Thursday, August 16, 2012

Bangladesh 'fixes' Grameen

Laboni Vhoumiks lingerie manufacturing unit in the Gopai village of Noakhali district, about 180 kilometers outside Dhaka, is a forceful argument in favor of the Grameen Bank microcredit model that fosters female entrepreneurship and relies on it. But the Grameen Bank is itself under threat of creeping government control that has kicked up a storm of protests by entities ranging from women's rights groups to the State Department of the United States.

Vhoumik, 36, started out in 2003 with nothing to commend her except tailoring skills. Today, she runs a production unit that employs 12 women and supplies quality undergarments to several major retailers in Noakhali and the adjacent districts.

Joining a local non-government organization (NGO), Noakhali Rural Development Services (NRDS), helped Vhoumik to borrow taka 4000 (then about US$45) to buy her first sewing machine.

"We counsel and offer free training to promote such small entrepreneurships. The idea is to ensure that the borrowed money is properly utilized," Mohammad Kaiser Alam, NRDS microcredit programme coordinator, told IPS.

Vhoumik now earns about US$238 a month, which is considered handsome in her village. She also has large savings and recently paid for some major repairing of her home. Her group of 65 members discusses social and family problems as well as members progress with their business or problems or outstanding loans.

Members rarely default as the group is responsible as guarantor for the loans. But this simple business model that has worked to lift thousands of Bangladeshi women out of poverty is now under threat because one of its pioneers, the Grameen Bank, is undergoing changes at the helm that will allow greater government control.

The government owns 3% of Grameen Bank, but by changing the Grameen Bank Ordinance a state-appointed chairman will be able to appoint its chief executive officer.

This represents a de facto imposition of government control of the bank; in other words, the poor women, who are also its owners, are being deprived of their right to manage their own bank and are being made powerless, says a statement issued by 60 of Bangladesh's leading civil society representatives.

Grameen Bank is unique in the world for being owned by impoverished women. Representatives of the 8.4 million women borrowers sit on the board of the bank and have participated over the years in its decision making, unlike any other bank in the world, the statement said.

Shireen Huq, one of the signatories to the statement, told IPS there is no reason to believe that the changes (to Grameen Bank) are being made with good intent.

Huq, a leading women's rights activist and founder of the NGO Naripokkho, said the proposed amendment to the Grameen Bank's constitution gives the chairman of the board the authority to form a three-member selection committee. In other words, the majority board members will in effect be disenfranchised.

The government's appointment of a person known for his animosity towards the bank's founder, Muhammad Yunus, as the chairman did not bode well for the institution, Huq told IPS.

A press statement on August 5 by Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy US State Department spokesman, said Washington was deeply concerned about recent actions the government of Bangladesh has taken to give the government-appointed chairman of the Grameen Bank board control over the selection of the bank's new managing director.

This move would diminish the role the largely female borrower-shareholders play in shaping the direction of an institution that has made a difference to millions of impoverished women in Bangladesh, and indeed around the world, the statement said.

"We are concerned that the latest actions by the government could threaten the future of the bank which was founded by Nobel peace prize laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus," Ventrell said.
The plan by the government to increase its role in Grameen Bank has sparked a furious debate in Bangladesh that has pitted economists who favor microcredit as a development tool against those who believe that it is not effective enough.

Professor Abul Barakat, who heads the economics department at Dhaka University, told IPS that microcredit reaches only a small portion of the poor people. "Hardcore poor who need most attention remain out of the reach of such services and are considered as having no potential of repaying loans."

Out of Bangladesh's 150 million population, 98.9 million are poor, 47 million are middle class and 4.1 million are rich people. Microcredit only reaches the upper 50% of the poor who are the potential target group of the NGOs," the economist said.

According to Barakat, economically the upper half of the poor (49.4 million) who get microcredit facilities "bounce in their own orbit" and they "neither come out of poverty nor slide down to the hardcore poor group."

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, another noted economist, told IPS that he has rarely seen poor people getting significant benefit from microcredit programs. "One of my own studies shows only 7% of the borrowers actually coming out of poverty from microcredit."

Ahmad, who chairs the Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), said his 2008 study showed that fewer than 10% of the total 23 million borrowers in the country actually came out of poverty. This means that microcredit program are not always sustainable in poverty alleviation.

The PKSF itself was launched by the government in 1990 to build on the success of private players and now has over 250 partner organizations (small NGOs) and has 8.6 million borrowers.

Mohammad Hasan Ali, founder and executive director of Pally Bikash Kendra, an NGO that operates microcredit programmes in the northwestern districts, told IPS that the steady growth in borrowing and repayments showed the robustness of the model.

"Surely the poor are borrowing because they are getting some benefit in one way or another", Ali said.

What is important, most economists agree, is that the small borrowings made through NGOs have eliminated traditional village moneylenders who charged usuriously high rates of interest and increased the debt burden of the poor.

The real success of microcredit, economists say, lies in the fact that it integrates other programs involving health and hygiene, education, water and sanitation, social safety, legal aid, human rights and other basic issues with the lending process.

S M Ali Aslam, executive director of ADAMS, an NGO operating in the southwestern districts, told IPS, "There is no doubt that the NGOs took the leadership in providing financial security to the poor when the state failed to offer any secure economic program."

Aslam added that that foreign donors continue to support microcredit programmes in Bangladesh because they work. 


Tears for Humayun Ahmed: The Shakespeare of Bangladesh

Professor Humayun Ahmed, who earned a PhD in chemistry from North Dakota State University, and who was a scientist, writer, and a filmmaker, died aged 64 in the United States, after a nearly year-long battle against colon cancer. Every Bengali heart has grown heavier and heavier since his death.

