Sunday, September 2, 2007

Field Work Completed!

Since returning from our field site near Rangpur, Bangladesh, where we conducted the research component of our project, we have been completely swamped in working through the hundreds of hours of audio files we have collected and beginning the serious work of analysis. Our research team of ten villagers conducted over 150 interviews during the months of July and August, exceeding our expectations both in quantity and quality. The team interviewed members of their community about their experiences with microcredit. We met with them every day and downloaded the audio files off of their digital recorders onto a laptop, changed the recorders' batteries, and helped them with the challenges that emerged. Through this process, we had the opportunity to hear many stories directly after they had been told, and to see how the data collectors struggled with and really felt for their respondents. It was obvious to us that they really developed a passion for giving people the opportunity to have their stories heard. We became quite close to them, and we all had a difficult time saying goodbye.

The first step towards beginning the analysis is having all of the audio files translated and transcribed by a team of translators we have put together in Dhaka. The translations we’ve gotten back so far have been absolutely riveting. For one village, peoples’ experiences with microcredit have been incredibly complex and diverse. We were especially glad to see that people were excited to offer their opinions on how to improve microcredit programs. Knowing that their voices and stories were going to be shared with people not only outside of their village, but all over the world, and that their opinions would be valued and considered by people with the power to make helpful changes to the institutions most important in their lives, the respondents were invigorated. The transcripts show their hopes, dreams, challenges, struggles, and the strength people muster on a daily basis to survive in the midst of extreme poverty.

On our last day of our research, our team of data collectors arranged a tour for us of their village, as we had made a point not to go into the village ourselves beforehand so that our presence wouldn’t interfere with their research. We had the opportunity to see all their houses, meet their families, and to talk with many of the people they interviewed. In Bangladesh, hosting people in your home is a great honor, and hosting foreigners (seldom seen in Bangladesh, let alone in remote villages) is even more so. People were blown away to see us walking around the village, and we were honored to be welcomed so warmly into their homes. Everyone felt honored that we took an interest in their stories-- the interviewers said they had become like heroes in their village because they have shown that people’s stories actually mean something. The enthusiasm of our team of data collectors along with the rest of their community has made us even more excited about the potential for their stories and experiences to really have an impact on the way that microcredit programs are implemented.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Flooding in Bangladesh

You may have heard about the severe flooding in South Asia recently which has displaced more than five million people in Bangladesh alone. Northwest Bangladesh, where we are conducting our research, is one of the hardest hit regions. The monsoons have hit much harder this year in Bangladesh, a country which is mainly a low-lying delta region. The country’s many rivers are flooding well above their banks. The flooding is causing severe shortages of food and clean drinking water and there is a growing crisis of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Many of Bangladesh’s northern states have been cut off from the capital and the rest of the country as a result of bridges collapsing and roads going under water. If the situation doesn’t improve in the next couple days, there is a risk of Rangpur, where we are currently located, also being cut off from the capital, which would severely cripple the economy here as many goods would become unavailable. We have been shocked to watch how quickly the flood waters rise, and can hardly believe the rapid rate at which this whole area continues to sink under water. On our daily commute through the rural farming communities on our way to Arampur, where we are conducting our research, we have seen first-hand the extreme effects of the situation. Fields where we saw children playing cricket at the beginning of our time here are now flooded so high that those same children are now swimming in water that rises above their heads.

As many of the country’s chief crops go under water, prices of essentials such as rice, oil, onions, flour, chilies and eggplant continue to rise. The situation is so severe that the military has set up subsidized fair-price shops all over the country in an attempt to keep basic staples affordable. On a recent visit to a Hindu temple, we saw villagers lined up to purchase vegetables from armed, uniformed soldiers, who had established a fair price shop at the temple’s entrance.

