Microcredit Pioneer Faces an Inquiry in Bangladesh

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By Lydia Polgreen

New York Times: January 29, 2011

DHAKA, Bangladesh ? Any other year Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a pioneer of microcredit, would be in Davos, Switzerland, this week. For years he has been celebrated at global gatherings like the World Economic Forum there for helping move millions of impoverished women toward a better life through tiny but transformational loans.

?Muhammad Yunus founded the microfinance institution Grameen Bank 34 years ago. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/ for The New York Times

Instead, he was in court again on Thursday, facing accusations, considered frivolous by most accounts, that one of his nonprofit companies adulterated vitamin-fortified yogurt. On Jan. 18, he was summoned to a rural courtroom to face charges of defamation lodged by a local politician.
Microcredit, the idea that Mr. Yunus popularized as a path out of penury for those long excluded from the banking system, has increasingly come under scrutiny. Scholars have cast doubt on its effectiveness in fighting poverty, and politicians and other critics accuse microfinanciers, many of whom, unlike Mr. Yunus, profit from the loans, of getting rich off the poor.
Now, the government of Bangladesh has ordered a wide-ranging inquiry into the microfinance institution he founded 34 years ago, Grameen Bank, after a Norwegian documentary accused him of mishandling donors? money. Norway?s government has said no money was misused. Still, Mr. Yunus?s troubles will deepen what has become a global crisis in microfinance that threatens to undermine the very concept ? small loans to poor people without collateral ? on which his reputation rests.
Long accustomed to adulation at home and abroad, suddenly, at 70, Mr. Yunus, Bangladesh?s best-known citizen, finds himself very much on the defensive. In an interview at his office here, Mr. Yunus seemed stunned and deeply stung.
?There is some kind of misinformation,? he said, his voice trailing off. ?I shouldn?t say more.?
A pause.
?Every word I say will be held against me,? he said finally.
On one level, his troubles seem to be largely political. Mr. Yunus, who leads a spartan life, has for decades floated well above the muck of Bangladeshi politics. Then in 2007, while a caretaker government backed by the military ruled Bangladesh, he waded in, egged on by supporters who argued that his leadership was needed in a time of crisis.
He declared in an interview that Bangladeshi politics were riddled with corruption. He floated a short-lived political party. Bangladesh?s political class did not take kindly to being lectured by the Nobel laureate. The steely leader of one of the main political parties, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, took umbrage, analysts say.
In the 2008 election that restored democracy after a two-year interregnum, Ms. Hasina led her party, the Awami League, back power with a vast majority. Her critics say that in lashing out at Mr. Yunus she is simply trying to eliminate a political rival.
But lost in the talk of politics is a more complex question: how to ensure that Grameen Bank, which has 8.3 million borrowers, has loaned $10 billion and has become an indispensable part of Bangladesh?s social and economic fabric, outlives its charismatic founder? Mr. Yunus is now a decade beyond the bank?s mandatory retirement age, and apparently there is no successor in sight.
Long-serving internal candidates that might have replaced Mr. Yunus as the bank?s managing director after his retirement have departed acrimoniously.
The government recently appointed one of his former deputies, Muzammel Huq, as chairman of the board. Mr. Huq has been a vocal critic of Mr. Yunus, and the promotion of a former underling has been taken as a sure sign that the government seeks to oust the bank?s founder.
?I think he is a good man with a small heart,? Mr. Huq said of Mr. Yunus. ?He cannot give credit to anyone but himself,? he added, with a wan smile at his pun.
Microfinance experts worry that a government takeover of Grameen Bank may turn it into a tool of political patronage and destroy it. Mr. Yunus said that he was eager to step down, but that the transition must be handled carefully to avoid panic among borrowers and the bank?s employees.
?I am riding the tiger,? Mr. Yunus said. ?I cannot just get off the tiger without drawing the attention of that tiger. So I have to very quietly do it.?
The Norwegian documentary accuses him of improperly moving $100 million that has been donated by Norway for microcredit to another Grameen nonprofit organization. The Norwegian government later confirmed that the money had been improperly moved, but it cleared Grameen of any wrongdoing.
Continue reading “Microcredit Pioneer Faces an Inquiry in Bangladesh”


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Moshrefa Mishu,?illegally arrested and remanded.

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Labour rights leader Moshrefa Mishu is being escorted to the court in Dhaka on Sunday. ? New Age photo

