The End of Basic Training

I’m saying goodbyes, my work here is done. The 26 questions of the training course and my endless rounds of interviews are complete. I’ve had no time to blog or even record properly yet. It’s all done. The ordeal of the Dhaka traffic is on my mind. Harun, our co-ordinator, then calls me into a meeting, unscheduled, with the department head, the General Manager of the International Program, Jannat-e-Quanine. This is a surprise.

Jannat is a Grameen staff member number 4, one of the original apostles of Yunus, who worked on the first project in Jobra, and is renowned for her work in Kosovo where she helped establish an MFI straight after the war in the late 90s. She bumped us from a meeting earlier in the visit. When I enter her office, Jannat is poring over my file. While the few women I’ve seen at head office incline to more western attire, Jannat wears a steel green sari and headscarf. She exudes strength and authority, and reminds me of the scarier nuns of my childhood.

I sit next to Jannat’s desk and she is perusing with unnerving intensity. If I feel I’m being judged it’s because I am. Jannat asks, ‘‘Mark Swivel’, do they call you ‘Mark’ or do they call you something else?’. As we all know, names are more open here, the conventions less settled. For reasons that remain obscure I find myself saying, ‘I’ve been called many things, my mother used to say ‘Hey you’, or ‘Buster’ a lot’. A lame attempt at something short of humour, granted, and Jannat says, ‘I’m sorry to hear that’. Her weighty brow creases with a genuine concern, ‘We would never say that to a child. That is a shame’. Still giddy in the presence of an apostle, it only slowly dawns that Jannat thinks my mother called me ‘bastard’. With an awkwardness I’ve not experienced since my early amorous experiments, I explain the confusion and the air is cleared. I am not the victim of an abusive mother, merely, as her file says, a lawyer and director of a credit union interested in exploring how the Grameen model might work in Australia.

Down to business. Invited to speak, I talk about microcredit in Australia, exploitative lending, indigenous communities and immigrants, paternalism, the welfare state and the culture of denial around poverty in the midst of our affluence. I say that one has to be cautious in considering a project, because the context is not supportive. I also mention that Shan from the Grameen Foundation, who Jannat knows, is skeptical. Looking up from my file, Jannat asks, ‘But why not? If it works in America, and all around the world, why not? It has been proven all around the world. I went to Kosovo and I knew nothing about the place. I could not speak the language. I did not know where the poor people were. But I found them. They have now lent $35m.’ . Jannat spent 3 and half years there, wearing her sari and speaking her English, every day. An apostle. [For more on that].

Jannat is not interested in resting on laurels or blowing her trumpet, she turns to Indian credit unions arguing that they do not get the job done, their repayment rates are too high. Jannat is also surprised that my credit union is ‘only’ $500m strong and began in the 60s. Grameen, with its loan book at $750m, has doubled in size in the last few years. Jannat rounds on me, with a deep and direct gaze, with a smile of the truly serious, ‘So where are you going to find your poor people?’. I say that we have a strong presence in the western suburbs and that there are immigrant communities there where the model could work, for example, where African immigrants are developing business for their community. One man has started growing ‘mealie’ for the Sudanese community.

‘Good!’ says the General Manager of the International Program, and then imparts some basic advice: screening is the key, you must find the right borrowers, and you must do it full time, you cannot do it if you have a business and are a working, find someone who really wants to do this work, a graduate, and train them properly, and make sure your second employee is the same. You can be the initiator, that is what I call them, but you cannot do the work.

I ask if I can have a copy of the Grameen ‘operations manual’ in English to help the process – something I’ve seen in Bangla. Jannat calls for her assistant, Rafique I think, a tall ludicrously handsome man. It’s a delightful inversion of the office cliché. He disappears after receiving his instructions. I have no idea what was said, but I never get the manual. Jannat explains that you cannot learn from a book, you have to learn by seeing and doing. Looking for a card for another trainee, Jannat flicks through a folder, brands like British Airways and Warid (a local telco) fly past, along with ‘Autarky Tours’. Autarky? One of my favourite words. Who even uses it now? Thoughts of Nyerere’s Ujaama experiment recede as Jannat asks, ‘Any more questions?’.

