Banking on the poor

WHAT does it mean to be a woman?

If there was a central universal question binding us all inextricably, this has to be it.

It is sociological, it is professional, it is political. Most importantly, it is personal.

These past months, nine million women in Bangladesh have been asking themselves this question.

These are women whose lives and self-esteem have been lifted beyond their dreams by one institution - the Grameen Bank, formerly led by Mr Muhammad Yunus.

Today, these women and their families are in danger. As is too often the case, the person leading the offensive is also a woman.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed has stuck a long and sinister political finger into the workings of the Grameen Bank.

If all her attempts at "revamping" Grameen take place, the rural poor will be shut out of the very process of living.

The roots of Grameen Bank began in 1976, when an economics professor, Mr Yunus, began a primary research project on poverty in Bangladeshi villages and the possibility of bridging cruel scarcity with credit.

Conventional banks laughed when he approached them - not just because these were people who had nothing, but because at the time, it was unthinkable to give a loan to a woman.

Mr Yunus persevered, and in 1983, the government of Bangladesh passed legislation to turn the project into a bank.

The Grameen Bank offered very small loans to men and women who needed them the most.

These loans were to help start small businesses. Very early on, it was found that women were by far the better paymasters.

"The men were over-confident," Mr Yunus was reported as saying when he addressed the Australian Business Chambers Forum in Melbourne earlier this year.

"But anything the women earned, it went straight to the children. The women always wanted to build for the future. They were terrified they'd lose the money and then no one would trust them again. But the men, they wanted to enjoy the money now," he said.

Women knew what it took to feed a family, to keep the roof in good repair - and to send their daughters to school.

Grameen then shifted its primary focus to women, and became a bank like no other. In 2006, Mr Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in equal parts.

Among some of the differences:

It extends credit to those who have nothing, to help them generate income, self-employment or obtain housing.

It requires no collateral.

A savings plan is introduced with the loan.

Loan repayments are spread out so that very small, affordable sums can be paid back weekly.

A borrower must be from a group of six borrowers - these peers act as a support group - but it is the borrower alone who is responsible for the debt.

A borrower is encouraged to ask for help if she has trouble repaying. Her credit line will not be affected. She will not be named and shamed.

She will be given help so that her life, her home, her business and her self-esteem are preserved - and so, she will be able to repay the loan.

The Grameen Bank was the first master plan in social enterprise, a business model supported vocally and financially by giants like Richard Branson and Google.

Grameen looked around and like any sound business, identified what was in great abundance - need. It turned that need into market demand and set about supplying it.

Earlier this year, as the political machine mowed down the founding pillars of Grameen, the New York Times' David Bornstein wrote of a Bangladeshi woman he interviewed almost two decades ago.

Small loans from the Grameen Bank and her own hard work had enabled Manjira to become a successful seamstress.

Years earlier, she had lost her son to a sudden illness.

The night before he died, he asked for an ice cream. It cost the equivalent of two US cents. She did not have the money.

Manjira was a mother haunted by an unspeakable memory.

Manjira was also a board member of the Grameen Bank.

In fact, out of the 12 positions on the board, nine are filled by women - the very same women the bank serves. (Of those who borrow from the bank, 97 per cent are women.)

A full 90 per cent of the bank belongs to the borrowers; ten per cent belongs to the government.

Every woman who borrows from Grameen has a vested interested in repaying her loan.

Unlike many of us in developed economies, they have not experienced the glass ceiling.

But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is in the throes of amending the laws that govern the Grameen Bank.

The principle of Grameen is simple. It is not Wall Street, nor is it Main Street. It is in fact, a bank that services Death Row. It does not help the poor - it helps the poorest. In doing this, Mr Yunus has been critical of the government. Sheikh Hasina's response was swift and harsh.

Mr Yunus was fired as managing director last year, with a claim that at 70, he was "beyond the retirement age".

Legislative amendments are being made to effectively make the managing director's position a government-appointed one.

It does not stop there. The nine women on the board may be replaced by 'more qualified persons.'

All this because of a little criticism? Unlikely.

Over a decade ago, when I worked as a reporter with a Malaysian newspaper, I had the opportunity to accompany a senior journalist on her interview with Sheikh Hasina.

Hungry for good quotes, I was disappointed at her bland, even agreeable answers.

It was only much later, with much more experience under my belt, that I realised her agreeability was part cunning. The answers were in what was not said.

What is not being said here?

The Grameen Bank is professional. It is successful. It is famous. It has money. Millions depend on it for a fighting chance at life.

Access to funds, and the ability to channel or choke them as desired, brings limitless power.

Control. Money. People in desperation.

Election.

Bangladesh is due to have its next general election in about a year's time.

Seen through the lens of cheap ruthless politics, the Grameen Bank is a verdant slice of the vote bank.

Cursed by geography, raddled with poverty and exploited by very bad politicians, the women of Bangladesh have stood - and continue to stand - proud.

Will we stand with them?

These last months, Internet forums have popped up and countless articles have been written. Emails about online petitions have flown around the world.

Never before has the ability to speak up been so accessible.

Still, it is not for everyone and that is understandable.

Just for now, though, perhaps we could go back to that very fundamental question: what does it mean to be a woman?

In large part, it means being able to have a job. To sustain a home. To educate one's children, regardless of gender.

In the final crunch, are we so very different from the proud women of Bangladesh?


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