I have known Moshrefa Mishu for the last 25 years.
Since the mid-1980s when the two of us had participated in long and intense discussions with other representatives of both large womens organisations and small womens groups, when we were trying to work out the possibility of forming a broad-based and united platform to collectively struggle and further the interests of women.
In the early hours of 14 December 2010, Mishu, who is the president of Garment Workers Unity Forum, was picked up from her house in Kola Bagan, Dhaka, by a contingent of a dozen or so in plainclothes (excepting one). They claimed to belong to the Detective Branch. They did not have an arrest warrant. Please remember that, as you read along.
She was produced in the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s (CMM) court after midday. Police sought a 10-day remand, the magistrate granted 2 days. She was accused of inciting garment workers at Kuril who were, according to news reports, demonstrating for payment of wages according to the new pay scale agreed upon by the government and factory-owners in August 2011. Demonstrating for, not against, and mind you, the government was a party to the agreement. Does it not strike you as strange that workers should have to demonstrate and picket, and to press for demands which are in effect, also the government’s demands? (workers had unwillingly agreed to the new wages because it fell far short of their demand for 5,000 taka as minimum wage, not the 3,000 taka which was agreed upon, which has been termed `poverty wages’). Workers at Kuril alleged that the management was not following the new wage board, it had added only 500 taka to each worker’s wage. Remember Kuril too, because I’ll come back to this later. Instead of imprisoning garment workers and their leaders, one would have thought government officials and factory-owners would be arrested for not complying with the wage board’s settlement.
She was remanded again, for 1 day, on December 17. The police added another allegation to their previous list, Mishu had been seen in the company of a Jamaat leader, travelling in his car. Where? When? Not surprisingly, the police could not substantiate their allegations, they could only insist that it needed to be investigated.
Mishu was produced in CMM court for the third time on December 19, afternoon. I was among a group of activists (university teachers, writers and a lawyer) who had gone there to express our moral support for Mishu. Only Sadia Arman among us was allowed to enter the courtroom as she’s a lawyer. She spoke to Mishu who sat in a bench at the back, with women police on either side. She was breathing with great difficulty, gasping for air as she spoke. She told Sadia that short of beating her, the DB police had tortured her in every possible manner. When Sadia asked her about the allegations against her, Mishu said, she had not been in Kuril but in Narsingdi, she had returned to Dhaka on 12th night, had been exhausted and had declined to attend programmes till December 16. She did not know why she had been arrested, they had not told her anything. Please note that the protests at Kuril occurred on 12th morning and that the allegations against her are not, according to the laws of the land, worthy of a remand.
We caught a glimpse of Mishu as she left the courtroom heavily surrounded by police. I watched a young policewoman flash a smile as she said confidently, oh, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s fine. As we turned the corner of the courtroom and stood above on the landing, we watched Mishu climb down the stairs assisted by policewomen. We could clearly see that she was unable to walk by herself. I remembered an Indian feminist friend’s excitement when Sheikh Hasina appointed Sahara Khatun as the minister for home affairs. I had not been similarly excited. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, I thought.
Mishu’s breathing difficulties increased, she had to be hospitalised immediately. She was taken to the National Hospital first, where the doctors gave her a nebuliser and oxygen. Her back pain — from a spinal injury, the result of an attempt on her life several years ago which had been staged to appear as a road accident — increased tremendously. While she had entered the hospital sitting in a wheelchair, she had to be carried out on a stretcher. She was referred to the Post Graduate hospital where doctors provided further oxygen, she was then referred to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. She lies in a `bed’ there, in a womens ward, hastily put together on the floor, as there were no vacant beds. Police surround her bed, both men and women, causing immense distress and embarassment to both Mishu and other patients, many of whom are confined to their bed and having to use bedpans for urinary and fecal discharges.
What induced this? Mishu was without medicine for more than 24 hours, the contingent who had gone to pick her up had only permitted her to change her clothes. Despite being a chronic asthma patient, she was forced to lie on the cold floor of the DB Headquarters with only a thin blanket to lie on, and a thin quilt as cover. By the time her sister was allowed to drop her medicine at DB Headquarters, she was already very ill,
the nebuliser was unable to provide any relief. She would have preferred a prison, she told her sister, as she would at least have some hours to herself, at the DB HQ she was interrogated at all odd hours, both during the day and at night.
What is equally worrying is that officials at the DB headquarters had told her sister before the court hearing on December 19, don’t worry, we’ll provide her with some hot water tomorrow so that she can take a bath. How could they have been so sure that their prayer for a remand would be granted? Is unseen pressure being applied by the government on the judicial process?
`First they asked for an end to slavery....'

A garment worker had explained to a Reuters correspondent that the reason for protesting was “because [the new wages are] too inadequate to make ends meet. We cannot submit to the [whims] of the government and factory owners.” Another had said, “We work to survive but….commodity prices are going up and we cannot even arrange basic needs with our meagre income. The 3,000 taka will be barely enough to buy food for my six-member family. How can I pay for medicines, the education of my children and other needs?” Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper, in a talk show on a private TV channel the night Mishu was arrested, had said, he would like to give factory owners Tk 3,000 per month, for a period of three months, and would like to see how they managed to live on this meagre amount. I agree with him, I think such an exercise, conducted publicly, with daily updates, would prove to be tremendously educational.
Or, one could reverse what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned from 1926-1937 (the prosecutor had said at his trial “for 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning”), had written to a family member, from prison: “tell me what the following categories of people eat in a week: a family of,

  1. day labourers
  2. sharecroppers
  3. small farmers who work their own land
  4. shepherds whose flocks are a full-time occupation
  5. craftsmen (cobblers or blacksmiths)

