Norway’s government faced mounting pressure on Monday to intervene in a row over control of Bangladeshi telecom group GrameenPhone after Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus said it should be owned by the poor women of Bangladesh.
GrameenPhone, Bangladesh’s biggest mobile operator with over 10 million subscribers, is 62-percent owned by Norwegian telecom group Telenor . The rest is owned by Grameen Telecom, a firm in Yunus’s Grameen family of companies.
Yunus, who shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize with Grameen Bank for their work to lift millions out of poverty by granting tiny loans, said upon receiving the prize on Sunday that GrameenPhone should be owned by the Bangladeshi poor.
The Norwegian government, which owns 54 percent of Telenor, has tried to stay outside the row and has said ownership of GrameenPhone is something for the business partners — Telenor and Grameen Telecom — to settle among themselves.
The daily Dagbladet cited on Saturday a June 1996 agreement between the GrameenPhone shareholders that said it was Telenor’s intention to cut its stake to below 35 percent within six years.
Telenor has said it is under no binding obligation to relinquish control of GrameenPhone which it co-founded with Grameen Telecom a decade ago, but Yunus said that that was the intention all along.
“Our vision was to ultimately convert this company into a social business by giving majority ownership to the poor women,” Yunus said in his speech at the Nobel prize award ceremony on Sunday attended by the King and Queen of Norway.
“We are working towards that goal. Someday GrameenPhone will become another example of a big enterprise owned by the poor,” Yunus said.
Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said after meeting Yunus on Monday that the issue should be settled between Telenor and its Bangladeshi business partner. “(We) must handle this in a orderly way, and that I feel we have done,” he told reporters.
PARLIAMENTARY CHIEF BACKS YUNUS
The President of the Norwegian Parliament, Thorbjoern Jagland, a former Labour prime minister, aligned himself with Yunus and said in the Monday edition of Dagbladet that Telenor should cut its stake.
“I agree entirely with Yunus. That was why I was one of the first to applaud when he said that he hoped that Grameen Telecom would get the majority of the shares in GrameenPhone,” he said.
Jagland, prime minister in 1996-1997 just after GrameenPhone was founded, said he hoped Telenor now would come to a solution with Grameen Telecom on reducing its stake.
The row pits the interests of one of the world’s richest nations, Norway, with its tiny population of 4.6 million, with those of one of the poorest, Bangladesh with 140 million people.
Yunus and representatives of Grameen Bank met Telenor’s Chief Executive Jon Fredrik Baksaas in Oslo on Saturday. Telenor said in a statement after the meeting: “Given the size and impact of the company, the questions that have arisen deserve a thorough process conducted in a responsible manner.”
Grameenphone, the largest of six mobile operators in Bangladesh with a market share of 63 percent, is a major contributor to the development of the economy, Telenor said.
About 12 percent of Bangladeshis have a mobile phone. Telenor, who considers GrameenPhone a big success, told Reuters last week that the telephone density could rise to 50 percent over the next three to five years.