Sunday, 5 July 2009
Sunday, 28 June 2009
Saturday, 20 June 2009
Thursday, 11 June 2009
Weekends in Bangladesh are on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was my first day at work. The new interns sat in the conference room on the 8th floor of the 21 floor"Grameen Bank Headquarters" waiting for the whole group to turn up (we were 9 in total). The last two walked in, a boy and girl (mid 20s) who are at law school in New York. After the initial introductions, I notice Jenny (the girl) staring at me inquisitively. Finally, after several awkward moments had passed, she blurts out "did I meet you on a boat in St. Tropez two years ago?" Perhaps one of the most unexpected lines I have heard in my entire life. I tried hard to think of a time when I was on a boat with a cute American girl (or any girl) in St. Tropez, but I failed. I soon realized that by boat she meant ferry and by St. Tropez, she really meant St. Maxime. It eventually came back to me that we had in fact sat next to each other on the crossing over from Antibes, but somehow ended up on different boats for the next leg. Far less glamorous, but ridiculous nonetheless.
The rest of the day was filled with info videos on what Grameen is, how it operates and what its is hoping to achieve. To digress into that for a moment, below is a link to a very useful history of how microfinance came into being:
So that is how it came to be. Grameen loans almost exclusively to women, since they are deemed more fiscally responsible than men and care more for the needs of their family. Empowering women in such a way also greatly improves the gender inequality that runs through the entire country. It is also entirely village based (Grameen actually means village in Bengali), so no loans are given out to city dwellers. The average loan size is 15,000 Tk. which is about $220 and will be used to purchase livestock, agricultural land, machines (for sewing, cooking etc) and any other kind of investment that the village women choose to make. There is no collateral required for the loan, nor is there any contractual obligation to pay it back. Instead the women organize themselves into groups of five, and each group is supposed to constantly meet, support and aid one another through their investments. Through this group system, there is a strong societal pressure placed on each woman to make sure she meets her weekly loan payment, and this has proven to be incredibly effective - Grameens repayment rate for its entire portfolio is over 95%, proving that the poor are extremely creditworthy.
Monday morning we took a day trip out to the village. Less than 90 minutes outside Dhaka, we were surrounded by relatively wide open greenery and much fresher air. All 60 women in the village were Grameen borrowers, and we had the opportunity to attend their center meeting (a collection of "5 person" groups is called a center). Most impressive of all was a woman - I named her "SlumCat Millionaire" - who had used her first loan of 2,000 Tk. ($30) to buy 10 chickens, that she tended by her house. She now has a tin hut next to her home, with 1,300 chickens, each producing an egg a day, which she sells to a Dhaka based wholesaler for 6 Tk. (8 cents) an egg. She has her own three-hut complex at the end of the village, cable TV, and a big grin on her face. If you do the math you'll see why.
Some other highlights of my week include visiting Gulshan, the only up-market neighborhood, where the embassies and nice hotels are located. The newly built Westin seems like the George V compared to my present accommodation, and I enjoyed a surreal drink in its lounge listening to three pretty East-Asian girls - dressed like hookers - singing modern English pop music (Sugababes, Natasha Beddingfield etc)...very bizarre. Yesterday afternoon, a friend and I managed to find the "Army Golf Club", and as the sun was setting and the temperature perfect, we played 9 holes. We had two caddies, two spotters, two sets of clubs and two pairs of shoes, for a total price of 1,500 Tk. ($22) each. It was an incredible experience.
I also visited an inner city slum, where an NGO has replicated the Grameen model to work for the city. The women all agreed that life was better in the village, and when they make enough money they plan to move back (almost all had migrated to Dhaka over the past 20 years). The city is simply a much bigger market, giving them far greater opportunity to earn. This same NGO (Padakhep) also runs a shelter for children that live on the streets. We visited 1 of its 4 outposts, and it was amazing to see how happy the children looked. They are given 2 hours of regular schooling and 2 hours of vocational training, along with counseling to help them get over the traumas they have experienced (such as drugs, and physical / sexual abuse). Apparently over 50% of all street children in Dhaka are reached by shelters like this in one way or another, although I find that number hard to believe.
The heat really has been the hardest thing to cope with. My pastel colored cotton shirts end up soaking wet and many shades darker after less than an hour outdoors. I often have to shower 3 times a day, for fear my stench will attract mosquitos to my room, and have realized now how pathetically out of shape I must be.
Next week I will be spending 5 days in a village that is 400 km from Dhaka, where they have no electricity and therefore no fans or AC. It should be interesting.
Depending on how exciting my weekend is - I am going to a party with a bunch of locals at the Radisson hotel tonight - will determine whether I post before I leave for the village, so until then