Bangladesh was a country I took for granted, not realizing its raw beauty while I was there. It was an internship that drew me to Dhaka, the country’s capital and one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
A United States-based marketing internship would have made better strategic sense for my resume. However, I wanted to learn about one man and his quest to lift people out of poverty, most of whom were women. So I cast aside others’ professional expectations of me, along with my western wardrobe. For Dhaka.
Descending into the city’s center was daunting. Rickshaw drivers crowded the streets by the tens of thousands.
Arriving in front of Grand Prince Hotel, I struggled to weave my way through the crowd, armed with my huge rolling bag and a dirty backpack I had dragged through Nepal.
It hit me that I was being stared at. Not in an Italian “Blonde women we LOVE-ah!” kind of way, but as if I were an alien. To many, I was. A tall, light-haired, white alien, the likes of which they had never seen.
It took some weeks to accept their gazing as expressions of curiosity, and to move on.
On day one of my internship, I walked with several classmates down the dilapidated sidewalk, to our office headquarters. Small concession stands dotted the side of our path, selling seeds and fruit. Brightly hued rickshaws and their larger, automatic counterpart the CNG (compressed natural gas), jostled each other for room on the street.
Along our right-hand side was a ditch filled with muddy water, into which many locals would urinate.
At first sight of a tall official-looking building, we veered towards Grameen Bank, our destination.
Grameen Bank was founded by Dr. Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and ardent supporter of finding the entrepreneur in everyone. He stands in the middle, I to his right.
Yunus is best known for his pioneering work in microfinance, or the idea of small loans for the very poor.
No collateral required.
97% of the borrowers are women. This is in large part strategic — women who borrow money are more likely to invest it back into family, or into the community. Men have a tendency to use it for their own personal and professional gain.
Hundreds of students were attracted to this internship, and I found a home within a section of the bank called Grameen Trust. Within Grameen Trust was Project Dignity, a division focusing on rural beggars, who occupy the lowest socioeconomic rung in Bangladeshi society.
Established to replicate Grameen Bank’s “Struggling Members” program, Grameen Trust has enabled more than $300,000 in microloans to rural beggars, with the assistance of Grameen Trust’s partners in the field.
The term beggars is theirs, and not intended to be demeaning.
I focused on analyzing the metrics by which Project Dignity’s success was judged. In other words, were beggars’ personal situations improving as they were lent money? Did the loans enable their small businesses — weaving stools, running a fruit stand — to take off? Were loan recipients graduating to become full-fledged members of a bank?
We needed to meet the beggars to find out. They welcomed my team to their villages, an overwhelmingly generous invitation given the income gap between our country and theirs.
My personal belief is that visits like these should be limited to educational exchanges or business dealings. Not tourism. Imagine if Donald Trump asked to observe you eating dinner, taking notes as you passed the butter. Or if he shadowed you while you cruised the toy aisle in Walmart.
You would probably hope there were an upside to his observations. A cut of his net worth? A scholarly attempt on his part to improve your situation?
The beggars believed the differences between American and Bangladeshi poor people were amusing. “American beggars,” they joked, “are educated.”
We learned from many of them, through help of a translator, that their situations were indeed improving. “How?” I inquired, “How do you know?”
“Well, she looks happier,” one woman described her friend, after seeing her succeed at weaving more stools than before. “The children eat,” said another.
The latter response was slightly closer to our intended goal. In order to demonstrate true success of the program, it had to be described in quantifiable terms. We encouraged modified answers, such as “My family went from eating one meal a day to two meals a day, as a result of loans through Project Dignity.”
Such statements better measure project success, and paint a clearer picture to investors that their money was well spent.
Though we visited rural villages only a few times, the experiences were trying. They involved bus, rickshaw and foot travel combined with afternoons spent outdoors in hot, humid villages.
Bangladesh is a country of contrasts. There was a sharp division between the young children who expressed joy unabashedly, and the older ones that were more quiet.
The younger ones were boisterous, jolly, some to the point of being pushy.
And some did what they could to just get through the day. Relegated to the bottom of the food chain by birth, or young mothers, resorting to begging after being abandoned by a husband… nothing seemed fair.
This young man scooted through the train asking for money.
As I write this post, the future of Grameen Bank is unclear. For reasons that are not yet fully understood, efforts to nationalize Grameen Bank are being discussed. Is it a result of women hurting women, as Nicholas Kristof discusses in his recent New York Times op-ed?
Granted, Yunus’ model has been replicated in many countries around the world, and is a dominant movement for positive change in Bangladesh. Perhaps this dominance is perceived as threatening by some.
Bangladesh is a volatile place, economically and otherwise. But one man’s efforts to lift its inhabitants out of poverty have been remarkable.
I don’t believe those efforts should be thwarted, or controlled. Guided, maybe. But let the country’s entrepreneurial spirit flourish.
Let the women weave their stools, let the men build as big a fruit stand as they can. Empower them to create what is theirs.