GOP probe of Hillary Clinton fuels attack on Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus

Sometimes called the father of microfinance, Muhammad Yunus, meets with women entrepreneurs in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Skoll archive)

Republican attempts to indict Hillary Clinton did not end with the election, but one of their latest inquiries puts Nobel Peace Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus squarely in the crosshairs, intensifying the acute political attacks against him at home by Bangladeshi politicians.

Yunus is often credited as the father of microfinance and for helping make Bangladesh a lower middle-income country. But for the past seven years, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina has been leveling all sorts of charges against the Nobel laureate.

Hasina, who regards Yunus and his work with low-income communities as a threat to her political power, has lobbed allegations of fraud, corruption and tax evasion against him and even worked to oust him from projects run by the pioneering microfinance organization he founded, Grameen Bank.

Though Yunus has repeatedly stated he has no political ambitions and is not challenging Hasina’s authority, she has progressively stepped up her attacks over the years, an agenda that some see as part of a much broader and even more concerning crackdown on civil society in Bangladesh.

The hostility and actions taken by officials against Yunus have gotten so severe many of his friends and colleagues are concerned for his physical safety and freedom.

Now, it appears that Republican members of Congress who continue to investigate the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State for the Obama Administration may be adding fuel to the fire.

On June 1, Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sent a letter to current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson requesting information on whether Clinton in her official capacity as Secretary of State ever provided favors to Yunus. In his letter, Grassley, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, claimed that Yunus was a donor to the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton Foundation.

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Among the alleged favors, Grassley claimed that “Secretary Clinton’s Department of State reportedly awarded more than $13 million in taxpayer funds to businesses aligned with Yunus.”

Grassley cited information reported in right-wing media such as The Daily Caller that allege State Department officials threatened Hasina’s son who is living in the U.S. with an IRS audit if he did not get his mother to drop her investigation of Yunus. Hasina also claimed that Clinton, in 2011, called the Prime Minister’s office in Bangladesh to demand that the government allow Yunus to regain his position as chairman of Grameen Bank.

“This new evidence of pay-to-play and special treatment reinforces the appearance that donations to the Clinton Foundation resulted in favorable treatment by Secretary Clinton’s State Department,” Grassley wrote Tillerson.

Yunus’ supporters have denied many of these claims in an open letter to Grassley published Monday. According to the letter, Yunus has never been a donor to the Clinton Global Initiative or the Clinton Foundation.

“The funds described as ‘donations’ to the Clinton Foundation were actually registration fees that Vidar Jorgenson, a volunteer member of the board of two organizations Professor Yunus established, paid to attend the Clinton Global Initiative on a number of occasions,” Joanne Carter, executive director of the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS and chair of the Protect Yunus Initiative, wrote. “As per IRS guidelines, a portion of this registration fee is tax deductible, and thus considered a ‘donation.'”

But as a guest speaker to the Clinton Global Initiative, an admission fee for Yunus was neither required nor paid by Yunus or anyone affiliated with him, Jorgenson said in a public statement.

Carter’s letter also noted that, according to data cited by the media report Grassley referenced, USAID awarded Grameen Foundation USA, a U.S.-based nonprofit inspired by Yunus, just over $1.6 million while Clinton was Secretary of State – not “more than $13 million … to businesses aligned with Yunus.”

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Another grant awarded to Grameen Foundation USA during Clinton’s tenure at the State Department was also chosen by an independent, nonprofit contractor for the amount of $125,512. Yunus has not served on Grameen Foundation USA’s board of directors since 2009, according to Carter.

Carter refuted other alleged payments as either grants and loans from agencies not affiliated with Clinton, to organizations not affiliated with Yunus, made after Clinton left office or not made at all.

As for the other allegations in Grassley’s inquiry, Yunus’ colleagues maintain that he had nothing to do with whatever measures others have or have not taken to support him.

“Professor Yunus did not ‘make’ Ms. Hillary Clinton call the Honorable Prime Minister,” the Yunus Center wrote in a rejoinder on Monday. “If Ms. Hillary Clinton did in fact call the Honorable PM, she may have done so of her own accord. …[She] would not have been the only one.”

Many other leaders, including former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Madeline Albright have protested Hasina’s campaign against Yunus, Carter noted.

Grassley’s inquiry is just that for now – not an investigation. However, if the Senate were to begin one, the Yunus Center said it would welcome it. “Through such investigation the truth would emerge. Professor Yunus has become a target of false propaganda,” the rejoinder said.

Grassley’s target may be Clinton, but “meanwhile, those aligned with the current ruling party in Bangladesh have seized on the Grassley letter and are using that as fuel against Yunus,” the Protect Yunus Initiative wrote in an email to Humanosphere.
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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.