching Grameen Phone.

Only one audience member referred to these issues. Yunus didn’t seem eager to discuss them. He mumbled that they’ve had “troubles” in Bangladesh, and added that the government wants to control Grameen Bank even though it only owns three percent of it—and then quickly moved on.

He closed the afternoon with a discussion of social business, and I thrust my arm in the air. He called on others, however, and their questions were long; it was suddenly time for him to go. I managed to corral him later, after he disengaged himself from the card-givers and back-slappers and photographers.

“Is it really possible that the Bangladeshi government will take over all of your businesses?” I asked.

We were outside, on Forty Sixth Street, now. The anti-Ahmadinejad rally had broken up, but the electricity in the air remained. He was accompanied by his daughter and an assistant.

His smile vanished.

“Maybe,” he said. “They’re considering things.” He glanced in his daughter’s direction, perhaps looking for an escape. This is all I would get today, it seemed. But then he added, with what seemed like a touch of exasperation, “That government can do all kinds of crazy things.”

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Jake Whitney is a writer originally from the Bay Area who now lives in Westchester, New York. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New Republic, The San Francisco Chronicle, Editor & Publisher, New York magazine, The Huffington Post, and many others. Jake holds a Master’s degree in journalism from Iona College. His most recent piece can be read here.

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