Questions: how many times do they eat meat in a week, and how much? Or alternatively, do they just go without? What do they use to make soup? How much oil or fat do they put in, how much pasta, how many vegetables etc.? How much corn do they grind, and how many loaves of bread do they buy? How much coffee or coffee substitute, how much sugar? How much milk for the children etc.?”
Reversing Gramsci’s questions would mean that I would like to know how many times a week the owners of garment and knitwear factories?those who receive orders, and deliver supplies to Wal-mart, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Tesco, JC Penny, H&M, Gap?eat meat, how much oil and butter they consume, how much rice, what quality, how much coffee and beverages they drink, how much they spend on medicine and health, on their childrens education, on holidays, and all other personal and familial needs. I would also like to know how much they contribute, both directly and indirectly, to the election funds of political parties.
At her first court hearing, Mishu had stood in the dock and had asked, `Am I a common criminal that I should have to be handcuffed like this?’
No Mishu, neither you, nor other labour leaders, nor workers demonstrating for living wages, none of you are criminals. Those denying living wages to garment workers, are. It is they who are criminals. Your struggles serve to expose them for what they really are underneath their smooth and slick smiles, their expensive clothes. Petty, miserable, brutal. The real criminals.
Published in New Age, Tuesday December 21, 2010
Support campaign for release of Moshrefa Mishu

Long March: more images

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Bangladeshi citizens began a long march from Dhaka to Dinajpur to protect the country's natural resources. The march began at Muktangon in Dhaka with a rally and the first day ended in Ghazipur with a cultural programme. People joined along the way. The march will end with a rally at Phulbaria in Dinajpur on the 30th October 2010. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Volunteers arranged lunch for the marchers along the way. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The shops start early in preparation for the visitors. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The first campaigners arrive. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The first busload arrives. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The first activists coming in armed with posters. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Slogans being painted. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Signage. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Marchers march in. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

By afternoon many have gathered from all over the country. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ordinary people from all walks of life. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Including many women. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Professor Anu Muhammad, a key speaker. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

And labour leader Mushrefa Mishu. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Speeches and cultural programmes go on late into the night. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Poet Arup Rahee with friend. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Catching up before heading back home. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Homeward bound. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Related link:

Nobel Peace Prize winner?s reputation under threat in riddle of ?40m loans

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*Fariha Karim, Dhaka, and Francis Elliott, Delhi*

The Times of London

The reputation of a Nobel peace laureate, credited with helping to defeat?global poverty through microcredit, hung in the balance last night after?allegations that he had diverted ?40 million from a bank set up to help the?poor.
Muhammad Yunus, internationally f?ted as banker to the world?s poor, now?faces an investigation by the Norwegian Government, which donated funds to?him.
It marks a further blow to the reputation of microfinance, once hailed as?the most effective way to help the most needy out of poverty.
The model of extending small loans to help to stimulate entrepreneurial?activity was pioneered by Dr Yunus in Bangladesh. It won him the Nobel Peace?Prize in 2006.
But letters obtained by a Norwegian film-maker suggest that Oslo?s embassy?in Dhaka was furious to discover that cash donated to his microfinance?vehicle, Grameen Bank, for housing loans had been diverted to another?company without its knowledge or permission. The arrangement, which Dr Yunus claimed had been made for tax reasons, was not mentioned in Grameen Bank?s annual report.
When his actions were challenged in formal correspondence, Dr Yunus wrote to?the head of an aid agency, Norad, asking for its help.
?This allegation will create a lot of misunderstanding within the Government?of Bangladesh. If the people, within and outside government, who are not?supportive of Grameen get hold of this letter, we?ll face real problem[s] in?Bangladesh,? he wrote.
Dr Yunus was ordered to return the money but while about ?17.6 million was?repaid, the rest of the funds were used for other social causes including?victims of cyclones, according to the Norwegian Government.
The chain of events ? which took place between 1996 and 1998 ? came to light?this week after the letters were aired as part of a documentary on microfinance that was shown on Norwegian television.
Although it said that there was no suggestion of tax fraud, a minister in?the current Oslo administration said that it was ?totally unacceptable? that?aid was used for purposes other than what was intended.
A report into the matter has now been ordered by the International?Development Minister after questions in the Norwegian parliament.
Dr Yunus could not be contacted for comment in Bangladesh last night and?aides said that he was out of the country.
A statement released by Grameen Bank said that the claims were false and?that a full explanation would be provided at the ?earliest convenient time?.
The Nobel Committee stood by Dr Yunus last night, admitting that it was?aware of ?isolated incidents? relating to Grameen Bank when it awarded him?the Peace Prize, but it does not plan to raise any further questions.
The director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, said: ?The?Norwegian Nobel Committee looked into Yunus and the Grameen Bank very?thoroughly before he was awarded the Peace Prize in 2006, and we used many?international and Norwegian experts to find out about the larger picture and?not just the isolated incidents. On this basis he was awarded the prize for?2006 and we are not raising any questions in this context.?
He refused to clarify whether the committee was aware of allegations of?financial irregularities, saying: ?We have a 50-year secrecy rule. I?m not?commenting on anything else.?
Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International?Development, insisted that there were no suspicions of tax fraud or?corruption committed by the bank.
He added: ?Having said that, the Government of Norway finds it totally?unacceptable that aid is used for other purposes intended, no matter how?praiseworthy the cases might be.
?In the light of an audit review in 1998, Grameen Kalyan returned 170?million kroner [?17.6 million] to Grameen Bank. The additional funds have?among other projects been spent on emergency aid after a devastating cyclone?hit Bangladesh.
?I will ask the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation for a full?report into this matter. At the same time it is important to stress that we?are firm believers in microfinance as a tool in the fight against poverty.?
The allegations will further fuel the controversy surrounding microfinance?amid concerns that what has grown into a massive and largely unregulated?industry is doing more harm than good.
The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the hub of small-loan activity, cracked?down on microfinanciers after accusations that high interest rates and?aggressive debt collectors had led to more than 30 suicides.
Report in bdnews24.com
Earlier article on Grameen Bank

