Clinton warns against undermining Grameen Bank

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday urged the government of Bangladesh not to do anything that could undermine the effectiveness of the internationally acclaimed Grameen Bank micro-lender.

Clinton told a town hall audience in the Bangladeshi capital that the pioneering bank founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus was a "tremendous" model for the developing world and that its structure should not be tinkered with. A search for a new bank chief is now underway since the government ousted Yunus last year in a heavily criticized step.

Clinton is a personal friend of Yunus and met with him for about 45 minutes at the U.S. ambassador's residence before the town hall. She made the case for non-interference in the bank's operations in meetings Saturday with Bangladesh's feuding prime minister and main opposition leader.

"We do not want to see any action taken that would in anyway undermine or interfere in the operations of the Grameen Bank or its unique organizational structure where the poor women themselves are the owners," Clinton told the town hall. "I don't want anything that would in any way undermine what has been a tremendous model."

"The Grameen Bank has played an instrumental role," she said. "I highly respect Mohammed Yunus and I highly respect the work that he has done and I am hoping to see it continue without being in any way undermined or affected by any government action because that would be unfortunate."

Grameen was a pioneer in issuing small loans to the poor as a way to overcome poverty, earning it and Yunus the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. It has about 9 million borrowers, mostly women.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's administration ousted Yunus, 71, as managing director of Grameen Bank last year in a dispute over retirement age. Yunus argued he was exempt from regulations that set the retirement age at 60, but lost a court appeal.

Yunus has long had frosty relations with Hasina. She was reportedly angered by Yunus' 2007 attempt to form his own political party backed by the powerful army when the country was under a state of emergency and Hasina herself was behind bars.

Last month, Bangladesh's government said it would investigate 54 businesses linked to the Grameen Bank because they had not been authorized by the bank's board. A Bangladesh government-appointed investigation last year found that the bank violated its charter as a microlender by creating affiliates that did not benefit the bank's shareholders, and recommended the government integrate those affiliates with the bank.

Yunus maintains those social businesses are independent and should remain so. He has accused the government of attempting to interfere in Grameen Bank's activities. The government has denied the allegation.

Clinton also called on Bangladeshis to unite and press their leaders to end their most recent bout of discord for the good of their impoverished country. Weeks of strikes and protests that have paralyzed the country and killed at least five people have undermined development and scared off foreign investors, she said.

The actions stem from the disappearance of an opposition leader last month. Clinton appealed to the people of Bangladesh to respect the rule of law and called for a robust government investigation of the missing politician and allegations by the opposition of a brutal crackdown on dissent.

"There needs to be total rule of law, with no impunity," Clinton told the town hall.

Clinton said she told Hasina and the opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, that they need to overcome years of animosity, especially as the country prepares for elections set for 2014.

"I told them I wish you could figure out ways to work together, you need to work together to get an election mechanism in place," she said.

"What you need is national unity," she said. "The people have to demand that."