GF supporter and actress Yeardley Smith (voice of “Lisa Simpson” on the popular TV show The Simpsons) and President and CEO Alex Counts traveled to Bangladesh in late July 2010. They visited Grameen Bank and some of the other enterprises Professor Yunus has launched to accelerate poverty reduction. This is Alex’s second blog post chronicling their visit.
At 8 am, we departed our Dhaka hotel in a van with a driver and a guide from Jannat’s international training team, heading to the Gorai Mirzapur branch, about fifty miles northeast of the capital. This, however, turned out to be something of a mistake as we hit rush hour traffic again. Somehow we managed to arrive for a borrowers (or center) meeting at 10:05 am, only five minutes late. We were joined by Andy Pleatman, a Hong Kong-based financial supporter of Grameen Foundation, and his daughter Kim. Over the next forty minutes, we had a spirited discussion with 60 Grameen members that pushed my translation skills to the limits and beyond.
One woman shared how she had taken a Tk. 1,000 (about $15) loan 22 years ago and now was able to borrow and productively invest 30 times that amount in raising livestock and shopkeeping. Another proudly spoke about the three cows she now owned free and clear after taking a loan to buy them. Several mentioned that they’d built houses nearby to rent out to laborers who migrated to the area for work in new factories nearby. When we asked the newest borrowers (i.e., less than three years in Grameen) to stand up, their lack of self-confidence in addressing us starkly contrasted with those who had been borrowing longer. Also striking was how few children all of the women had—all the ones we asked had one or two.
After the meeting, our group went to visit a few borrowers’ homes. One borrower, Rokeya Begum, had been widowed soon after her third child was born. With Grameen loans, she grew several businesses (many based on raising livestock) and then built a house where seven laborers now live and pay her rent. She’d sent her son to Singapore to work. He sent back earnings for a while, but he was killed in a tragic accident soon after he’d returned to Bangladesh. We met his widow as we left and expressed our condolences, hoping that she had the same fighting spirit as Rokeya.
We then met with three participants in Grameen’s path-breaking “struggling borrowers” or “beggars” program that provides tiny income-generating loans (most less than $20) to beggars along with some other assets, such as an umbrella and mosquito net. Although there’s no pressure for them to do so, the idea is that over time, some of these individuals will opt to repay their loans and join Grameen’s mainstream lending program. In fact, of the 120,000 “struggling members,” close to 20,000 have given up begging and graduated. The three we spoke to span the spectrum of severe disadvantage. One woman seemed primed to repay her loan and join a Grameen group in the next year. Another was still paying off a $15 loan taken close to a decade earlier. A third woman—who was by far the oldest of the three—could barely remember when she had taken her loan and how much it had been.
We wrapped up our field visit by talking to four students (children of borrowers) who were benefitting from Grameen’s higher education loan program. Then we visited the branch and area offices where we spoke with staff and with clients awaiting fresh loans after having repaid earlier ones.
I thought the ride back to Dhaka was typically harrowing, and Andy seemed particularly ill at ease with the Bangladeshi driving norms. Before retiring, we had dinner poolside at our hotel. Everyone seemed to be processing the day. Andy said Grameen was about fundamentally instilling confidence in people. I like to think he’s right – our work is about instilling in the poor the confidence to lift themselves out of poverty and fortifying the confidence in ourselves that we can make poverty a thing of the past.