Monday, May 21, 2007

Introduction

Arriving in Dhaka on Friday night, we were immediately struck by the sensory nature of life in urban Bangladesh. The exhaust of the traffic overburdening the city and the pungent smell of Bengali curries mix with the mustiness caused by Dhaka's summer humidity to create a smell truly unique to life in Dhaka. For us, the familiarity of this sticky smell clashed with the many recent changes to life in Bangladesh's capital city.

As we drove, our companion Jason told us all about the political situation we had missed out on over the last five months. In January 2007, rather than the scheduled elections which had been made impossible by insider corruption and constant civil unrest, there was a military takeover which The Economist calls a coup. While the government denies this claim, politics, both indoor meetings and outdoor rallies, have been explicitly banned.

The military-backed government has made an incredible amount of progress combating corruption, a major stumbling block to a free and fair democracy in a country which has been rated one of the most corrupt in the world. The new anti-corruption stance has brought a dizzying amount of reforms, involving the arrest of countless top politicians, as well as the attempted exiling of the heads of the country’s two primary political parties, both former prime ministers. The implications of these new policies to everyday life are numerous. To combat the inadequacy of the country’s overburdened electrical grid, the government has required all businesses (excepting restaurants) to close at 7pm. This has caused an unfamiliar emptiness in the streets in the late evening, which makes Dhaka feel like a much different place.

Moreover, the ban on politics makes everyday life in the city run much more smoothly, as general strikes (“hartals”) called by the two oppositional political parties which had paralyzed the city on a regular basis have ended. Before we left in late 2006, the hartals had gotten so far out of hand that life in the city was stopped for weeks at a time: protestors blockaded the capital city from the rest of the country, restricted cars and trucks from the roads, and forced businesses to stay closed.

We became quite familiar with this difficult political climate when we were in Dhaka for six months last year starting a microcredit program from the ground up, after designing an alternative microcredit model which attempted to respond directly to the needs of the recipients of microcredit and the problems which have been identified with existing programs.

While in Dhaka, we worked with a group of former garment workers to start two cooperative businesses which they designed and operated collectively. We facilitated business education classes for the women, granted them two large, interest-free loans, and set up provisions for ongoing business support.

The results of the project were both exciting and challenging. On the positive side, utilizing a cooperative model was effective at ensuring that the loans were controlled by the women themselves, a hotly contested issue in the debate over microcredit. In the cooperative, the mutual accountability tempered the husbands' power to commandeer their assets.

Perhaps the most frustrating obstacle we encountered in this project was realizing that the information we received from the women on their situation and needs was heavily influenced by what they thought we wanted to hear and expected from them. The model was designed to incorporate the recipients’ own felt needs, yet our status as relatively wealthy Western researchers inherently shaped how they related to us. The complexities of working to understand their needs were further complicated by their extensive experience with existing microcredit programs, which conditioned their ideas on how microcredit is supposed to operate, as opposed to how it might work best for them.

To alleviate this, we hired Bangladeshi field workers to interview and interact with the women, as we thought that as fellow Bangladeshis they would be able to relate to the women better than us and therefore get more accurate information, but this relationship was also problematic. Strong class hierarchies in Bangladesh involve dynamics which similarly inhibit truly communicating the perspectives of people living in poverty. Our field workers: literate, educated middle-class Bangladeshis, had much less in common with the women we worked with than we had expected, and had a correspondingly difficult time interacting with them.

We emerged from that project with few answers, a lot of questions, but many insights into the state of microcredit in Bangladesh. Our conviction that the voices of microcredit recipients are vital to the development of the vast potential of microcredit as a tool for development is stronger than ever, even as our experience has shown the difficulty of creating the space to hear those voices.

This summer, we will be using an innovative research technique, non-hierarchical oral testimony, pioneered in Bangladesh by the Dhaka development think-tank Unnayan Onneshan, our partners in this project, to create a space in which to hear these voices and incorporate them into the debate on microcredit. The end result will be both the development of improved or new grass-roots microcredit projects and a series of policy recommendations.

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