We left for Nowga, a district in western Bangladesh, six days ago. It was the drive of my life. While Bangladesh has a fairly decent national highway system, no one follows any rules or regulations. Imagine a two lane highway that travels both ways. Now add trucks, buses, gas scooters, cars, vans and rickshaws to the equation. Someone in our group joked, “Armageddon or this journey?” But, all jokes aside, we arrived safely in Kiratpur, a region of Nowga, after a twelve-hour trip of traffic jams and crazed driving.
My stay at the village reminded me of how good life is in the West. The electricity was routinely gone for more than twelve hours. There was no working fan in the room I slept in. There was no hot water. There was a sanitary latrine yet no toilet. And yet, I felt content in a less complex setting. Every morning, we visited a center meeting where we met women (about 98% of Grameen’s borrowers are women) who had seen gradual improvements in their lives — a brick house instead of a mud hut, three cows instead of a goat and a small plot of land for vegetable cultivation instead of rented land. While life in the village is difficult to quantify or qualify in Western terms, the improvement is real when compared with the state of Bangladesh a few decades ago.
In 1974, a famine hit the newly-formed Bangladesh (it had previously been known as East Pakistan) and claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people. The famine, as many historians have concluded, was a result of poor governance and economic inequality. Rice was king (and still is in Bangladesh). But now, Grameen borrowers have a few options: They engage in micro enterprises that sell products ranging from fish to groceries to tea to snacks.
In my opinion, because of successful micro enterprise in many of Bangladesh’s villages — a rising industry of land cultivation, small businesses and service-oriented trades — a middle class has risen (a relative context in comparison to the village’s overall economy). A visit to some of Grameen’s long-term borrowers’ homes will reveal many luxuries: a television, a radio, sets of wooden furniture, a fridge and stable electricity. These modern luxuries should not be overlooked.
I hope to develop this theory further while I am in Bangladesh. Circumstances willing, I hope to visit another village in ten days. I will be sure to sample at least fifty storeowners and their storefronts from a microeconomic standpoint: their profitability, their luxury goods, their quality of life, etc. Perhaps I will be able to combine this data into an image of what Grameen Bank (and other microcredit programs) can do for the motivated.
I have returned to Dhaka and its internet cafes, and I will be sharing more about my journey soon!