Beri Bandh 2: Sadek City Model Town

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The accident had changed things, and rather than see it as an impediment, I decided to make it a feature of my work. So on the 2nd Monday having been to the hospital for my regular physiotherapy, I revisited the scene. Walking down the narrow alleyways in between the line rooms in Sadek City Model Town (I have no idea who Sadek is), I met up with some women and two girls (around 8-10). They wanted pictures taken, and wanted to art direct the photos. So I was rapidly being given instructions, which changed as every new person joined what had become a rapidly growing crowd.

Photo studios are generally adorned with pin up of popular movie stars. Often clients request to be photographed as their favourite star. The studio generally has a full complement of props, from exotic locations to motorbikes, even a set of smart clothes. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

The act of taking pictures wasn?t so easy. With my right hand having low mobility, I had only taken my compact, and was taking pictures with my left hand. That?s when you realise that cameras are not designed for left handed people. Still, with a small camera you can improvise. Soon they decided they needed prints, so the two girls dragged me down to the local studio. It was a longish walk and I had wanted to stop several times to take pictures, but only managed a few times. The two girls were tough task masters. The guy in the studio was asleep, and a bit grumpy for being woken up. But he didn?t make prints himself. He would gather the images and send it off to a nearby lab, so we returned empty handed. I promised I?d bring prints back the following Monday.
The two girls decided they would be art directors for the day and took me around. At one point we went to the local photo lab to get prints made, but they didn?t have their own printing machine. We took the scenic route back via the back gate of the local mazaar (shrine), across the reclaimed land, under a low gate into the back end of their line room. This was a picture in a neighbour?s kitchen. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

I was then taken round and introduced to the other families, and eventually, they found a kitchen where they could pose as they wanted. The girl cooking was even younger than them, and the two art directors quickly took control. The shaft of light and the smoke were just lucky ingredients. Slowly the residents of Sadek City Model Town opened up to me. Some were still suspicious. Was I going to report to the government? Would this result in another eviction? What was I going to do with these pictures? But soon we were friends. A little baby that came to me, refused to go back to her mother. I was now a family member! The houses (8 foot by 8 foot rooms) cost 1100 Taka a month to rent. Per square foot, that was almost twice as expensive as our flat in Dhanmondi! And that was excluding gas. They spent 30 Taka a day on firewood, so it effectively cost 2000 Taka per month (about 20 Euros) a month for that one room. They did have electricity (sometimes), and there was a nearby tubewell where they could bathe and draw water from. The common loos did have long queues, but were considered adequate. This was a transit point they explained to me. The place where people stayed when they first came to the city. Once they found better work, they would move on. To brick houses, with piped gas. The tin roofs meant the rooms were like ovens in the summer and a freezer in winter.
There were two storied houses too. The upper floor had a thin concrete floor, to ensure the floor didn?t leak. I was surprised that a bamboo walled structure could have a concrete floor, but it seemed to work. Narrow wooden stairs led to the upper floor. It was a tinder box anyway and with these narrow exits, there would be no escaping if there was a fire.
They had arrived from all over the country, though many were from Barisal, a coastal region in the South. The men would ride rickshaw vans or work as day labourers upon arrival. ?All you needed was a basket and a spade. If you worked flat out from 8 in the morning to sunset, you could earn 200 Taka (about two Euros) a day. You wouldn?t get work every day, but enough days in a month to pay for the rent and food.?
Yet another barber shop. I was intrigued by the fact that this doubled as the place where the barber reared his homing pigeons. There were several houses and the pigeons flitted in and out. It didn?t seem to bother the customer. He just wanted his shave. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

On the way back, I came across the barber shop. One of many I?d seen that day. It didn?t look too interesting at first, until I saw the pigeons flying. They were flying, eating, shitting, without the slightest trace of concern, or fear. This was obviously their home, and the clients who came in to barber were the intruders. The barber had gone off leaving the client in the chair, and the pigeons were just getting on with their lives. The barber?s younger brother was there and explained that earlier there were more birds, including parrots. But it had become too much of a hassle, so now the barber only kept pigeons.
I had started later than I had hoped, and being a bright sunny day, I was in the glaring sun much of the time. I had to be careful with my framing in this very hard light. So I did most of my work indoors, or in the narrow corridors where the was little direct sunlight. Ideally I would have waited for the lovely afternoon light that accompanies winter, but my pains were beginning to take toll.
Kali is considered the goddess of time and change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation still has some influence. Various Shakta Hindu cosmologies, as well as Shakta Tantric beliefs, worship her as the ultimate reality or Brahman. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