I say it would be good if Professor Yunus could establish a centre for social business when he visits Sydney in March, and this would hugely help a microcredit project. Stating the obvious I say that many universities would be interested (Cheryl Kernot at UNSW is the pick). Jannat says, ‘Yes, you must get people interested, maybe 10 to 20, academicians and business people, lawyers,and people who want to make their profit – or give it away – and then maybe you get down to the ones who are really interested and you start and you get them over here for an exposure visit. You have to find a way to touch their heart. Yes, they must grasp it intellectually, but you must touch their heart’. Jannat enthuses then, saying we want to reach out and hold hands with people across the world, ‘We want to make the circle bigger and bigger’.

Thoughts occur, these people are ‘positive but serious, idealistic but practical, educated but commercial’. This is reverse colonisation.

Again: ‘Any more questions?’ I ask whether we should lend only to women. Jannat begins by saying that she does not know the situation in Australia; she is not prescribing or advocating an approach. But in her experience, Jannat says, women are the most vulnerable, and they pay better – you have to look after quality of your borrowers more than your quantity – and men are usually already doing something.

I mention that we visited a men’s centre and that it seemed to be working well, why shouldn’t that be a model for the program today? Jannat emphasises that in her experience, women pay better and always turn up. Women see that it ‘facilitates’ a better life for her and their families.

Jannat’s Nokia phone, with its familiar default ring tone, goes, with someone asking her to attend a workshop in India, she cannot make it, and is reminding the call that this has already been explained in a previous call.

I say to Jannat, ‘If it’s ok I would like to express an opinion’. Jannat nods and welcomes this. ‘Thank you. It seems to me, based on what I have seen, that the women is not really the borrower, they are not alone, they exist within a family and the loan is used by the family business, and that the woman is now really the money manager for the family. I can see that this gives women more status, and that the centre houses are a huge symbol of the progress women have made – they have come out of purdah into the centre of the village. But the women are not running their own businesses in the way I imagined when I arrived – they are the money manager. And that is a very familiar scenario to me. My mother ran our family finances. Dad wasn’t allowed to touch anything to do with money.

Jannat pauses, breathes deeply, and comes forward to say, ‘That is very correct. You have to understand, the woman was very unconfident. She had never touched 100 taka at the one time. The husband kept all the money in a box. The woman has no power. The children are not listening to the mother’s voice. The father does not listen to her, so why should they? But now they are touching money’.

We are meeting in a grey linoed room on the 8th floor of the Grameen tower, which overlooks the Dhaka cityscape, but the otherworld of the villages is now in the room. ‘They are touching money for the first time. They are touching a pen. I would teach them their signature’. Grameen is a bank and not a bank. We may do financial literacy, we don’t do basic literacy. Again: there is so much more to all this than lending.

Jannat is now expansive, ‘You cannot give up this work, it’s like an addiction’. After a pause, ‘Back then, you could not go into a woman’s house. You could not do it. Professor Yunus was not allowed in their houses. That’s history now, but that’s how it was’.

Jannat has been more generous with her time than I could’ve imagined – we talked for over an hour. We chat briefly about the evolution of the organisation, I’m fascinated by the bureaucracy and its structure and whether there was a model that Yunus followed. Jannat says no, it just evolved through ‘the process’, as the project developed. I ask her what she studied at Chittagong – she was an undergrad when Yunus invited her to join the project back in 1976. ‘English’. What did you study? Jannat doesn’t want to talk about that and it really is time to go. Jannat had no training in finance or economics, has never worked in a bank, yet she helped build Grameen, and went to Kosovo and spread the faith there, the very secular faith of these pragmatic visionaries.

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  • Photograph of Aknorm: click for her story
    Aknorm, duck eggs and microfinance, Siem Reap, 2008.