When 40 global leaders bat for Prof Yunus

A senior media columnist in Dhaka once exclaimed that if anyone wants to witness how a Nobel laureate can be abused in his/her own country, they should come to Bangladesh.

He was referring to brilliant University teacher of economics-turned-revolutionary banker-turned-social thinker Professor Muhammad Yunus, who has been facing a series of verbal attacks from Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

Hasina is the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and leads the ruling political party, Awami League. She has developed uneasiness with the man of impeccable integrity who created the world-famous Grameen Bank of Bangladesh in 1983.

The issue of Professor Muhammad Yunus and his treatment by the Bangladesh government recently gained international attention again as 40 global leaders from various fields, including politics, diplomacy, business, arts, and academia, sent a letter to Sheikh Hasina, regarding her government’s treatment of the Nobel Peace laureate.

The open letter was even published as a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post on March 7, 2023. The letter stated that Professor Yunus has never benefited financially from his involvement in any of the Grameen Bank’s ventures. Instead, he has dedicated himself to the poverty-fighting missions of many organizations and lives modestly in Dhaka.

The global leaders who wrote the open letter to Prime Minister Hasina expressed deep concerns for Professor Muhammad Yunus’s well-being and his ability to continue contributing to humanitarian advancement in Bangladesh and around the world. They urged the Bangladesh PM to take positive steps to support and recognise the great contributions of one of the most notable citizens of the South Asian nation.

The letter also noted that Professor Yunus is among a select few individuals in history who have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the US Congressional Gold Medal. Other notable recipients include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Elie Wiesel.

Professor Yunus pioneered the concepts of microcredit and microfinance and founded a commercial bank that challenged many conventional banking policies. The Grameen Bank, which he founded, is dedicated to serving the poor, especially women. The bank offers loans with no collateral and boasts a nearly 100% recovery rate. Unlike other banks, Grameen Bank sends its employees to meet with borrowers, and it encourages women borrowers to own shares.

Professor Yunus treated the borrowers as the real owners of the bank and himself as an employee. In 2006, the Grameen Bank and its creator were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to “create economic and social development from below”.

The negative developments regarding Professor Yunus started with a number of unverified news stories that surfaced in some Dhaka-based media outlets. These stories claimed that Professor Yunus had personally benefited from his involvement in several Grameen initiatives.

The source of these stories was a documentary titled ‘Caught in Micro Debt’ that was broadcast by a Norwegian television network in November 2010. The documentary made several accusations against Professor Yunus, including improper transfer of funds between Grameen Bank and its non-profit sister organization, Grameen Kalyan. The documentary alleged that funds received from a Norwegian aid agency (NORAD) were improperly transferred between Grameen Bank and its non-profit sister organization Grameen Kalyan.

Although the matter between NORAD and Grameen Bank had been resolved in 1998, the documentary ‘Caught in Micro Debt’ repeated the allegation that funds had been improperly transferred. Later, the Norwegian authorities re-investigated the transaction and affirmed that there was no improper use of funds.

The documentary also claimed that Grameen Bank charged borrowers an unusually high percentage of interest, but this was found to be false. In fact, Grameen Bank maintained the lowest interest rates of any microfinance institution in Bangladesh. The bank even charges lower rates on housing, student, and beggar loans.

Despite Professor Yunus denying the allegations through his official organization, Yunus Centre, some Bangla media organizations continued to circulate the same content. It is possible that they did so to justify their repeated ventures. Additionally, PM Hasina publicly alleged that Professor Yunus blocked the World Bank’s approval of a loan for building a massive bridge over the river Padma.

She assumed that Professor Yunus may have done so because he was removed from the post of managing director of Grameen Bank due to being over the age limit set by the Awami League government in Dhaka. However, in reality, the World Bank cancelled the loan in June 2012 citing corruption in the government and the contractors it had engaged.

PM Hasina went as far as insisting on investigating the matter so that the enemy of the nation (which she referred to as Professor Yunus) could be identified and brought to justice. On some occasions, she indirectly referred to Professor Yunus as a “bloodsucker of the poor” in the name of poverty alleviation with microfinance initiatives.

Many of her statements, along with those of her hardcore supporters, reflected an organised hatred against Professor Yunus. The repeated scolding of a citizen by the head of government indicates the enmity and jealousy generated by the individual’s success, seemingly for PM Hasina’s personal ambition to receive the Nobel prize.

Political observers suggest that PM Hasina’s political rivalry against Prof Yunus began in 2007 when he attempted to form a political party called Nagarik Shakti. However, Prof Yunus soon abandoned the idea and maintained that he would not enter politics. Despite this, PM Hasina, who is the world’s longest-serving female government head, fears that Prof Yunus may influence voters against her party in the upcoming national elections scheduled for December 2023 or January 2024.

Ground reports suggest that the incumbent Hasina government is losing support and may face difficulties if the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner.

“We believe one of the most important roles of government is to create an environment where traditional and social entrepreneurs can flourish,” said the letter signed by Ban Ki-moon (former UN Secretary-General), Hillary Rodham Clinton (former US Secretary of State), Vicente Fox (former Mexico President), Mary Robinson (former Ireland President), Al Gore (former USA vice president), John Hewko (CEO of Rotary International), Sir Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Kul Gautam (UN assistant secretary general), etc.

The letter also expressed hope that “Bangladesh will return to its role as a model for other developing nations on how a vibrant civil society can be nurtured to ensure sustainable progress”.

The letter stated that a good first step towards this goal would be to recognise Professor Yunus’ achievements and allow him to focus his energy on doing good for the country and the world, instead of having to defend himself. The letter was also endorsed by Pamela Gillies (former vice-chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University), Baroness Helena Kennedy (UK lawmaker), Narayana Murthy (Founder of Infosys), and others.

“We, and tens of millions of people around the world, hope that you will embrace this vision,” concluded the letter with more signatures those of Peter C Goldmark-Jr (former CEO of International Herald Tribune), Kerry Kennedy (Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights president), Ted Kennedy-Jr, Vinod Khosla (venture capitalist), Ron Garan (former NASA astronaut), Bono (musician, activist), Peter Gabriel (musician), Mo Ibrahim (entrepreneur and philanthropist), Sharon Stone (mother), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), Robert Post (professor of Yale Law School), etc.

Professor Yunus has not made any comment on the matter, and it is understood that he would be happy to concentrate on his work rather than get entangled in controversies. However, a minister in the Dhaka-based government tried to dilute the issue by saying that the statement from the 40 world leaders was an advertisement, not a statement. The minister ignored the enormous international media attention given to the letter.

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