Dark side of a celebrated sector

May 01, 2012 12:19 am | Updated July 11, 2016 12:38 pm IST

Chennai: 03/04/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: Microfinance and its Discontents, women in Debt in Bangladesh. Author: Lamia Karim.

Chennai: 03/04/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: Microfinance and its Discontents, women in Debt in Bangladesh. Author: Lamia Karim.

“Beyond its hagiographic transcripts, microfinance is fundamentally a relationship of inequality between the creditor and the debtor. While credit is theorized as “trust” by microfinance proponents, analysing it as debt shows us how debt functions at the confluence of two powerful forces: the financial responsibility to return debts and the social consequences of breaking the “trust” between the borrower and her community”.

Karim's book is a compelling account of the political and economic foundations that led to the creation of the NGO sector, which soon became a quasi-sovereign state dispensing essential services and employment in the rural economy.

Concentrating largely on the top four microfinance institutions, namely, the Grameen Bank, BRAC, ASA and Proshika, Karim's ethnographic exploration provides fresh and interesting insights into the following: one, it builds on the notion of group as collateral in microfinance transactions to analyse how NGOs have operationalised rural codes of honour and shame to ‘manufacture a culturally specific governmentality' that she terms ‘the economy of shame'; two, she demonstrates how the operation of the NGO as shadow state signals the privatisation of state functions in many areas; three Karim examines the phenomenon of how NGOs, their Western sponsors, and a small coterie of NGO researchers circumscribe the discourse of development and determine what can be made intelligible to the public.

Everyday mediations

Karim documents how daily life are the sites of dense supervision and surveillance as individual group members monitor each other constantly to safeguard their financial investment; how this surveillance resulted in increased strife and antagonisms among the women borrowers and between them and the wider community; how field workers of the NGOs studied had hardly any time to devote to training or to other social issues even as they claimed to do this on paper; how microcredit operations have actually widened the net of money-lending since the moneylender now sees the poor as creditworthy risks. Equally interesting is the rise of money-lending among women borrowers, explained away as ‘shahajya' [help] to dissociate the same from usury not permitted under the Koran.

The elaborate discussion of the many different ways in which the ‘economy of shame' is practised in the rural countryside in the name of recovery of loan amounts, and/or, honouring commitments made, was particularly pernicious for defaulting poor women — they were held responsible for bringing shame and dishonour even if the loan amounts were handed over to and used by husbands and/or other male kin.

NGOs and the clergy

Karim notes the absence of scholarly scrutiny of the NGO rhetoric portraying the rural clergy as part of a deep-rooted conspiracy to create a Taliban-like state in Bangladesh. She argues instead that the NGOs and the clergy are entangled in similar motivations, namely, to establish their governance over rural subjects. The state backing of NGOs has heightened resentment among the clerical establishment leading to occasional conflict over resources, clients and rural authority.

The thick description of a particular conflict reveals the complex manner in which poor rural households [women in particular] have to negotiate their everyday existence in association with the clergy; the latter helps the poor family economically but in turn expects the family to respect the moral authority of the clergy in all aspects of social life. Needless to add, this authority of the clergy and its claim to maintain social order is premised centrally on regulation of women's sexuality.

The action of the NGOs in enhancing women's public visibility through making their continued access to loans contingent on their participation in rallies was construed as having brought the husbands of the affected women into disrepute. The husbands were publicly taunted for their inability to control their women, which led the men to abuse their wives physically and verbally.

Karim sums up this conflict thus: “… paradoxically, both parties — whether champions of more progressive and modernist ideas of women's rights, or as ‘guardians' of Islam — ended up brutalizing the bodies and souls of the women they sought to ‘empower' and ‘protect'” [p162].

In the extremely thought provoking section, “The Discourse of Development and the Production of Knowledge”, Karim critiques the manner in which the elaborate research wings of the major NGOs produce reports and monographs mainly to authenticate their work to their donors and for a global audience. This knowledge constructs the poor in particular ways and speaks for them; it is aimed at legitimising a particular model, the microfinance model that then enables the NGOs to garner more funds from within and abroad. Equally significant, this section graphically describes the manner in which some sections of Bangladesh academia have become complicit in this production of knowledge as consultants to these NGOs for which they are amply rewarded.

This lucidly written book is at the same time very provocative. What however remains intriguing is why Karim has not frontally brought in or thought it fit to engage with Bangladesh's women's movement and their discourse, their take and intervention, if any, on such an important theme.

MICROFINANCE AND ITS DISCONTENTS — Women in Debt in Bangladesh: Lamia Karim; University of Minnesota Press, 111, III Avenue, South, Suite 290, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2520.

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