Luckily, the situation in Arampur is not as severe as many other places in Bangladesh, though clearly there have been obstacles to our research because of flooding. Many of our interviewers have reported not being able to leave their houses to conduct interviewers because of heavy rains and waist-deep waters surrounding their homes. As many residents of the village are rice farmers, they are struggling to maintain their livelihoods, as their crops become more flooded. Currently in the middle of one of the busiest times of the year for Bangladeshi farmers, the aman-rice planting season, the situation has presented a unique set of challenges to our research here, as our interviewers report that they have sometimes struggled to find people who have time for being interviewed, as many farmers can’t afford not to be in their fields during the scarce times when it isn’t raining. However, if the interviewers are able to leave their homes during the heavy rains, they often find more farmers who have been forced to stay home from the fields, giving them more time for talking to our researchers.

This experience has helped us to gain an acute awareness of some of the challenges which are continually faced by the villagers of Bangladesh. We’ve also seen the strength they muster as they deal with this sort of challenge again and again. It is the stories of this sort of strength and perseverance that we are hearing again and again from our interviewers who are out talking to these people about their lives. Despite challenges, our work has been extremely successful, and we have gathered many stories which are currently in the process of being translated so that we can begin the work of analysis.

To read more about flooding in South Asia and the situation in Bangladesh, see this story on the BBC website: South Asia floods strand millions.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Research Begins in Arampur

As we write, we’re sitting in the Nijera Kori office in Pairabond, a large village adjacent to Arampur, the village in which our research will be taking place. For the last two days, we’ve been conducting a follow-up training session with the interviewers, reviewing what we went over a few weeks ago, and expanding on the concepts and specific questions of the research. Having gotten the basics nailed down at our training session in Bogra a few weeks ago, we’re taking a few days before the research begins on Monday for them to do more practice interviews and give them targeted feedback on their technique.

We’re very excited to be back in the field after a few weeks of developing the Partner Network in Dhaka. Northern Bangladesh is incredibly beautiful—the air is fresher, everything is green and lush. The past two days have been intermittently rainy, which keeps the temperature reasonable. There are very few cars around here, most people get around by rickshaw. We’ll be staying in Rangpur, the biggest town in the area, and getting down to Pairabond (about an hour by rickshaw) every day to check in with the interviewers.

This follow-up session has been fantastic. We’ve focused on hands-on experience. Where the last session found us explaining the basics of research and helping them frame their own experiences with microcredit into a broader frame of reference, this session we’ve gotten to have more fun, discussing the nitty-gritty details of interviewing and hearing even more about their thoughts on the research and what they’ve been hearing so far. Their increased self-confidence is evident, and as they are able to focus on interview strategy rather than keeping up with an influx of information their practice interviews are vastly improving.

After these two days of additional training, we’ll move into the data collection phase. Tomorrow, we’ll be sending our interviewers off to begin the first phase of interviews in Arampur, their home community. The first phase of interviews (semi-structured interviews with a set of questions we’ve laid out to cover as much ground as possible) will hopefully be completed in 3 or 4 days. Throughout the first phase, the interviewers will be identifying people they’ve talked to who had a lot of things to say and stories to tell about microcredit and who would be interesting to talk to further. Then we’ll move on to the second phase, which will give the interviewers the opportunity to go back to these people for an unstructured conversation which will further investigate and fully explore their experiences and thoughts on how to improve microcredit.

It’s so exciting to be at this stage of the project where the research is actually going to begin taking place. We’ll be sending all of the interview audio files down to Dhaka by courier service regularly to be translated and transcribed by our team of translators. We can’t wait to see the results! We hope to update frequently in the next few weeks as the research progresses, so keep checking back.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Introducing: Hasnera

Anyone who buys into the stereotype of the submissive, oppressed Bangladeshi woman hasn’t met Hasnera, another one of our interviewers. She is outspoken, charismatic, enthusiastically and energetically engaged and engaging. You know that she is interested in what you have to say when she’s listening to you, and she makes you want to talk to her. She is definitively a leader. And she is as excited as we are about starting the research.

