Pioneers Post

Nobel social entrepreneur will face critics in court this month

7 January 2011
Muhammad Yunus

In conflict with Bangladesh's ruling politicians, Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus, the man regarded as the Godfather of microcredit, has been summonsed to court on 18 January to answer a defamation claim.

A high-ranking officer of the socialist party of Bangladesh, part of the ruling party alliance, has filed a claim for defamation, apparently based on an alleged statement made in January 2007 by Yunus to a reporter about the motivation of Bangladeshi politicians.

It is the second time in as many months that incidents from the past have been used in attacks on Yunus. The first round of attacks followed a Norwegian documentary that referred to a dispute between the Norwegian development agency NORAD and the microfinance organisation Yunus leads, Grameen, over a notional transfer of funds between different Grameen companies 12 years ago.

The dispute with NORAD was resolved amicably but the incident in the documentary was cited in the Bangladeshi media, which included attacks by the prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed. A Bangladeshi government investigation into the incident is planned.

The attacks have drawn criticism from commentators around the world who fear that the Bangladeshi government – which holds two positions on the 13-member board of Grameen bank – is trying to take over the pioneering social business by claiming it is being run improperly.

According to a report on the Reuters website this accusation has been denied by the Bangladeshi finance minister.

However, there is also speculation that the attacks may be part of a move to keep the popular Yunus out of politics. Yunus briefly entered politics some years ago with his own party and strong-arm tactics in Bangladeshi politics are not unknown. Last month, Amnesty International cited evidence that an opposition MP from the Bangladesh National Party was tortured while in police custody.

In the UK, Yunus was defended robustly by Liam Black, co-founder of Wavelength, an organisation that partners Grameen.

Black said: ‘The bigger political agenda is what is worrying. Is this vitriol cover for   a move by the Bangladeshi government to grab a controlling stake on the Grameen board? That would be a terrible outcome for the women borrowers of Grameen and for social business.’

Black also pointed to the ongoing controversy in India around microfinance, and whether some organisations are over-indebting the poor, as the opportunity to create a ‘perfect storm’ around Yunus.

‘Because he is the Godfather of microcredit he is always going to be the lightning rod through which these issues pass and given the viper pit-like nature of the dynastic politics of Bangladesh nothing is surprising really,’ said Black.

However, despite the fact that Wavelength uses trips to Grameen in Bangladesh to inspire large corporates as to the possibilities for innovation with social business, Black said he did not believe the attacks on Yunus would damage the social business movement.

Black said: ‘I know Muhammad Yunus. I like, admire and respect him and he’s been a terrific inspiration to me and thousands of other social entrepreneurs around the world, and having recently been there and felt the impact the organisation makes on the lives of the poor, and young people, I feel angered by the accusations. I don’t agree with everything he says or does but until I see some real evidence against him he has my full support.

‘But, will this damage the movement? The movement is not based on one person and can never be.

‘We don’t question whether we should have banks just because the bank leadership in the West brought the economy to near collapse.

‘The debate swilling around Yunus and microfinance has got to be part of the growing up process for social business which cannot be about saints always getting it right,’ said Black.

Neither Yunus nor the Bangadeshi socialist party Jatiya Samajtantric Dal-Jasod were available for comment at the time of going to press.



Wider concerns

I'm concerned by the Yunus case as we all should be, but there's more to be concerned about libel in the context of leveraging social change.

Jeff Mowatt
People-Centered Economic Development