As I headed back I went through Rayerbazaar, and the people I had photographed last week all flocked. I managed to avoid tea, but was given a cup of fresh cow?s milk. One doesn?t usually get fresh milk these days, so this was a treat. The conversation veered to the local mafia and what some of the locals were getting up to. I left promising to bring back some prints next Monday. I realized, I would need to make a LOT of prints for that day. I then came up with the sugar cane juice man from last week and he squeezed two special glasses for me. As I was buying some water chestnuts, a guy passing by, told me of the Kali (Hindu Goddess) puja that was taking place nearby. I followed the directions to a narrow alleyway, where the Goddess was in all her splendour in a raised platform at the end. The singing, dancing and firecrackers just added to the atmosphere.

Bangladesh Profile

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By Shahidul Alam
Bangladesh will be 40 years old next year. Back in 1971, its civil war and declaration of independence gained global notice thanks to the Concert for Bangladesh, which drew over 40,000 to Madison Square Garden in New York. Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, George Harrison and other stars of the music world performed at the first major concert held for a social cause, concentrating attention on what was then East Pakistan, devastated first by the cyclone in Bhola and then by the atrocities committed by the Pakistani?Army.
Bangladesh continues to have an eventful history. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father, was assassinated in 1975. The?CIA?is alleged to have played a role. Ziaur (?Zia?) Rahman, the general who followed Mujib, was also assassinated, as were many others during those tumultuous?years.
Zia moved away from the socialism and secularism on which the original Bangladeshi constitution had been built, and moved closer to the?US?and the Middle East. His successor, General Ershad, strengthened the Middle East ties by declaring Bangladesh an Islamic state. Secular Bangladesh had been?buried.
Bangladeshis? love for democracy is not to be underestimated, however. Resistance grew in the streets and, with the military refusing to bail him out, Ershad eventually stepped down. For once a deposed leader went to a jail cell rather than a?grave.
Map of Bangladesh
Since then the democracy available has still been distinctly less than perfect. The two main parties ? the Awami League, ruled by Mujib?s daughter Sheikh Hasina, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), ruled by Zia?s widow Khaleda Zia ? have effectively taken it in turns to hold power, each sounding much more plausible in opposition than in government. Attempts to fix the elections by the most recent BNP government in 2007 infuriated the opposition, leading to violence in the?streets.
The?US?and the European Union decided a pliant government backed by the military was much easier to handle than some messy democracy, and an ex-World Bank employee was brought in to head the military-backed ?caretaker government?. This puppet government started by arbitrarily extending its prescribed 90-day tenure to two years. It then tried to break the existing parties, by jailing the top leaders and setting up its own party, but failed miserably. Eventually the two years ran out and the people were in no mood to accept another extension. Deals were hurriedly made and the unplanned exit took place without?violence.
On election day in December 2008, a young man showed off the purple stain on his thumb. He had voted and was proud of it. After two years of effective military rule, Bangladeshis had voted in huge numbers. The landslide victory for the Awami League hadn?t been predicted. Occasional turnouts of over 100 per cent were somewhat embarrassing, but by and large it was a fair election. The overwhelming majority was something the new government, which had promised change, could use finally to set things?right.
But soon it was business as usual. Feuds over the spoils led to intra-party fights. Accusations of sexual abuse by the student wing of the Awami League led to fingerwagging at her own party by Sheikh Hasina, but people were not convinced. The government seemed more interested in territorial disputes rather than the serious rise in prices, the frequent power cuts and the infrastructure?failure.
The problems do not get any smaller. Bangladesh is one of the countries likely to be worst affected by global warming. Financial mismanagement in the?US?is beginning to affect Bangladeshi migrant workers, the biggest revenue earners in the country. For the 135 million Bangladeshis who live on less than two dollars a day, the promised change is long?overdue.
Bangladesh Fact File

