New Age, 28 Feb, 2011
US asks govt not to harass Yunus
US officials have told Sheikh Hasina that there will be no further high-level interaction between the United States and Bangladesh until the harassment of Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, ends.
A senior western diplomat, with direct knowledge of these conversations, told New Age that Hasina was warned that her government must not force Yunus out of the Grameen bank and that Bangladesh’s first Nobel Peace laureate should be allowed to leave the bank gracefully and be given reasonable time to find a successor.
Mohammed Yunus has been under sustained attack from the Bangladesh government and sections of the country’s media since the broadcast of a Norwegian documentary in December 2010 alleging that Yunus had ‘quietly tapped’ the Grameen Bank for $48 million of Norwegian aid money.
Although the Norwegian government found that this allegation was false, the Bangladesh prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, described Yunus as a ‘blood sucker’ and set up a wide-ranging inquiry into the bank.
Three criminal cases involving defamation, fraud and food adulteration have also been filed against him although the High court in the past week stayed the adulteration case for six months.
Hasina was told directly by US officials that a possible visit to Bangladesh early April by the US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, following her trip to Delhi, was contingent on a resolution of this high-profile crisis.
Hasina, who is planning to visit Washington in April to take part in the World Islamic Forum, has also been informed that she will not be given a meeting with the US president, Barack Obama, unless Yunus is personally agreeable to the terms of any compromise.
While many countries share US concerns about the Bangladesh government’s handling of the Grameen bank, no other country has been so supportive of Muhammad Yunus
The government’s attack on Yunus has already resulted in the loss of some US financial support.
The US Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent US foreign aid agency funded by the US congress, decided in January against putting Bangladesh on its ‘threshold’ programme where countries must ‘demonstrate a commitment to just and democratic governance, investments in the people of a country, and economic freedom.’
Humayun Kabir, who until 2009 was the ambassador to the United States, told New Age, ‘Maintaining high-level contacts is important for both the countries as these are building blocks to the relationship which is a very important one for Bangladesh. United States is one of the country’s most important trading partner and a partner in security.’
Although Hasina has shown no signs of relenting, it is understood that discussions between Muhammad Yunus, the finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, and former Grameen Bank chairperson Rehman Sobhan, took place in Delhi over the last few days where they all attended the same conference.
‘Muhith has been told what the Grameen Bank wants. It is now in the minister’s hands,’ said a person privy to the conversations.
Even if Hasina gives Yunus time to leave the organisation, a likely stumbling block to any agreement, however, concerns the position of Muzammel Huq, the new chairperson of the Grameen Bank, appointed in January by the Bangladesh government.
Formerly, the general manager of the bank, Muzammel was fired by Yunus more than 10 years ago. The New York Times recently reported that he said that Yunus had a ‘small heart’ and could not ‘give credit to anyone but himself.’
Another contentious issue is whether Yunus will be allowed to continue at the bank in some advisory or honorary role
On Monday, the Grameen Bank will hold its first board meeting under Muzammel’s new chairmanship. The board comprises three government appointees – including the chairperson - and nine others elected by the borrower-shareholders.
The western diplomat told New Age that the finance ministry was going to use the board meeting as an opportunity to send a dismissal letter to Yunus on the basis that his previous extension to his employment had not been sanctioned by the Bangladesh Bank.
However, it is understood that the government, under pressure, decided not to do this.
The government may have to come to a quick decision on whether to change tack
Yunus is due to go to the United States in early March where he is likely to meet Hilary Clinton. The western diplomat told New Age that what Yunus tells Clintion about any change in the government stance towards him and the bank will influence any plans Clinton may have about coming to Bangladesh.
The Bangladesh government is also likely to be aware that the argument over Yunus is impacting badly on the US Congress which has recently awarded Yunus a Congressional Gold Medal.
The Congress decides, each year, the level of money that the United States Agency for International Development will provide to Bangladesh. It will also ultimately consider whether Bangladesh’s apparel sector should be included in the Generalised System of Preferences that would reduce the tax on imported Bangladesh garments – a long standing demand of the country’s apparel sector.
While in the weeks after the initial press reports, civil society actors in Bangladesh showed little support for Yunus, in recent days this has changed, with increasing number of people signing statements against the government’s ‘harassment’ of Yunus.
His greatest high-level support however comes from outside Bangladesh, with Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, recently setting up a Friends of Grameen, which includes the former president of the World Bank James Wolfensohn.
Robinson alleged that Yunus and the Grameen Bank were the victims of a ‘campaign of misinformation.’