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A Nobel Prize Winner Under Siege – WSJ.com

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The Bangladeshi government is moving to exert control over the celebrated Grameen Bank.

By GEORGE SHULTZ AND MADELEINE ALBRIGHT

With so many banks making headlines, it is easy to overlook news about Bangladesh’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank. No, this bank does not need a bailout. Quite the contrary, it has been prospering as it continues to provide life-changing microloans to millions of poor people. The borrowers also run the bank—they are the majority owners. But the Bangladeshi government recently moved to change this arrangement. We urge the government to reconsider.

At issue is whether the bank’s managing director should be appointed by the board of directors (most of whom are elected by the millions of small shareholders) or by the bank’s chairman, who is appointed by the government. Preserving the right of the board of directors to make this choice would be in keeping with the bank’s most distinctive feature—that the institution’s customers are also its owners and managers.

The Grameen Bank model has been strikingly successful; it should be emulated, not changed. With 30 years of experience, Grameen delivers exceptional loan-repayment rates (97%) while vastly improving the lives of its members. Credit is given only to start or expand businesses, and members join as groups of five, who provide mutual support and accountability.

With 8.3 million borrowers, Grameen is a primary source of capital for women entrepreneurs and has used its influence and resources to support education, community-hygiene initiatives, affordable health care and better nutrition. In the process, the bank has contributed mightily to social, civic and environmental awareness throughout Bangladesh.

In 2006, Grameen’s owners and Muhammad Yunus, its founder, were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their efforts to reduce poverty. Dozens of countries have developed institutions based on the Grameen model, providing benefits to hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and even the United States.

A major reason for the bank’s success is its loyalty to the principle that the same people who rely on it for credit also have a direct role in managing its operations. The idea that poor people can run their own bank successfully has been very empowering—especially for women, who make up the vast majority of borrowers and who often have little or no access to conventional sources of commercial lending. That is why it would be a mistake for the government of Bangladesh to deprive the board of directors of the right to appoint the managing director.

Borrowers elect nine of the 12 members on the board while the government appoints three directors, including the chairman. The board as a whole has been responsible for bank operations, a governance structure that has served the rights and interests of its member owners since Grameen’s founding several decades ago. We believe that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right, in her visit to Bangladesh in May, to caution against any step that “would undermine or interfere in the operations of the Grameen Bank or its unique organizational structure.”

Grameen Bank is more than just another financial institution. It is a living demonstration of how people who lack advantages of any kind can nevertheless lift themselves out of poverty through hard work and personal accountability. It is a testament to the capacity of women to succeed in business when accorded the opportunity to do so. And Grameen is—or at least it should be—a fundamental source of pride for the government of Bangladesh.

With the world watching, the government should consider carefully how to proceed now that its steps to seize direct control over the bank’s leadership have stirred controversy. We hope it will choose instead to preserve a system that has worked well, earned credit for Bangladesh on the world stage, and inspired followers across the globe.

Mr. Shultz, a former secretary of labor, Treasury and state, is a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Ms. Albright, a former secretary of state and permanent representative to the United Nations, is a chairwoman of the Albright-Stonebridge Group.

MFIs still seeing significant growth

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May Kunmakara 
Thursday, 02 February 2012
Outstanding loans and deposits in 28 of Cambodia’s microfinance institutions rose between 30 and 40 per cent year-on-year in 2011, official data from the Cambodian Microfinance Association indicated.

The CMA’s data showed outstanding loans rose 41.5 per cent from US$916.3 million with 1.3 million borrowers in 2011, compared to $647.8 million with 1.22 million borrowers a year earlier.

Deposits grew by 32 per cent to $1.26 billion with 1.1 million depositors, compared to $952.2 million with 36,776 borrowers in 2010. MFIs in the Kingdom first began to take deposits in early 2010.

Non-performing loans (NPL) declined from 1.3 per cent of the loan total to 0.4 per cent. Officials and insiders said a strong macro-economy performance and clear regulations were responsible for the shift.

National Bank of Cambodia director general and spokeswoman Ngoun Sokha recognised the favourable direction the economy was heading, especially in the agricultural sector, which she believed was responsible for the rising demand for loans.

“The government supports the agricultural sector, especially the export of milled rice. So we promoted the adoption of MFI loans for agriculture and actually received a lot of growth in that area, adding up to more than 50 per cent of all loans,” she said.

Bun Mony, director of CMA and chairman of Sathapana Microfinance, told the Post that loan portfolios at Sathapana rose about 65 per cent to $94.6 million compared to $57 million in 2010. The number of borrowers grew from from 43,565 to 55,001.

“There was a high demand for loans as business activities continue to grow, and we don’t even seem to have any problems with repayment,” he said, adding that the NPL rate declined to from 0.93 per cent to 0.22 last year.

Sathapana provides loans to all sectors, with 40 per cent going to retail and small businesses, and more than 20 per cent to the agricultural sector.

The country’s biggest MFI, Prassac Microfinance, reported that by December 2011 its gross loan portfolio was $151 million, an increase of 43.6 per cent, with active borrowers increasing 10.9 per cent to 125,127.

“In general, I think that the industry performed well last year because all MFIs grew their portfolios while the NPL rate decreased,” Sim Senacheert, president and CEO of Prassac, said.

Prassac loans to the agricultural sector accounted for 33 per cent of its total portfolio, with trading and service making up 47 per cent.

Hout Ieng Tong, general director of Hattha Kaksekar Microfinance, reported that loan portfolios rose 70 per cent to $75 million with 62,703 borrowers, from $44 million with 47,952 borrowers the year pior.

He added that NPL declined from 0.9 to 0.07 per cent, and that agricultural loans accounted for 35 per cent of total stocks at his compay. Sathapana Microfinance’s total deposits rose 129.4 per cent from $39 million to $17 million, while Hattha Kaksekar’s total deposits grew more than 160 percent to reach $15.78 million compared with only $5 million the year before. Prassac reported smaller increases, as its operations just began in mid-2011.

The successes are tempered, however, by the uncertain economical fates of the EU and US, where much of the industry gets its primary funding. “We are a bit worried,” said Bun Mony.

“We see the EU in a crisis, and think there could be some slight impact on us, specifically regarding investments.”

Ngoun Sokha suggested a solution, saying, “We try to teach MFIs good governance, and to strengthen their internal capacity for infrastructure, so that they will be able to easily seek a source of funds domestically rather than just looking abroad.”