International Women’s Day Special: Women and Microfinance

There has been much debate regarding the role of microfinance in empowering women with a great number of studies offering evidence towards both sides of the debate. During a visit to Koitta, Manikganj, a rural village in Bangladesh in 2007, I too was a bit underwhelmed by the “female empowerment” I had observed while researching the impacts of microfinance on the area.

As a young woman who had grown up in an urban environment where opportunities, although available, were accompanied by an ever-present underlying resistance of lowered societal expectations, I had high hopes for what I would observe there because I wanted to believe, I needed to believe, that I too was capable of more than what my external environment expected of me.

Although I was privileged enough to have many supportive people in my life, I also watched perplexed as male colleagues and classmates were showered with opportunity after opportunity while I was left to fight for their scraps. Microfinance sounded beautiful and I wanted desperately to become a believer.

What I found was that the mothers, wives and daughters I encountered were just like me, still entrenched in a gender power struggle beyond their control, doing the best they could to build a place for themselves with the limited resources at their disposal, in a world that is deeply resistant to shifting boundaries. I wanted to find strong assertive women with full control of their destinies so that I too could hope for the same. What I found were women just like me, doing their best to overcome their own personal insecurities, moving forward one step at a time. What I found was that microfinance is no panacea. Women are subject to the same exploitative forces and insecurities they previously were but with an additional tool in their arsenal of defense which should not be underestimated. However, one should set realistic expectations when setting out to remote rural villages to see these changes for themselves. Important changes are taking place, but rather than a “loud” in-your-face revolution, it is one of incremental change, brewing just below the surface. Setting ones expectations too high will ultimately lead to disappointment and add further fuel to the fire of microfinance naysayers, many of whom are prominent politically powerful individuals, who claim that microfinance institutions are simply engaging in usury.

When asked by people about my views regarding microfinance, I often use the analogy of a syringe. A syringe is not inherently good or bad but its ultimate impact is determined by how it is utilized by its user. It could be used to inject a patient with lifesaving drugs or to pump heroin into the veins of a drug addict, thus furthering a cycle of addiction and destruction. Though microfinance may not always have the intended effect, it is ultimately a resource with the capacity to do immense good.

What excites me most is that microfinance access is planting millions of seeds of progress which will ultimately come into fruition in the future. Microfinance is a relatively recent concept and we are just beginning to see what the second and third generation of women who grew up with mothers and grandmothers who enjoyed the freedoms and opportunities associated with having access to microcredit will be able to achieve in their lifetime. I look forward to the day that I go back to Koitta and see the latent potential that I observed there manifest into something beyond my greatest hopes.

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The Power of Deshi Innovation

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.