U.S. support for Muhammad Yunus is so strong that Dhaka may find a negotiated settlement to protect the Nobel Laureate's image and the independence of the Grameen Bank.

Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus's three-decades-long journey with microfinance was laborious. But he most certainly did not encounter a crisis like the one he is facing now. It was only in December 2010 that the Bangladeshi — who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Grameen Bank in 2006 — first came across an utterly odd situation when a Norwegian television documentary accused him of diverting huge aid funds to a business concern. The news was widely reported in the local media, particularly those sections which were not appreciative of his model of microfinance for poverty alleviation. Dr. Yunus denied this and other allegations in the media that he developed many businesses using the Grameen brand name. The Norwegian government, too, came out in his defence.

Following the controversy, the Bangladesh government in January formed a committee to review the Grameen Bank's activities. As the issue deepened, Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith argued that the 70-year-old Yunus should hand over the bank to others as, according to the country's banking rules, the retirement age for executives in private banks was 65. “He is a respected man … but you don't continue all the time in any institution,” Mr. Muhith told media.

Mounting debate

Amid a mounting debate for and against Dr. Yunus, Bangladesh's central bank on March 2 ordered his removal from the post of Managing Director on the ground that he had crossed the retirement age. Dr. Yunus defied the order but the High Court rejected his writ petitions challenging the legality of the central bank's action. Now his appeal is pending in the Supreme Court.

The local media were sharply divided. Some sections supported him — accusing even the Prime Minister of disrespecting the “highly respected Nobel laureate” — and others said he flouted the laws and indulged in other malpractices.

Meanwhile, Dhaka is facing a strong reaction from the West, particularly the United States. The U.S. has called for a dialogue and compromise between Dr. Yunus and the Hasina government for an “honourable solution.” “A compromise is possible and I am encouraging dialogue between the parties to find a mutually acceptable solution,'' Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, told a news conference. “If there is no compromise, it will have an effect on bilateral relations,” said the senior official, who was in Dhaka recently to demonstrate Washington's strong backing for the Nobel Laureate.

The former World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, was also in Dhaka to back Dr. Yunus, who has strong admirers in the West. “Friends of Grameen,” another powerful international backer, came out strongly against the Hasina government. Sa-dhan (the association of Community Development Finance Institutions consisting of over a hundred microfinance practitioners and experts of India) has also lent full support to Dr. Yunus.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton personally communicated her concern to the Bangladesh Prime Minister and talked to the embattled microcredit pioneer, who is a close friend of the Clinton family. Re-emphasising the U.S. concern, Mr. Blake said “we in the United States have been deeply troubled by the difficulties he is currently facing.”

‘A distraction and departure'

The official, while being appreciative of the Hasina government's achievements in many sectors, saw the removal of Dr. Yunus as “a distraction and unnecessary departure from all the great work being done.” Mr. Blake's comments drew partial support as some government sympathisers claimed that the removal of Dr. Yunus should not have been the government's top priority since it had other important issues to be resolved.

To a pointed question whether the U.S. stand was not an “interference” in Bangladesh's internal affairs, Mr. Blake did not give a straight reply. He merely said: “Prof. Yunus and the Grameen Bank have a positive reputation in the U.S. and among many Congressmen, members of the Bangladesh congressional caucus, President Obama and Secretary Clinton. This is a matter of great interest in USA.”

Whatever the criticism of the U.S. stand in Bangladesh's political and social circles, analysts believe that it is a clear disapproval of the government action against Dr. Yunus, although the Grameen Bank is neither an NGO nor private bank. It was founded in 1983 under an ordinance and the government still holds a 25 per cent share in it. Dr. Yunus had been the Managing Director ever since the bank was founded.

Dr. Yunus has mustered meaningful support at home too, making the ruling party more apprehensive. The main opposition, BNP, led by Khaleda Zia, is siding with him. However, a section of the media and Left-leaning parties dubbed Mr. Blake's statement a “naked interference” in the country's internal affairs. A section of the ruling Awami League leaders, who have long suspected that Dr. Yunus has a “hidden political agenda” and that he was extending “secret support” to past military rulers, has also criticised Mr. Blake.

Foreign Minister Dipu Moni told Parliament recently that the Opposition wanted the government to satisfy “the foreigners,” compromising on the laws of the land. But “this will not happen,” she asserted. However, Gawhar Rizvi, Prime Minister's adviser on foreign affairs, said the government was trying to find an amicable solution.

Despite the controversies, many analysts are of the opinion that the Hasina government may take the U.S. stand seriously but it will, for sure, find it difficult to come to an amicable solution since the Supreme Court verdict is awaited. The government's attitude was amply reflected by Mr. Muhith who, following Mr. Blake's strongly worded remarks, issued a statement asserting that the government was seeking an amicable solution and still looking for a mutual understanding to resolve the issue. But he insisted that Dr. Yunus initiate the dialogue. However, the mainstream Bengali dailies have reported that a committee was formed to broker a compromise, an indication of a shift in the government stand.

The fact is the present government is not very appreciative of Dr. Yunus' contribution to poverty alleviation through the microfinance model, although Sheikh Hasina in her first tenure attended the world microcredit summit at the United Nations where he got the world body's support. The Prime Minister has accused him of treating the Grameen Bank as his “personal property” and claimed that the group is “sucking the blood of the poor.”

A host of studies have disagreed with the claim that microfinance is a panacea for poverty. Many have even called the model a “villain.” But Dr. Yunus has the support of many important sections, particularly from the world's powerful lobbies. In any case, the present crisis is not over the microfinance model but with his becoming the life-long Managing Director of a bank that is allegedly flouting the law.

But the West's support to him is so loud that, it appears, even if the final court verdict goes against him, a negotiated settlement may be found so that the Nobel Laureate's image and his contribution to the institution are well protected, and the independence and smooth functioning of the Grameen Bank remains undisturbed.

But for an out-of-court compromise, Dr. Yunus will have to withdraw his case and start a dialogue with the government. If the government decides to let him continue as Managing Director, the law will have to be amended.If, on the other hand, an “amicable solution” is brokered for his “honourable exit,” many observers are of the opinion the Grameen Bank chief may not get back his previous position. With Dr. Yunus indicating that he is ready to sit with the Prime Minister to find a solution, some of his supporters have already suggested a way out — making him chairman with necessary powers. It appears that Dr. Yunus has successfully challenged the political authority by mobilising powerful lobbies in his favour. Only an open-minded negotiation can bring a solution.

(The writer, based in Dhaka, is an author and senior journalist. E-mail: hh1971@gmail.com)

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