During the training we had the opportunity to listen to Hasnera talk about her experience with microcredit, which has apparently been fairly positive for her. When she decided to run for election to her village council (as you might expect, not terribly common for women in Bangladesh), she realized that she didn’t have enough money to stage a successful campaign, which can be relatively pretty capital-intensive. So she joined a microcredit group through a national NGO called ASA so that she could take out a loan of 5,000 taka (roughly $75 USD). With the help of her microcredit loan, Hasnera won the election and held a seat on the village council for two consecutive terms. The other interviewers clearly had a great deal of respect for her strong leadership in the community.

Hasnera was able to successfully repay her microcredit loan; she explained that her husband paid all of the installments (125 taka per week - just under $2 USD – for 46 weeks), as he was very happy about her political success. However, she didn’t have many good things to say about the process of obtaining a loan and the results for other women in her group. She explained that in order to apply for a loan, every woman had to submit a picture of her and her husband together, meaning that women who are divorced, widowed, or never married are not allowed to take loans. She also described an extensive series of added expenses (in addition to the interest on the loan, already around 15%) which borrowers are required to pay to the NGO in order to be eligible for the loan. These include mandatory insurance on her loan in case of default, as well as various documents and passbooks for ASA to keep track of her repayments. There is also a mandatory savings condition as well, which requires that every borrower makes a weekly deposit into a savings account run by the NGO, somewhere between 10 – 40 taka per week. The interviewers agreed that most people see this savings requirement as a sort of additional interest that they were required to pay the NGO, as opposed to a supply of money they had saved and could use at some later point – many people expected never to see their savings again.

Hasnera demonstrated her brilliant skills as an interviewer during a practice interview with another woman who was visiting the Nijera Kori training facility. Unexpectedly, she met another woman who had run for local office and funded her election through a microcredit loan (a fairly large coincidence, given the overall representation of women in Bangladeshi politics). After winning one election (for which she borrowed 20,000 taka – roughly $285 USD – which she was able to successfully repay) she ran for a second term for which, due to a much tighter race, she was compelled to take a microcredit loan of 75,000 taka (over $1,000 USD). When the results arrived, the woman was shocked to find out that she had not been elected for a second term, and found herself with a very large debt which she had no way of repaying. Unlike Hasnera, this woman’s husband could not help her repay her loans (due to a severe mental disability which she didn’t find out about until after their wedding, as it was an arranged marriage).

It is a widely held perception of microcredit that micro-loans are given only to entrepreneurs to start small businesses, thereby generating productive assets which the entrepreneur will use to make money to repay their loan. In Bangladesh, this is typically not the case, as loans are used for consumption purposes, such as food, shelter, medical expenses, and other non-productive assets. The stories of these women are interesting examples of the results of microcredit loans which are taken for expenses which will not produce an income to repay themselves.

We look forward to hearing many more stories from Hasnera as the research progresses.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dr. Naila Kabeer and Nijera Kori's work to develop political consciousness

We recently attended an event put on by Nijera Kori, an organization which we become more and more impressed with and excited about as we learn more about their work. At this event they presented the findings of three independent research groups which they had hired to do impact assessments of their work towards conscientization and mobilization of landless people. The seminar, entitled “Relevance and Impact of Conscientisation and Mobilisation as a Development Strategy in the 21st Century” addressed the impact of Nijera’s Kori’s strategy of raising the political consciousness of rural landless people as an alternative approach to development and poverty alleviation.

One of the highlights of this seminar was hearing the presentation of Dr. Naila Kabeer, a scholar whose work has been highly influential to our own understandings of microcredit, who had led one of the research teams. Similar to the other researchers, Dr. Kabeer found that Nijera Kori members were much more likely to show signs of high political conscientization, as well as other positive development indicators such as education for boys and girls and higher mobility of women. Nijera Kori members were also much more likely to own assets than non-members, which Dr. Kabeer told us indicates that this form of conscientization is also effective at reducing poverty.