Leader Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.
Economy: GNI per capita $520 (Pakistan $980, UK $45,390). Two-thirds of Bangladeshis are farmers, but more than three-quarters of Bangladesh?s export earnings derive from the garment industry, which employs over 3 million people (mainly women). Remittances from workers in other countries are also vital to the economy.
Monetary unit: Taka
Main exports Garments, seafood, jute and jute goods, leather.
People 160 million. Annual population growth rate 1.6%. People per square kilometre 1,111 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 43 per 1,000 live births (Pakistan 72, UK 5). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 51 (UK 1 in 8,200).
Environment Given the consumption habits of the average Bangladeshi and the fact that virtually everything is recycled, the country has always had a low carbon footprint. However, the complete environmental disregard of industrialists has led to very high levels of pollution. Arsenic in groundwater, originally brought about by UN-sponsored tubewells, threatens to kill millions.
Culture Bangla culture has a rich history stretching back over many centuries ? the earliest Bangla literary text dates from the eighth century. This heritage is shared with the Indian state of West Bengal. The Chittagong Hill Tracts are home to distinct ethnic groups collectively known as Jumma.
Religion Muslim 83%, Hindu 16%, tiny Buddhist and Christian minorities.
Language Bangla 98%.
Sources UNICEF, UNDP, Guia del Mundo, CIA.
Bangladesh ratings in detail (Previously reviewed 2000)
Income distribution: The gap between rich and poor has increased. The garment industry brought in $12.3 billion in 2009, but the minimum wage for garment workers ($25 a month) is among the lowest in the world.
Life expectancy: 66 years (Pakistan 67, UK 79). Improving, but families can be destroyed by a major illness due to the high costs of medical care.
Literacy: 54%. Primary education has improved, especially for girls ? there are now more girls than boys in school ? but poverty forces many to drop out of the education system.
Position of women: The role of women in urban civil society is impressive. The garment industry, while exploitative, has given rural women options. Women inherit half what men do by Islamic law, but in practice women inherit even less than that.
Freedom: Despite government repression, private media, especially television, have played a major role in highlighting irregularities. The government media are used entirely for propaganda.
Sexual minorities: Homosexuality is illegal and punishable by 10 years? imprisonment or more. It is therefore difficult to be publicly gay, but ambiguous sexuality is accepted and hijras (men adopting female gender identity) often perform in religious ceremonies. Gay groups exist, but use other criteria for their association.
NI Assessment (Politics)

The new government had a landslide electoral victory. It had the public mandate for bringing about change, its campaign promise. But it has been business as usual. Extrajudicial killings have increased, as have the prices of essentials. The government has been more concerned with political games than with addressing serious issues. Unless it can control the rampant hooliganism of its student wing, the Chatra League, the next election will see a complete reversal.

China Calls Our Bluff

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America’s biggest creditor – China – has called our bluff.

As the Financial Times notes, the head of China’s biggest credit rating agency has said America is insolvent and that U.S. credit ratings are a joke:
The head of China?s largest credit rating agency has slammed his western counterparts for causing the global financial crisis and said that as the world?s largest creditor nation China should have a bigger say in how governments and their debt are rated.
?The western rating agencies are politicised and highly ideological and they do not adhere to objective standards,? Guan Jianzhong, chairman of Dagong Global Credit Rating, told the Financial Times in an interview.
He specifically criticised the practice of ?rating shopping? by companies who offer their business to the agency that provides the most favourable rating.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis ?rating shopping? has been one of the key complaints from western regulators , who have heavily criticised the big three agencies for handing top ratings to mortgage-linked securities that turned toxic when the US housing market collapsed in 2007.
?The financial crisis was caused because rating agencies didn?t properly disclose risk and this brought the entire US financial system to the verge of collapse, causing huge damage to the US and its strategic interests,? Mr Guan said.
Recently, the rating agencies have been criticised for being too slow to downgrade some of the heavily indebted peripheral eurozone economies, most notably Spain, which still holds triple A ratings from Moody?s.
There is also a view among many investors that the agencies would shy away from withdrawing triple A ratings to countries such as the US and UK because of the political pressure that would bear down on them in the event of such actions.
Last week, privately-owned Dagong published its own sovereign credit ranking in what it said was a first for a non-western credit rating agency.
The results were very different from those published by Moody?s, Standard & Poor?s and Fitch, with China ranking higher than the United States, Britain, Japan, France and most other major economies, reflecting Dagong?s belief that China is more politically and economically stable than all of these countries.
Mr Guan said his company?s methodology has been developed over the last five years and reflects a more objective assessment of a government?s fiscal position, ability to govern, economic power, foreign reserves, debt burden and ability to create future wealth.
?The US is insolvent and faces bankruptcy as a pure debtor nation but the rating agencies still give it high rankings ,? Mr Guan said.
A wildly enthusiastic editorial published by Xinhua , China?s official state newswire, lauded Dagong?s report as a significant step toward breaking the monopoly of western rating agencies of which it said China has long been a ?victim?.
?Compared with the US? conquest of the world by means of force, Moody?s has controlled the world through its dominance in credit ratings,? the editorial said…
China is right. U.S. credit ratings have been less than worthless. And – in the real world – America should have been downgraded to junk. See this, this, this, this, this,this, this, this and this.
China is not shy about reminding the U.S. who’s got the biggest pockets. As the Financial Times quotes Mr. Guan:
?China is the biggest creditor nation in the world and with the rise and national rejuvenation of China we should have our say in how the credit risks of states are judged.?
Might Makes Right Economic Collapse
Indeed, Guan is even dissing America’s military prowess:
?Actually, the huge military expenditure of the US is not created by themselves but comes from borrowed money, which is not sustainable.?
As I’ve repeatedly shown, borrowing money to fund our huge military expenditures are – paradoxically – weakening our national security:
As I’ve previously pointed out, America’s military-industrial complex is ruining our economy.
And U.S. military and intelligence leaders say that the economic crisis is the biggest national security threat to the United States. See this, this and this.
[I]t is ironic that America’s huge military spending is what made us an empire … but our huge military is what is bankrupting us … thus destroying our status as an empire …
Indeed, as I pointed out in 2008:
So why hasn’t America’s credit rating been downgraded?
Well, a report by Moody’s in September states:
“In superficially similar circumstances, the ratings of Japan and some Scandinavian countries were downgraded in the 1990s.
For reasons that take their roots into the large size and wealth of the economy and, ultimately, the US military power, the US government faces very little liquidity risk ? its debt remains a safe heaven. There is a large market for even a significant increase in debt issuance.”
So Japan and Scandinavia have wimpy militaries, so they got downgraded, but the U.S. has lots of bombs, so we don’t? In any event, American cannot remain a hyperpower if it is broke.
The fact that America spends more than the rest of the world combined on our military means that we can keep an artificially high credit rating. But ironically, all the money we’re spending on our military means that we become less and less credit-worthy … and that we’ll no longer be able to fund our military.
The Scary Part
I chatted with the head of a small investment brokerage about the China credit rating story.
Because he gives his clients very bullish, status quo advice, I assumed that he would say that China was wrong.
To my surprise, he simply responded:
They’re right. What’s scary is that China knows it.
In other words, everyone who pays any attention knows that we’re broke. What’s scary is that our biggest creditor knows it.
Tricks Up Their Sleeves?
China has been threatening for many months to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency (and see this). And China, Russia and other countries have made a lot of noises about replacing the dollar with the SDR. See this and this.
Gordon T. Long argues that the much talked about gold swaps are part and parcel of the plan to replace the dollar with the SDR. Time will tell if he’s right.
China, of course, is not without its own problems. See this and this.
In related news, Germany’s biggest companies are starting to shun Wall Street as too risky.

