Foucault and Yunus

A man reaches into a tin of condensed milk and scoops a gooey dose into a small glass cup of tea.  This action is being repeated all over Dhaka, as people chat and smoke.  ’Shall we take tea?’.  We shall.  Javed, a friend of my translator Younus is explaining his studies to me – he’s finishing his masters in medical anthropology, I ask if he’s read Foucault.  He says he has, ‘Of course, it’s hard to read but worth it’.  Javed is more interested in telling me about his plans to do his doctorate abroad – he wants to write about the history of the cantonment, the military settlement in the middle of town, and the recent removal of the Hindu community that had lived there for years.  Violence is still very present in Bangladeshi political life.  The discourse of Yunus is rainwater to those fires.  Javed’s sister, a journalist, has discouraged him from writing about his subject.  Risk is very real for anyone challenging power here.

A link occurs to me.  Perhaps Yunus knew his Foucault – for Grameen, for all its 8 million members, 25000 staff and thousands of branches, is the conscious willing of a discourse.  As the mad have been written into (or ‘out of’) power, so have the poor, and reconstructing that discourse has been a central Grameen project.  Alongside the years of practical experiment working with ‘the poor’, the ‘learning by doing’, there has been a very deliberate construction of the image of ‘the poor’ and ‘the women of Grameen’ from very early on.  It begins in 1982 with the publication of ‘Jorimon’, a collection of brief biographies of poor women (and their families).  It is as if Yunus was aware even then that for all the materiality of poverty, this was a battle of images, of discourse and rhetoric.  In that world, as well as in the villages, the poor needed power, and they needed to be subjects of capacity to operate in that world, to be heard.  The equation was oppression and opportunity in equal measure.  The poor then became the ‘poor women’, the poor mothers, the poor nurturers, not the gamblers and wasters that are ‘poor men’.  And the discourse reinvents women as ‘micro-enterpreneurs’ to play to the prejudices of affluent westerners who believe in myths of self-determination, and are skeptical of the ‘collective’, even afraid of the dark realities of traditional village families.  For it is easy to ‘contradict’ the Grameen depiction of women – because the loans are given to women in families, not deployed in micro-enterprise as we would recognise it, and the journey from purdah is only beginning rather than reaching its conclusion.  Duflo’s empirical ‘randomised control studies’ can, rightly, cast doubt of verifiable empowerment effects or gender based variations in how families spend money.  Bankers can scoff at the size of the loans, pundits may say it all smoke and mirrors, earnest development experts will argue, with good reason, that poverty remains deep and pervasive.

The discourse is in advance of reality.  It is an attempt at a lived self-fulfilling prophecy.  The poor have moved modestly out of extreme poverty and been transformed in words and pictures.  And of course, Yunus himself, is everywhere, smiling his nuclear smile in images across the branches, and all through the media. A cult of personality some say, but the iconography is more Branson than Stalin.  So, even if that much makes you wince, better that a thousand Yunus bloom than a million Maos contend.  Grant Yunus this much, he knows his Foucault.

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