Saturday, April 02, 2011

Stop the persecution of Nobel Peace Prize winner Yunus

DON CAYO
THE UNITED States warns there'll be a price to pay if the Bangladeshi government's thinly disguised political vendetta continues against Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank and an icon to anti-poverty advocates around the world.

But Canada? We're a significant donor to Bangladesh -it's one of rather few truly poor countries that's left on CIDA's list of "countries of focus" -but so far our government shows no inclination to use its weight to try to end this increasingly messy spat.

Yunus not only won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his pioneering work in making micro-loans to the poor, he's also widely respected, if not idolized, by many at home.

Perhaps rashly, he thought a few years ago about using that status as a springboard for politics, mulling publicly about forming a new party. He also said, definitely rashly when viewed with hindsight, in an interview with Agence France-Press that Bangladeshi politics was mainly about "the power to make money." This may be a pretty tame observation in our country, but it prompted a libel complaint from a low-ranking official of the party in power there.

A couple more elements were added to this mix -an allegation, later refuted by Norway's government, that Grameen had misused some Norwegian aid several years ago, and questions about the tendency of some boosters to oversell microfinance and/ or ignore its potential to be abused. The government of Sheikh Hasina, never comfortable with Yunus's stardom or the fact that Bangladesh's highly developed NGO sector outshines it by pretty well every measure of competence and probity, has launched a multi-pronged assault against him.

The government used its influence on the Grameen board to squeeze him out of his role as the head of the organization, and they're enmeshed in a stop-and-go court battle that, at last report, is to resume next week.

Yunus has countless allies internationally, from every point on the compass and from every position on the political spectrum.

The U.S. government has been one of his outspoken supporters from the beginning of his troubles, and last week it cranked up the pressure a notch or two.

"We in the United States have been deeply troubled by the difficulties [Yunus] is currently facing," said Assistant Secretary of State Robert O. Blake.

"The steps that are taken undermine civil society and that will have an impact on the U.S.-Bangladesh relationship."

But Canada has not spoken out. And CIDA's website continues to stress work through the Bangladeshi government.

John Richards, a public policy professor at Simon Fraser University who had a long and continuing relationship with civil society institutions in Bangladesh, notes that Canada has another lever, besides the money we provide through foreign aid, we could use to get the Bangladeshi government's attention.
Canada is home to Nur Chowdhury, the convicted killer of Sheik Mujibur Rahmman, the founding president of Bangladesh and the father of the current president.

It was a particularly brutal slaying of not just the president, but also most of his family, and Hasina has been -not surprisingly -obsessed with getting Chowdhury back to face justice.

Canada has no reason to want to protect this guy.

The problem is that Chowdhury has been sentenced to death, and Canada won't extradite anyone facing capital punishment.

Richards says Chowdhury was the No. 1 subject on Hasina's agenda for a twice-postponed state visit to Canada earlier this year.

It's not clear if she's still planning to come, but if she does, he said, Canada should have it's own No. 1 agenda item -Yunus.

"If the government of Bangladesh is going to continue with this pattern of harassment of a major international NGO that is doing magnificent work, I think it appropriate that Canada reconsider whether it should place Bangladesh on the list of countries where we undertake major aid."

First published in The Vancouver Sun, April 2, 2011


Don Cayo is a journalist with The Vancouver Sun. He could be reached at dcayo@vancouversun.com

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