The high levels of political activism found among Nijera Kori members were impressive and spoke to Nijera Kori’s success in mobilizing rural landless groups. The researchers found that 74% of Nijera Kori members had participated in some sort of political protest or movement at some point in the past two years, as opposed to only 3% of non-Nijera Kori members. Furthermore, they found that microcredit programs alone are not currently effectively mobilizing rural people: those who were active in microcredit programs and attended meetings regularly for these organizations were similarly unlikely (around 3%) to be politically active.

The primary precept underlying Nijera Kori’s work is a non-service based approach, meaning that while they do offer their members many things (skills, knowledge, information), they do not provide services which create a relationship of dependency between them and the people they serve. In this way, the organization itself is not the main focus; instead it is the landless organizations themselves and the people who constitute them.

A question that the seminar intended to address was: if Nijera Kori does not provide services, then why have so many people joined their groups? In their research, Dr. Kabeer and her colleagues found that many people are members of both Nijera Kori and microcredit organizations because they offer them very different things. These findings are interesting in light of many microcredit programs’ broad claims of empowerment potential, which very closely resemble the conscientization which is being found among Nijera Kori members.

For us, one of the most interesting aspects of hearing Dr. Kabeer discuss her assessment of Nijera Kori’s work is the fact that her approach to microcredit is very different from the approach taken by Nijera Kori. Dr. Kabeer has published many articles on microcredit which argue that while microcredit is not a panacea (nor does it automatically empower women), it has great potential for providing financial services to the poor. This analysis starkly contrasts with the position Nijera Kori has taken on microcredit (essentially, they are against it). Despite these differences, Dr. Kabeer explained that whether they agree or not about microcredit, the work that Nijera Kori is doing is absolutely essential, and microcredit participants who also participate in Nijera Kori programs will be immensely more equipped to establish successful enterprises and participate in the market because of their conscientization.

We look forward to learning more about these issues as we continue our research and our work with Nijera Kori, so that we might better understand not only what makes a successful microcredit program, but also what other programs can accompany microcredit to make it as successful as possible.

Click here to read an article about Naila Kabeer from The New Age, a local English daily newspaper.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Introducing: Shahobadin

This is Shahobadin, another one of the interviewers working on the project. While he is one of the most enthusiastic of the group about the microcredit research, he is also one of the most enthusiastic singers; during the training, he could often be found leading group songs. As the oldest member of the group, he is clearly a leader and is highly respected by the others. When he’s not working with us on our microcredit project and doing work with Nijera Kori, Shahobadin is a professional rickshaw-van driver (this is the vehicle pictured below – it is used as the primary mode of transporting most kinds of cargo in Bangladesh – anything from fruits and vegetables to construction equipment to furniture on moving day).

In a practice interview Shahobadin conducted during the training, one man recounted a story in which villagers worked collectively to expel BRAC from their village after coming together to decide that they didn’t like the way the organization was operating in their village. BRAC, incidentally, is not only one of the biggest microcredit organizations in Bangladesh, but it is also the largest NGO in the entire world. The man explained to Shahobadin that BRAC had formed a lending group in his village, which twenty local men joined. The twenty of them started making weekly deposits to the organization, and after a few weeks took out microcredit loans. Fifteen of them were able to repay the loans, while five were unable. The man said that BRAC then froze up all their savings, and ceased paying them interest on their deposits. This angered the villagers, who decided to get together and expel BRAC from the village. This man said that the village’s collective opposition to BRAC continues to keep the organization out of the village.

We look forward to hearing many more stories about microcredit, both positive and negative, about people’s experiences with microcredit in the Bangladeshi village. By listening to the stories of people who receive loans, we hope to gain an understanding of how microcredit programs can be best equipped to meet people’s needs.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Introducing: Pushporani

While most of the songs sung during the training session were sung collectively, some songs were sung only by individuals. One woman in particular, Pushporani (pictured left, in blue), had an absolutely captivating voice. When she sang, everyone stopped and listened. This song was one of the most beautiful songs we heard during our time in Bogra. One of the other interviewers made this recording of her singing.

You can also download this song in mp3 format here.