I made a visit to a Grameen Bank branch office today around the district of Gazipur (not further than 30 to 40 kilometers from the capital city of Dhaka). I learned a few important things about the bank today that I think hold great lessons for Green Riba, my zero-interest microfinance initiative in West Dallas.
Green Riba was in the planning stage for about three months, and I have learned that a business plan on paper is only that. While it feels great to have paired up with the award-winning non-profit PeopleFund and other business groups, I cannot wait to get started with the storefront aspect of the business. Green Riba’s for-profit storefront will fully subsidize the zero-interest loans from all angles: administrative, seed money, capital and technical assistance.
Muhammad Yunus theorizes in his book Creating Social Business that there is nothing like hands-on learning. I learned that Green Riba has to overcome cultural, social and economic barriers. The supermajority of the population in West Dallas does not have access to a traditional savings or checking account. This means that the people of West Dallas may need technical assistance and support when they first take loans from us. (Financial illiteracy, along with prejudice and asset evaluation, is a reason that traditional banking institutions have largely overlooked West Dallas.) We also face regulative, bureaucratic and language barriers in West Dallas.
Similarly, when Grameen Bank first started, it had to overcome barriers from many sides: religious leaders fearful of secularization, husbands afraid of a change in the gendered status quo, government officials apprehensive at collateral-less loans and academics stunned by Grameen Bank’s aberration from the status quo.
Even today, as I learned from my branch-level visit, women borrowers are not completely liberated from the constraints of a gendered and male-dominant society. In fact, the majority of women borrowers take out loans to facilitate the businesses of their male relatives. Per example, a woman I spoke with borrowed 100,000 taka (a little more than 1,000 USD) to fund her husband’s cell phone store. At first glance, it may seem like Grameen Bank is doing very little to empower women.
However, when I pressed him on this issue, the branch manager replied, “Generational change happens slowly. If we allow a woman to become the money provider in the family, she has more rights, and she gets to make decisions with her husband.” I must remember the importance of working within the constraints of barriers when Green Riba begins distributing loans in August/September.
I will be spending the next week in a Grameen Bank village-level bank so this will be my last blog post for about a week! I thank you for following my blog, and I hope to share more parts of the bank that cannot be found by simply reading a textbook. Bhalo theko (Stay well)!