What Matters

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The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time

Sterling. 2008. 335p. ed. by David Elliot Cohen. photogs. index. ISBN 978-1-4027-5834-8. $27.95. POL SCI

An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,
Cover photo by GARY BRAASCH: An ice cave on the edge of the Marr Ice Piedmont on Anvers Island,

PHOTOGRAPHY EXPOSES TRUTHS, advances the public discourse, and demands action. In What Matters, eighteen important stories by today?s preeminent photojournalists and thinkers poignantly address the big issues of our time?global warming, environmental degradation, AIDS, malaria, the global jihad, genocide in
Darfur, the inequitable distribution of global wealth and others. A “What You Can Do” section offers 193 ways to learn more and get involved.
A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family.
Back cover inset by BRENT STIRTON: A four-year-old girl in Ghana walks two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) twice each day to fetch buckets of water for her family

Photographed by:

Shahidul Alam ? The Associated Press ? Gary Braasch ? Marcus Bleasdale ? Raymond Depardon ? Paul Fusco ? Lauren Greenfield ? Maggie Hallahan ? Ed Kashi ? Gerd Ludwig ? Magnum ? Susan Meiselas ? James Nachtwey ? Shehzad Noorani ? Gilles Peress ? Sebasti?o Salgado ? Stephanie Sinclair ? Brent Stirton ? Tom Stoddart ? Anthony Suau ? Stephen Voss

SATHI?S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh.
SATHI?S FACE is covered with carbon dust from recycled batteries. She is eight years old and works in a battery recycling factory in Korar Ghat, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. ? Shehzad Noorani/Drik/Majority World

Commentary by:

Omer Bartov ? Judith Bruce ? Awa Marie Coll-Seck ? Richard Covington ? Elizabeth C. Economy ? Helen Epstein ? Fawaz A. Gerges ? Peter H. Gleick ? Gary Kamiya ? Paul Knox ? David R. Marples ? Douglas S. Massey ? Bill McKibben ? Samantha Power ? John Prendergast ? Jeffrey D. Sachs ? Juliet B. Schor ?
Michael Watts

A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. Photograph by Raymond Depardon
A MEMORIAL to the 1994 Rwanda genocide at the Church of Ntarama, in Kigali Province. ? Raymond Depardon

What Matters?an audacious undertaking by best-selling editor and author David Elliot Cohen?challenges us to consider how socially conscious photography can spark public discourse, spur reform, and shift the way we think. For 150 years, photographs have not only documented human events, but also changed their course?from Jacob Riis?s expos? of brutal New York tenements to Lewis Hine?s child labor investigations to snapshots of torture at Abu Ghraib prison. In this vein, What Matters presents eighteen powerful stories by this generation?s foremost photojournalists. These stories cover essential issues confronting us and our planet: from climate change and environmental degradation to global jihad, AIDS, and genocide in Darfur to the consequences of the Iraq war, oil addiction, and the inequitable distribution of global wealth. The pictures in What Matters are personal and specific, but still convey universal concepts. These images are rendered even more compelling by trenchant commentary. Cohen asked the foremost writers, thinkers, and experts in their fields to elucidate issues raised by the photographs.
A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. Photography by James Nachtwey.
A WOMAN TAKEN to an emergency feeding center in Somalia established by the Irish charity CONCERN waits for food and medical attention. ? James Nachtwey.

