Nation Fails to Defend an Icon

December 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The controversy created in the country involving the name of Dr. Mohammad Yunus was unfortunate. It was unbelievable that the media and politicians reacted to the documentary shown in Norway without verifying the facts with official sources in Norway or the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka. Their reaction suggested that they were more eager to believe in the story than to check facts.

The documentary in question is “Caught in Micro-credit” that was aired on Norwegian National Television, NRK. It charged Grameen Bank of violating the terms of an agreement signed in 1994 by transferring US$ 100 million given to it by Government of Norway to Grameen Kalyan, a subsidiary of GB. The money was meant for being given out as micro credit and Grameen Kalyan has nothing to do with micro credit. Although the money was transferred back to GB, questions were raised over it by the Norwegian Embassy of Dhaka. After protracted exchanges, the Norwegian Embassy was finally satisfied in 1998 and settled the matter in favour of GB
It was open season in a section of the press and in the community on Dr. Yunus as soon as news of the documentary reached Dhaka. It was taken out of context and sensational headlines such as “embezzlement”, “siphoning ” of millions of dollars, etc were liberally used to give readers the impression that the Noble Laureate had misappropriated the money and that he should go to jail for it although in the facts that they revealed, there was little to substantiate such a serious accusation.
The Prime Minister stepped into the controversy early. She asked for an inquiry that was fair enough. In seeking the investigation, the Prime Minister’s choice of words was subjective and uncomplimentary. Dr. Yunus who was out of the country when the controversy exploded instantly welcomed the call. The matter should have rested there. Instead, the Foreign Minister pitched in with her own spin, stressing that the image of the country did not depend on the image of an individual.

In politics, patience is a virtue. One wished that the political leaders had shown this virtue. If they had, they would have saved themselves the embarrassment because the Norwegian Government later unequivocally cleared Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank of any wrongdoing. The country’s Minister for Environment and Development Erik Solheim underscored this in a statement issued after the press reports in Dhaka that said ” there is no indication that Norwegian funds have been used for unintended purposes, or that Grameen Bank has engaged in corrupt practices or embezzled funds. The matter was concluded when the agreement concerning reimbursement of the funds was entered into in May 1998 under the government in office at the time.”
The statement of the Norwegian Minister and facts that have become known since have shown that a section of the media played a deplorable role. First, they treated the allegations as true without checking facts about a Noble Laureate who has done so much for the country’s image. Second, they left little doubt that they were happy that something like the Norwegian documentary fell into their hands. Third, they did not consider even the need to contact the Noble Laureate before declaring him guilty as accused. Fourth, they used motivated headlines to mislead readers. Finally, they even created a few “original” stories of their own to “help” substantiate the allegations of the documentary like involving the Indian Prime Minister as criticizing Dr. Yunus leading the Indian High Commission in Dhaka to trash it.

The Foreign Minister’s negative spin to the story was surprising. She said in the media that an individual’s image cannot affect the image of the country. There is a little problem in accepting this argument because Dr. Yunus cannot be dismissed as just any individual. For Bangladesh, he is an icon; an individual larger than life. In fact, when Dr. Yunus won the Noble Prize in 2006, people felt the same pride for him as they felt about the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during the war of liberation. Since winning the Noble Prize, Dr. Yunus has won many more international awards that have enhanced the image of Bangladesh. To dismiss him as individual whose reputation is not worth fighting for is surely is unacceptable to many in the country and abroad.

Hindsight is not always a fair way to judge people or events. In case of Dr. Yunus however people who jumped to believe the Norwegian documentary should have spared a moment to consider the impeccable credentials that the Noble Laureate has established for honesty and integrity. If they had done so, they would have thought twice before expressing their views.

Dr. Yunus has put Bangladesh positively on the world map long before he won the Noble Prize with the concept of Grameen Bank. During the 1991 Presidential campaign, then candidate Bill Clinton said in one of his campaign speeches that Dr. Yunus deserved the Noble Prize for the revolution he brought about with his concept of Grameen Bank and that if elected President, he would replicate the Grameen Bank model in some of the big cities of USA to deal with poverty. Since winning the Noble Prize, he has amongst his friends some of the most powerful men and women in contemporary history. He was a member of Global Elders, an international group announced in 2007 by Nelson Mandela on his 89th birthday “to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.” His name, reputation and awards he won are today the best products for helping Bangladesh’s poor image abroad.
It is indeed unfortunate that we did not defend his image against a slipshod documentary that deliberately misled viewers by failing to tell them that the allegation brought against him was settled in favour of Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank more than a decade ago. . Any other nation with an icon such as Dr. Yunus would have cried foul against the Norwegian documentary and demanded legal action against the producers of the documentary. Unbelievably, we declared him guilty without even an investigation or a chance to him to defend himself and even wanted to send him to jail!

The controversy has however brought to the surface the fact that there are many in the country not happy with him. The reasons for this are difficult to fathom except if one would like to conjecture. Perhaps by his Noble Prize winning feat, Dr. Yunus has made many unhappy. Perhaps, those who went after him believe that he is not with them politically. There are of course many who disagree with micro-credit for a variety of reason and they may have jumped into the fray to discredit him for the Noble Laureate is truly the “Father of Microcredit”. Nevertheless the unfortunate reaction in favour of the Norwegian documentary by groups in Bangladesh and their eagerness to declare Dr. Yunus guilty without checking facts or allowing him the right of defense raises serious questions about us as a nation.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.