Thursday, September 6, 2012

The GB Ordinance: Three cheers for democracy, women empowerment and poverty alleviation
Daily Sun
Septembr 2nd., 2012
M. Serajul Islam

The government has chosen to issue the  ordinance on the Grameen Bank (GB) by-passing the Parliament raising question whether the country is under parliamentary democracy or otherwise . The ordinance has been described as a “black” law by the civil society and all except those who support the ruling party right or wrong. The irony is that such an ordinance has been passed by a government that claims to be democratic, pro-women and pro-poor when on even a casual look, the ordinance is anti-democratic, anti-woman and anti-poor. 

The actions of the Government of Bangladesh in the past couple of years concerning the GB and Dr. Mohammed Yunus have attracted adverse attention worldwide. Important world leaders  have been aghast at the actions, one after another, by the Bangladesh Government against the Noble Laureate and the GB. They have pleaded, plodded and even gone to the extent of putting direct and indirect pressure upon the Prime Minister and the Government to leave the two alone but to no avail. 

In fact, every time pressure has come from outside, new action have been initiated against Dr. Mohammad Yunus and the GB by the government. After she was embarrassed at the Hard Talk by Stephen Sackur on issues related Dr. Yunus and the GB, the Prime Minister ordered a NBR investigation against possible acts of wrong doing in the Grameen Bank affiliates headed by the Noble Laureate while he was the Managing Director. 

The latest ordinance came after a hearing in the US Congress had expressed concern that the Bangladesh Government was about to bring the institution directly under its control. A US State Department statement also expressed the same concern. A former US Ambassador to Bangladesh William B Milam who is now a Senior Scholar at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington wrote a damning piece in the Wall Street Journal recently where he recommended that the western donors and World Bank should withhold all aid and concessional assistance to Bangladesh to force the government to take its hands off the Grameen Bank.

The concerns have all fallen on deaf ears. None of the investigations against the GB and Dr. Yunus have fond any credible evidence of wrong doing leaving the international community to conclude that the Government is pursuing a vendetta against the Noble Laureate (NL) and the GB. The “original sin” that started the nightmare for the NL, the Norwegian documentary which “alleged misuse of a 1996 donation from Oslo” was quashed by the Norwegian Government almost immediately after it was made public.  

The government later constituted a committee to investigate the Prime Minister’s accusation that the GB was a “blood sucking” institution. The Committee’s Report cleared the GB of this major accusation and named two leading NGOs that charge higher interest rates than the GB. The Government has used lawyers/auditors to go through papers and documents in the GB to find evidence for credible charge against Dr. Yunus and the GB since removing him from the GB more than a year ago. 

 Nothing has come out of such single minded efforts of the government against the GB. In fact, the latest action of sending the NBR after GB revealed that it is the government that owes nearly taka 10 crores to the Bank that it has illegally collected! A committee headed by a former Secretary is now looking into the affairs of 54 affiliates of the GB to find out if Dr. Yunus could be connected to some financial or any other wrong doing in these institutions. The Committee has been given a three months time frame and is close to ending that time limit. There is no hint coming out of this committee so far that would suggest that it has found any skeleton in the cupboard left behind by the NB. 

Dr. Yunus, unfortunately for the Government, is unlike most of the people in public life in Bangladesh. The man is above corruption to a fault and has thus denied the Government the opportunity to finish him off in a manner that it wanted, in utter and total humiliation. Instead, the Government’s efforts have enhanced his honour, reputation and acceptance both at home and abroad. The ordinance is an attempt of the government to ensure that the GB, create from scratch by Dr. Yunus to a world class institution that is now accepted as a model for micro-credit in 76 countries of the world, comes under its absolute control where there would not even be a trace of the Noble Laureate.

The ordinance is as they cliché goes, the final nail in the coffin of a government’s actions that defy both reason and logic. The ordinance takes the power of appointing the Managing Director away from Board that represents its 8 million subscribers and gives it to the Government appointed Chairman who will henceforth exercise total power in the affairs of the Bank. It thus destroys the democratic foundation of the Board.  It takes power away from nine of the 12 members of the Board who are who are women who have challenged poverty and discrimination to successfully rise to a position where the world now feels proud of them.  

The GB ordinance penalizes these women because of their audacity to challenge the government to choose a MD that the 8 million members of the Bank who are women, want! It is thus also against women empowerment as well as anti-poor. The government has gone ahead and brought these changes while owning just 3% of the Bank’s paid up capital. The ordinance   thus can very easily claim to be the most powerful challenge to democracy, women empowerment and poverty alleviation introduced by a government that claims to be democratic, pro-women and pro-poor. 

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, in a critical piece in the Opinion column of Times described the ordinance as a “seizure of the Grameen Bank” that “is a tragedy.” He asked the “international community to break its silence and stand up for the wonderful work of the Grameen Bank.” He argued if the World Bank can stop its US$ 1 billion for the Padma Bridge because of corruption, Britain should threaten to stop its promised aid of US$ 1.6 billion to stop the Bangladesh Government from destroying the Grameen Bank. 

The latest scam in the nationalized Sonali Bank where Taka 3500 thousand crores have been swindled right under the nose of the Ministry of Finance and the Bangladesh Bank could not have come for the government in a worse moment. It showed its efforts to nationalize the Grameen Bank, the only impeccably honest institution of its size in the country, as a move to bring down this world class institution to the level of the other nationalized banks that are swimming merrily in scams and corruption with the Finance Minister and the Governor of Bangladesh Bank fighting over turf!                                                                          

When history would someday judge this period, the actions  against Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank would no doubt be described as the time when insanity had taken grip of those conducting the affairs of the government. The Finance Minister showed a glimpse of this when in a recent event of the TIB he went off the rails and called Dr. Yunus a “liar”. He then pointed at himself, mentioned his name out loud lest  no one had any doubt who he was speaking about, and  said that he has contributed many times more to growth of micro-credit in Bangladesh than Dr. Mohammad Yunus! 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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