I started my career in the banking sector as an idealistic bohemian drowning in a sea of MBAs, working at a local Bangladeshi bank with strong ties to rural development. While I specifically sought out an organization that would deepen my understanding of development issues, the case was very different for most of my fellow colleagues for whom the ultimate dream was to have a prestigious high paying job at a multinational bank or corporation. While I too whined about the drawbacks of working for a local firm such as the low pay, lack of benefits, the less than stellar working environment etc., I eventually came to realize that local Bangladeshi firms had something else to offer. The realization came only after I had completely removed myself from the situation, having left the job and the country to pursue my Masters degree at the University of Oxford. One of the university clubs I became involved with was the Oxford Microfinance Initiative, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of smart and energetic young students who were well versed and extremely knowledgeable regarding the micro-finance sector in Bangladesh, particularly the Grameen Bank micro-finance model and the social business model advocated by our home grown Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Yunus. That is when it really occurred to me that Bangladesh is the birthplace of a banking revolution. While the conventional western banking system is in shambles, our unique brand of banking which was adapted specifically to solve local problems, has captured the imagination of the rest of the world and they are eagerly observing us and waiting to see what else we have to offer, whether it be in the field of banking, climate change adaptation, public health etc. etc. The people of the world are looking to us for answers. Looking back, I feel quite bad about having taken for granted my involvement in the banking sector in Bangladesh. It has been a privilege to be a part of this movement and I only hope that my ex colleagues working at local banks feel the same way one day.
During my Masters, one of my major areas of interest was Corporate Social and Environmental Accountability, which opened my eyes to the true untapped potential of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). When implemented shrewdly and strategically, CSR must take into account the competitive context of each individual business to specifically tackle those issues for which it is particularly well suited and aim to maximize synergy between the business and the greater society within which they are embedded.
CSR in Bangladesh is usually implemented in a rather superficial manner wherein the activities undertaken are not strategically linked to the business organization’s activities and operations but are limited to isolated cases of corporate philanthropy with little planning with regard to the maximization of positive impacts.
Businesses must actively work to identify how their activities may be aligned to maximize positive social and environmental outcomes through interventions that are cost-effective and in their long term best interest. I highly recommend the work of Michael Porter and Mark Kramer to anyone who is interested in making the most of their company’s CSR programs.
This article by Justin Guay highlights some important points, particularly with regard to how Grameen Shakti’s success challenges many strongly held views regarding renewable energy such as:
1. PV is still not financially viable- PV is financially viable. Grameen Shakti as a company has been self sustaining since 2000 and individual customers have recouped their investments in less time than initially expected due to the sharp increase in the price of kerosene during the last few years.
2. PV is too expensive- The majority of Grameen Shaki’s customers earn less than USD 1900 per year. If they are able to purchase solar home systems (SHSs) without receiving any direct subsidies, why not customers in other countries with higher income levels? The secret to their success is offering a variety of customer credit and repayment schemes that are specifically designed to be affordable to a rural population with meager savings and constantly fluctuating income.
3. Decentralized energy is not financially viable- In isolated rural areas with low population densities, grid expansion may not be financially worthwhile. In such places, decentralized technologies such as SHSs are a way to catalyze new income generating opportunities and improve the general standard of living.
The ultimate lesson according to Guay is that ” Bangladesh is the world’s demonstration case for an off-grid clean energy access plan that delivers.”
As an observer of the Grameen Shakti phenomenon, what I find particularly interesting is that socio-cultural factors, which are usually a barrier to the deployment of new renewable energy technologies in other countries are actually working in Grameen Shakti’s favor. The patron client relationship upon which political order in rural Bangladesh is based has helped Grameen Shakti attract new clients as the company initially targeted highly respected and influential members of rural communities, which helped the new technology gain the acceptance of the general rural population.
In 2008, I published this story regarding my experience while visiting a ship breaking yard in Sitakunda, Bangladesh. While studying for my Masters degree, our Environmental Law course included a case study of the 2006 Trafigura Toxic Waste Dumping Case. For those of you who may not be familiar with the case, Trafigura Beheer BV, a Dutch-based shipping company, offloaded 500 tonnes of toxic waste from a ship named the Probo Koala at the port city of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast in 2006. The waste was then dumped by a local subcontractor in various locations throughout the city thus exposing thousands of people to its toxins. The toxic gas that was released from the waste resulted in burns to the lungs and skin as well as severe headaches and vomiting. Seventeen people died from the exposure and at least 30,000 were injured.
While researching the case, I realized that in 2011, Bangladesh came dangerously close to allowing the Probo Koala onto it shores for dismantling. Fortunately, the Government banned the ship from entering Bangladesh’s territorial waters largely due to strong protests from local and international NGOs. However, considering the flagrant disregard for worker health and safety that I observed in the ship breaking industry in Bangladesh, I cannot help but think about how close we may have come to a major health and environmental disaster.