Hello from Rajshahi

I am in Rajshahi right now at a tiny internet cafe at the university. It is an ancient old thing, with chunky monitors and slow as 486 hard drives. So, blogging is not easy from here – and posts will have to wait til I return to Dhaka next weekend. But … Bangladesh is the most extraordinary place. I feel embarrassed by the vitality, presence and resilience of these people. I am – we are – lost, spoilt, whingers, compared to this. The range of wonderful people I have met defies comprehension, and can’t be captured in this whistlestop. But from the charismatic zonal manager Mr Salaam, who has visited to motivate the branch workers, to Khusubo the deputy manager’s daughter who makes me origami swans, this is a privileged experience. I am at Parila Paba branch outside Rajshahi city near the western border with India. The branch has over 4000 members spread across 87 centres in the area. Groups of Grameen borrowers – all women – gather in tin sheds, built for the purpose of their weekly meetings, to make their payments and deposit their savings. Every one belongs to a group of 5, which is the ‘atom’ of the Grameen organism. The group and the centre – a collection of groups – which sit in saried rows at the centre meetings – provides the discipline for the whole enterprise – a kind of peer group pressure. It turns out that virtually all the loans are made to the family, and the women are in fact the money managers of the family unit rather than the arms length independent borrowers that we may imagine. The women here have emerged from Purdah, and participate in village life in a way imaginable just a short time ago, but they are not independent in any way that we might imagine – they remain defined by, and living within and for, families as mothers, wives, and, now, money managers. I have asked whether they worry that their husbands and sons will let them down. They seem genuinely mystified by the question, ‘They listen to us’, is the common answer. Not everyone does equally well. If husbands die or go away, the women suffer – close to a universal law I suppose. But you cannot fake the enthusiasm or the humour that happens in these branch meetings. Many of the practices are bewilderingly strange – from the saried rows to the salutes that the women greet you with when arriving at the meetings (more on that later). And the whole system is manual – 2500 plus branches, 8 million members, and it’s all manual – no emails, no internet banking – 8 million passbooks for heaven’s sake. Apart from anything else, Grameen is an operational and bureaucratic masterpiece. Its discipline and consistency across the branches is breathtaking, considering the struggles we have in businesses with our resources and technology. I have to go, but some quick observations. The state, that is to say, the government, is practically absent in these rural communities, the villages as everyone calls them: the Gram. The state provides a thin patina of infrastructure – something like roads, power lines and the odd school. The rest is up to the likes of Grameen and other organisations like BRAC and ASA, and countless other NGOs chipping away. Grameen is so much more than a bank, it is a kind of privatised development agency, using credit and basic banking to build communities in the void left by a negligent and indigent state. And let’s not forget the history of this place, of which Grameen is surely a creature. Bangladesh, or East Bengal as it was, faired poorly under the British, who settled on Calcultta (Kolkata) for their empire town, and the baton of exploitation then past to West Pakistan after independence. The war with Pakistan was followed by the cyclone, then famine and perennial floods. Now, in relative peace and calm, the opposition refuses to attend parliament. We have a government where the PM’s father and the opposition leader’s husband were both assassinated. Like Cambodia and Timor, the mere existence of Bangladesh is astonishing, and its vital signs are genuinely, in our age of baseless hyperbole, miraculous. The Banglas remain a poor people by the standard impersonal measures of the west – and the lack of basic services that we regard as entitlements is appalling – and as much so in the city as the villages. Grameen has emerged from this history and is part of the hard fought reconstruction that still continues. So, yes, Grameen is a bank, it has a licence to provide banking services. But it is a cultural force, a continuing experiment, a praxis of those here who believe that the poor are not abject but can create their own communities. Grameen provides the capital, however small it may seem to us, and the discourse, and the cultural resources, to slowly, very slowly, build the confidence and wealth of village communities, whose existence and dynamics we long ago forgot and struggle to understand. Meanwhile in the cities, the globalised dimension of the Bangla economy ‘thrives’ as it exploits millions including countless children who make cheap clothes and shoes for the west. Yunus wants to make poverty a museum, as he famously said. Bangladesh is a living museum – a demonstration of the processes that the west went through itself in the industrial revolution and the processes from which it now benefits, invisible, outsourced. Yunus, my translator, would like to work in the garment factories to help get the workers a better deal. That story is for another day. Back to basic training for me. They are serious these people. Deadly, vitally serious.

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  • Photograph of Aknorm: click for her story
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