Some stories in What Matters will make you cry; others will make you angry; and that is the intent. What Matters is meant to inspire action. And to facilitate that action, the book includes an extensive ?What You Can Do? section??a menu of resources, web links, and effective actions you can take now.
A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India?s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. Photography by Sebasti?o Salgado.
A PIPELINE carrying drinking water to more prosperous districts of India?s largest city, Mumbai (population 20 million), passes through the shantytown of Mahim, where it serves as an impromptu thoroughfare. ? Sebasti?o Salgado.

Cohen hopes What Matters will move people to take positive steps??no matter how small??that will help change the world. As he says in his introduction, the contributors? work is so compelling that ?if we show it to you, you will react with outrage and create an uproar.? If, says Cohen, you look at these stories and think, ?What?s the use? The world is irredeemably screwed up,? we should remember that, historically, outraged citizens have gotten results. ?We did actually abolish slavery and child labor in the US; we abolished apartheid in South Africa; we defeated the Nazis; we pulled out of Vietnam. As the saying goes, ?All great social change seems impossible until it is inevitable.? ?
PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam
PHILANTHROPIST Abdul Sattar Edhi with a few of the many thousands of children he has helped. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

– Michael Zajakowski, Chicago Tribune
TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. Ed Kashi
TRANS AMADI SLAUGHTER is the largest slaughterhouse in the Niger Delta. Workers kill thousands of animals a day, roast them over burning tires and prepare the meat for sale throughout the delta. Fish was traditionally the main source of protein here, but fish stocks have dwindled due to overfishing and oil pollution. ? Ed Kashi

A. Newspapers and Online
1. Hard to see, impossible to turn away – Issues and images combine in ‘What Matters,’ a powerful and passionate new book
“Great documentary photojournalism, squeezed out of mainstream newspapers and magazines in an age of shrinking column inches, has had a hard time gaining traction in other venues… But nobody has told the 18 photographers in “What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.” These are photo essays by some of today’s best photojournalists following the great tradition begun over a hundred years ago with the expos?s of New York tenement life by Jacob Riis. Through the doggedness of these photographers?who are clearly committed to stirring us out of complacency?all the power and passion of the medium is evident in this book… Some of the pieces will break your heart, some will anger you. All will make you think. To channel your thoughts and feelings into action, the book ends with an appendix “What You Can Do,” offering hundreds of ways to be a part of the solution to these problems.”
Chicago Tribune Book Review, 2 page spread
2. “Must viewing.”
San Francisco Chronicle, 2 page story
3. Photographs that Can Change the World
“David Elliot Cohen?s new book, What Matters, which hits bookshelves today, is a collection of photo essays that explore 18 distinct social issues that define our time. Shot by the world?s most renowned photojournalists, including James Nachtwey, who has contributed to V.F., the photographs explore topics ranging from genocide and global warming to oil addiction and consumerism, offering a raw view into the problems that plague our world. Each photo essay is accompanied by written commentary from an expert on the issue. Cohen hopes the book will inspire people to work toward resolving these problems. ?Great photojournalism changed the world in the past, and it can do it again,? Cohen says. ?I want people to see these images, get angry, and act on that anger. Compelling images by the world?s best photojournalists is the most persuasive language I have to achieve this.?
4. Book Review: What Matters
“Changing the world might sound like a lofty goal for a photo book, but that?s what the new book, What Matters, The World?s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of our Time edited by David Elliot Cohen (Sterling Publishing, $28, 2008), hopes to do. Citing the power of socially conscious photographers over the last 150 years, the beautiful collection of 18 photo-essays by some of today?s prominent photojournalists hopes to ?inform pre-election debate and inspire direct action.” Regardless of what side of the political fence you sit on, this collection of heartbreaking and powerful stories and images is guaranteed to get you thinking.”
Popular Photography
5. What Matters: The World’s Preeminent Photojournalists and Thinkers Depict Essential Issues of Our Time.
Those doubting the power of photojournalism to sway opinion and encourage action would do well to spend some time with this book. In 18 stories, each made up of photos by leading photojournalists and elucidated by short essays by public intellectuals and journalists, this book explores environmental devastation, war, disease, and the ravages of both poverty and great wealth. The photos are specific and personal in their subject matter and demonstrate how great photography can illuminate the universal by depicting the specific. Cohen has a goal beyond simply showcasing terrific photography. In his thoughtful introduction, he makes explicit his aim to connect the work compiled here with the great tradition of muckraking photography that helped to change conditions in New York tenements and to end child labor at the turn of the last century. A terrific concluding chapter directs readers to specific actions they can take if they are moved to do so by the book’s images, and it’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be moved. Highly recommended for public libraries and academic libraries supporting journalism and/or photography curricula. (a starred review in Library Journal generally means the book will be acquired by many libraries.)
Library Journal
6. First of five part series about What Matters
(The first installment drew 500,000 page views)
7. Second part in CNN. Black Dust by Shehzad Noorani