Humayun was a custodian of the Bangladeshi literary culture whose contribution single-handedly shifted the capital of Bengali literature from Kolkata to Dhaka without any war or revolution. One of the remarkable things about Humayun's long and distinguished literary career is his influence. His writing is so influential that people not only get psychological pleasure from reading his books, but usually end up becoming fans of his fictional characters, such as Himu, Misir Ali, and Baker Bhai. His creations generate the smells, sounds, and vibrations of feelings and moods, which are more powerful than all the unused hydrogen bombs in the United States. However, in death, Humayun's celebrity status seems likely to exceed his popularity, even at the height of his fame. His funeral, which was held in Dhaka, became a Super Bowl-like event: millions of Bengalis from all walks of life flocked to the Central Shaheed Minar to say "Hasta la vista, Humayun Sir."

Humayun's death has proven that the tragic and completely unexpected passing of an icon familiar to millions can create an emotionally unifying experience for a nation. Bangladesh does not have oil, coal, or fossil fuel, but it's still more united than many countries, such as Pakistan, because it had Humayun Ahmed-whose influence was strong enough to unite all Bangladeshis with each other emotionally. What, then, is our assessment of Humayun's importance in world literature?

Humayun, who was known for his depiction of the tribulations of ordinary middle-class Bangladeshi life, reached the peak of his fame with the publication of Nondito Noroke (In Blissful Hell) in 1972, which remains one of his most famous works, winning admiration from literary critics, including Dr. Ahmed Sarif. He wrote over 200 fiction and non-fiction books-all of which were bestsellers in Bangladesh. This is something unheard of.

Furthermore, Humayun made a huge contribution to the field of fine arts, especially in film. He is hailed as one of the most influential architects of television drama of all time, authoring landmark sitcoms, such as Ei Shob Din Ratri, Bohubrihi, Ayomoy, and Kothao Keu Nei, which featured a fictional character named Baker Bhai, who was wrongly convicted and executed. Baker Bhai became such a popular character that before the last episode was aired, thousands of people across the country urged Humayun to change the script just to save his life, the life of a fictional character. This made Humayun a household name, which allowed him a great deal of autonomy for his future projects, motion pictures. His films have covered many themes and genres-addressing such topics as the Bangladesh Liberation War, the middle class crisis, and socio-economic issues. His first film, Aguner Parashmoni, based on the history of the Bangladesh Liberation War, was a huge success-winning National Film Awards in eight categories, including Best Picture and Best Director. His film, Shyamal Chhaya, was submitted by Bangladesh as an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. As with Satyajit Ray, Zahir Raihan, or Tareque Masud, it is difficult to calculate the full effect Humayun had on Bangla film. But he was indisputably the most talented Bengali filmmaker, more so than his three famous predecessors. In fact, I cannot name any other Bengali filmmaker who better illustrated the history of the country's independence through film the way Humayun did; he was ahead of his times. Had Humayun done nothing else, the creation of such films alone would have entitled him to be one of the greatest Bengalis of all time.

It is true that Bengali literature would have remained piteously incomplete, and even imperfect, without the works of Humayun. However, it is also quite apparent that without the works of Tagore or Nazrul, Bengali literature would have broken up into mutually unintelligible dialects. Hence, it is fair to place Humayun after Tagore and Nazrul. However, Humayun never compared himself to Shakespeare, and not even to Tagore and Nazrul. He did not regard himself as a great writer.

In fact, I am sure that if anyone conducted a survey to list the five greatest writers of Bengali literature, Humayun would be third, if not first or second. Furthermore, one should consider what other great people have said about Humayun. Several years ago, I asked Muhammad Yunus how he assessed Humayun's overall impact, and he replied, "Humayun's works are the most profound and most fruitful that literature has experienced since the time of Tagore and Nazrul." Al Mahmud, the poet laureate of Bangladesh, told me something similar: "One golden age of Bengali literature ended with Tagore and Nazrul and another began with Humayun." Fiction writer Imdadul Haq Milon considered him to be the almighty lord of his Bengali literature, controlling all their actions and thoughts. If so, he is a generous lord, who is great because he created immortal characters, such as Misir Ali and Himu, and they, on entering our memory, become more alive than the living. Misir Ali is basically a rational psychologist committed to unraveling the mysteries around him through logic. On the other hand, Himu, who works with anti-logic, appears to possess strong intuitive power, though he dismisses his intuitions that come true as mere coincidence. Misir Ali forces us to realize that logic is above emotion, and Himu forces us to understand within ourselves that the better side of our nature should always struggle for dominance with our subtle dark side.

Although Humayun created literary fever through his works, which spread all around Bangladesh, unfortunately he still remained one of the great unsung heroes of human progress to those who live outside of the Indian subcontinent. With that said, literature, of course, is not all about recognition. Still, the fact that Stockholm did not ultimately embrace Humayun Ahmed-a Nobel Prize, why not?-is unfortunate, as it probably would have meant a lot to him. In a time when hardly any of the roles (including Hasina, who is playing the role of Prime Minister) are being played correctly in Bangladesh, Humayun played the role that was assigned to him well: writer and filmmaker. As a result, his name has become synonymous with the greatness of Bengali literature. Hence, to a Bangladeshi, his loss is manifold. He made young people-especially students who had been bred to political passion-understand that there was something that is more important than politics: reading books, and appreciating the fine arts.

Rashidul Bari, a biographer of Muhammad Yunus, most recently authored the Grameen Social Business Model: A Manifesto for Proletariat Revolution.