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Grameen Bank co-op: micro-finance and a lesson in power politics

As part of their spring-semester co-op with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Northeastern University students Kelly Ward and Sarah Hodsdon were anticipating their meeting with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, the bank’s founder and international micro-finance pioneer.

But just one day before the scheduled meeting, the Bangladeshi government fired Yunus, citing the bank’s lack of “proper oversight and governance.”

According to the New York Times, Yunus’ allies claim that the government is trying to discredit a critic, who has often called Bangladeshi politics corrupt. 

“Fortunately, our overall experience wasn’t hampered,” said Ward, a third-year international affairs major who returned from Bangladesh last month. “The bank kept loaning out money and doing what it needed to do.” 

Ward, Hodsdon and their colleagues paid close attention to the controversy. As Ward put it, “Some days, almost everyone who worked at the bank left work to support Yunus in court.”

Bank employees and citizens of Bangladesh staged peaceful demonstrations — and even created a five-kilometer long human chain in support of Yunus.

“It was an incredible experience,” Ward said. “There were riot police on one side and people with so much at stake on the other. 

“It was really powerful to be a part of that, to feel that sense of community that developed around what is so much more than a bank.”

Ward and Hodsdon, a human services major, found the co-op through Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute. The institute prepares students to become globally aware business leaders by providing them with opportunities to help the poor in developing countries build their own small businesses through micro-financing.

On a regular basis, Ward and Hodsdon followed bank representatives into the field, where they taught village entrepreneurs who received loans about basic economic concepts.

The experiential learning opportunity, Ward said, shed light on the transformative power of micro-lending.

“You might see the son or daughter of one of our lenders return home from university in the same kind of jeans and T-shirts we wear, carrying their books and sharing their knowledge with the village,” Ward said. “That’s what gives me a lot of hope, because these people are the next generation.”

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