Bangladesh eyes Nobel peace laureate’s social business empire

Bangladesh’s government has announced the creation of a new commission to monitor the social businesses of Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus who fears his empire is the target of the state.

The government fired Yunus from the micro-finance pioneerGrameen Bank in March last year, but the 2006 Nobel winner still leads scores of other social businesses aimed at creating jobs and reducing poverty in the country.

Yunus has voiced his worry that the government is planning to take over his highly profitable network of ventures, including its multi-billion-dollar stake in Grameenphone, the country’s largest telecom company.

Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith told reporters Sunday that although most of these social businesses had Grameen’s name, they were not linked with the original micro-finance institution which provides credit to the poor.

“All of them are tied with Professor Yunus. These 54 enterprises don’t have any relation with micro-credit. They don’t function in rural areas, they function all over the world,” the minister said.

“We’re setting up a commission for these enterprises… to establish a regime for this social investment, to bring some accountability and we have to understand how Grameen Bank entered into these (businesses),” he said.

The minister’s comments come just a week after Yunus reportedly expressed concern that the government was planning to “grab” Grameen Bank and the other social businesses he now runs.

“The government is taking control of Grameen Bank and its associate enterprises. We have a big challenge ahead of us,” he told Grameen Bank staff during a ceremony commemorating 20 years of the lender’s union.

“All staff must wage a movement to resist the government’s move to take control of the enterprises I’ve built,” he said in comments published in Bengali Amadershomoy daily.

There has been no immediate comment from Yunus. Shariful Islam, a spokesman of Yunuscenter, Yunus’s office in Bangladesh, told AFP the former economics professor was not in the country.

Top microfinance expert and finance professor at Dhaka University Baqui Khalily questioned the necessity of the commission.

“These (social businesses) are separate entities. Why do we need a commission to regulate them?” he said, adding the firms were also established in accordance with the country’s laws.

“Given the situation Professor Yunus faced last year, many people can perceive it (commission) as a reflection of the government’s negative attitude towards Yunus,” he said.

Yunus was fired by Bangladesh’s central bank last year for exceeding the mandatory retirement age in a move widely seen as engineered by the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The 71-year-old, known as the “banker to the poor”, challenged his dismissal, but his appeal was thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Yunus has since said he would stay focused on his social businesses, which include Bangladesh’s largest renewal energy company, a top garment manufacturer and providers of anti-mosquito nets, clean water and dairy products.

Muhith said the Grameen Bank “was totally unregulated” under Yunus, but has since “done much better than before” under a new management