For seven years, the prime minister of Bangladesh has been waging a public campaign against one man, who insists he poses no threat to her.
At 76 years old, Muhammad Yunus – Nobel laureate, father of microfinance and arguably one of the greatest contributors to Bangladesh’s development – just wants to maximize his engagement with social business in the years he has left. Instead, he splits his time defending against an onslaught of defamatory allegations.
In recent months, perhaps emboldened by global political shifts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has stepped up her attacks. Among other things, Yunus is now facing allegations of tax evasion, at least 10 lawsuits and threats to revoke his citizenship.
Increasingly concerned for his safety, freedom to operate and freedom of movement, a group of international friends and colleagues launched a blog in March called the Protect Yunus Initiative as a “clearinghouse of information” to advocate on his behalf.
“We entered a period where Muhammad Yunus’ safety became more of a problem, more of a challenge and more of a concern with various kinds of attacks from the government – or from related entities that maybe weren’t specifically government, but were aligned with the government,” Sam Daley-Harris, founder and CEO of RESULTS and the Center for Citizen Empowerment and Transformation, told Humanosphere.
Daley-Harris, who has known Yunus since 1986, points to an ill-fated three months in 2007 as the spark that sent Hasina down this ongoing war path. Many others, including U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, agree.
After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize the previous year for pioneering the concept of fighting poverty with microloans and institutionalizing it through the founding of Grameen Bank, Yunus floated the idea of setting up a new political party to run for prime minister in February 2007.
Few of Yunus’ peers thought it was a good idea, because “politics in Bangladesh is so dirty, it can only make you dirty,” they said, according to Daley-Harris. After three short months, he abandoned the idea. But Hasina, who was the prime minister from 1996 to 2001 and was running again, had found a rival.
“If he hadn’t run those three months, we wouldn’t be talking right now,” Daley-Harris said.
Hasina returned to office in 2009, and by 2010, her finance minister was dogging Yunus to resign as managing director of Grameen Bank. He said that Yunus, who was 70 years old at the time, was well past the legally mandated retirement age of 60 for civil servants. The finance minister was 77.
Because Gameen Bank was not a government institution, Yunus initially refused to resign. But around that time, several incidents also began to tarnish the image of microfinance as a poverty cure-all.
A Norwegian documentary called “Caught in Micro Debt” accused Yunus and Grameen Bank of improper use of funds and outrageously high interest rates – allegations that were later found untrue by Norway and a Bangladesh review committee.
Newspapers also began reporting about a wave of suicides in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh among over-indebted clients of the country’s biggest microfinance institutions. But these banks had diverged from Grameen’s model of reducing poverty to boosting profits for investors, according to Daley-Harris.
Among other allegations by government officials during that time, Hasina accused Yunus of “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation.”
After months of cooperating with the review committee and refuting allegations, Yunus resigned from Grameen Bank in May 2011. Quickly the government moved to assert its control over the bank’s board of directors by amending the bank’s bylaws to allow business to continue without filling the nine seats on the board reserved for “borrower-owners” – the bank’s 8.4 million mostly poor women clients.
Three government-appointed representatives remain on the board as per the original ordinance, while the nine borrower seats are currently vacant, according to the government, as replacements have not been elected yet. However, according to the nine previously elected borrower-owners, they will remain board directors until their replacements are elected.
But Yunus’ departure from the bank did not seem to assuage Hasina. The attacks continued not only on Grameen Bank but also on its sister organizations and other social businesses started by Yunus. She accused him being a tax evader, bribe-taker, interest-taker – strong accusations in Bengali and Islam.
Then, according to the blog, the allegations turned “absurd” in 2016. The prime minister claimed that Yunus and Hillary Clinton conspired to oust her from office and that she remains only because India refused to go along with the plan. She said that Yunus paid Al Gore to question her coal plans at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. She has also taken Yunus to court for allegedly persuading Clinton to block World Bank funding of the $1.2 billion Padma Bridge project – an accusation that has blown up into quite the scandal in Bangladesh.
“This is a fiction,” the Protect Yunus Initiative told Humanosphere, citing detailed rebuttals to the allegations on the blog. “[Hasina] made it up.”
The timing, however, is no surprise, according to former ambassador to Bangladesh and Pakistan William Milam in a blog post he wrote on March 22. However “feeble” Western condemnation of Hasina’s attacks were before, it was enough to make the government move “carefully and slowly” – though not enough to make the harassment stop altogether.
“But the surprising results of the U.S. election last November, gave impetus to the campaign of defenestration against Yunus, and it seems clear from the timing, led the prime minister to take the gloves off,” Milam wrote.
But why Yunus? He has no political ambitions anymore, according to his friends behind the blog, and he poses no real threat to her.
“Well, that’s the million-dollar question,” the group said.
Many behind the Protect Yunus Initiative think it’s almost become a psychological fixture for her. According to their accounts, even her close friends have privately told her it’s a bad idea to continue pursuing him, though they wouldn’t dare say so in public. And since no one challenges her “alternative facts,” she sees no reason to stop.
“There is no space for criticism and dissent,” Human Rights Watch’s South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly wrote in an email to Humanosphere. “Without an effective opposition in parliament, the government is operating as an authoritarian regime.”
The government has shown a “dismaying lack of distinction” between opposition voices and extremist groups, according to Ganguly, and violent efforts to discourage protests have created an “environment of impunity.”
“Professor Yunus is a Nobel laureate, his work has been recognized all over the world. He counts world leaders among his friends. If he is feeling at risk of arbitrary allegations or prosecution, imagine the pressure on other civil society activists with far less reach,” she added.
According to Yunus’ friends behind the blog, he’s not afraid – not even of jail. But his team at the Yunus Center is intent to refute the prime minister’s allegations so he can continue his work in Bangladesh.
In the meantime, when he’s not in Bangladesh, he’s promoting social business at universities and events around the world. There are now 35 Yunus Social Business Centers in universities as well as a Grameen Creative Lab in Germany. And he’s working on a book about social business.
“Hopefully I can publish it this year,” Yunus told Humanosphere. “I talk about ‘three zeros’ – it’s the destination I’ve set for myself, and I hope others will join. ‘Three zeros’ means zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero net carbon emissions.”
Yunus refuses to speak publicly about the political crisis in Bangladesh, according to the Protect Yunus Initiative, but that’s the role the blog seeks to fill.
By encouraging readers to write their federal representatives, contact the Bangladesh ambassador in their countries and share his story with others, they’re hoping outside pressure will help the prime minister realize that attacks on Yunus – and all civil society – weaken, not strengthen, her.