Interview with Financial Times

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
March 7, 2011

QUESTION: Ambassador Blake, some people might respond to the statements that the State Department made about its concern of the Bangladesh Bank’s treatment of Dr. Yunus as interference in Bangladesh’s internal affairs - a rather extraordinary statement to be made about one Bangladeshi company.

Why was it important to make this view known?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d say that Professor Yunus, Mohammed Yunus enjoys great respect in the United States for all of his work to help the poor in Bangladesh. I think NGOs like Grameen Bank and BRAC, really have global influence and their activities have really brought great credit to Bangladesh’s reputation. President Obama awarded Mohammed Yunus the Medal of Freedom in 2009. The U.S. Congress voted him a Congressional Gold Medal in 2010. So he enjoys really quite strong respect. We’ve heard from many Members of Congress and other friends here about their concerns of what has been happening to Yunus. We ourselves have had similar concerns, and that’s why I think we’ve been engaged.

QUESTION: But is it not an internal Bangladeshi affair?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to make it sound like we’re interfering too much. We have made it known that we support a resolution of the situation to preserve the integrity and the independence and the effectiveness of Grameen Bank, but we have not sought to try to prescribe what that solution should be. It’s really up to the government of Bangladesh and Grameen to work that out and we hope they can do so in an amicable and mutually acceptable manner.

QUESTION: But you’ve gone to the extent to say that you’re troubled.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes. We are. Despite a great many conversations that we have had at all levels of our government with our friends in Bangladesh, I think there’s been a deterioration in the situation. I think we’re troubled particularly by this most recent decision in which Yunus was removed from his position as Managing Director of Grameen Bank.

QUESTION: How important is the relationship with Bangladesh? Many people say it’s a strategically important relationship.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’d say it’s very important. Bangladesh is a moderate secular democracy that has a vibrant civil society and a history of religious and ethnic tolerance, and they are a partner of ours on many of President Obama’s most important signature initiatives like food security, climate change, global health, and counter-terrorism. They’re also a country that has really made quite important progress to reduce poverty and inequality. For example, the Prime Minister was awarded last year by the United Nations for the progress that Bangladesh has made towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals. They’ve significantly reduced child mortality. They’ve reduced the number of chronically food insecure people. And they’ve reduced gender inequality both in their schools and in their labor force.

As you know they’re also one of the major peacekeepers. But uniquely, they’ve sent the first all-female police unit of UN peacekeepers to Haiti last year. They’ve also I think made a lot of progress in relations with India, which is extremely important for us, particularly on this very important area of counter-terrorism.

So this is a country that’s doing a lot of things right and a lot of things well. Some of their recent actions with respect to Grameen Bank are a little bit out of step with that, so we just felt as a friend that it was important to point that out and express our interest in seeing an amicable resolution of this.

QUESTION: Do you not worry that this might overshadow the larger relationship?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to make any predictions about the larger relationship. I’ve just said all the important things that they are doing. But this is, again, just one area that has been of some recent concern and we hope that it can be resolved.

QUESTION: Just a couple more, if I may. First of all, is it your understanding that, is the Secretary going to try to talk to Professor Yunus in some way via videoconference now that he’s no longer coming here?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think she will try to talk to him. Most likely by telephone, but we haven’t yet scheduled that [NOTE: the call was later confirmed and took place on March 8]. As you know, she was scheduled to meet with him tomorrow, but he decided to cancel his trip because of the legal challenge that he has filed in the Bangladeshi courts.

QUESTION: Is she planning on going to Bangladesh any time soon?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: She has no immediate plans.

QUESTION: She’s obviously known Professor Yunus from the days that she was in the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas with former President Clinton. How is her personal relationship with Professor Yunus going to play a role in this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think the Secretary does have, as you say, have quite a long and personal relationship with Mohammed Yunus, but I don’t think that really colors our views on this. This is something that is of wide concern inside the United States government, and as I said earlier, Professor Yunus has a great many admirers, not only in the current administration but also in our Congress.

QUESTION: Ambassador Blake, thank you so much.