Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Small lenders trigger big changes

EMPOWERMENT While Bangladesh is struggling to lift its people out of famine and poverty, microlenders are playing a major role in improving living standards


Married at 11, a mother at 12, Shahnaz by rights should be another sad case of a downtrodden woman in one of the world's poorest countries.

Far from it. As the last of a misty morning rain falls, Shahnaz tells how she earns about US$4 a day -- more than three times the national average in Bangladesh -- by selling milk from a cow she owns and by peddling basic medicines to her neighbors.

Now aged 30, she owns a television set, 20 good saris and some gold jewellery. Her most valuable asset, she says, is the education she has been able to give her two sons, aged 18 and 14.

Shahnaz says the reason she's doing better is clear: small loans she has taken out from BRAC, the biggest of a legion of non-governmental organizations that have pioneered microfinance as a means of helping the poor to help themselves and, in the process, gain a bit more control over their lives.

Bangladesh's microlenders make most of their loans to women, figuring they are more likely to spend the profits they make on improving the lot of their families.

Shahnaz, self-confident and direct, could serve as the dictionary definition of this goal of "empowerment" in a country where rural women by tradition were neither seen nor heard.

"If this village has been able to develop, it's because of BRAC loans," she says. "Before there was no work, but there's been a great change. Now we have jobs that are bringing us in money."

For many, Bangladesh is still a byword for despair, best known for the floods and cyclones that periodically devastate what is the world's most densely populated country.

Health and education indicators are slowly improving and population growth has slowed. A country that was racked by famine in the years following independence from Pakistan in 1971 is now nearly self-sufficient in food.

But about half of the population of nearly 140 million still lives below the poverty line; six out of 10 are illiterate and only a third has access to electricity.

"We still don't see our society, our state, being able to do much for its poor people," says BRAC's founder and chief executive officer, Fazle Hasan Abed.

Abed created BRAC, which was known then as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, as a relief organization in 1972.

It has since evolved into a sprawling development conglomerate providing cradle-to-grave services for nearly 120,000 village organizations counting four million households.

Calling itself the world's largest national non-governmental organization, BRAC does a lot more than microfinance. It runs 34,000 primary schools, a university, fish hatcheries, tea estates and a salt factory.

It makes artificial limbs and exports French beans to France and potatoes to Singapore. BRAC contributes more than 1 percent of Bangladesh's national income and employs over 60,000 people.

In a 19th-storey conference room in BRAC's Dhaka headquarters overlooking a sprawling slum and a mosque financed by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Abed denies his organization is spreading itself too thinly or growing for the sake of it.

"We shouldn't remain small and beautiful; we should be large and effective," he says. "As long as the government is not able to provide the support our people needs, BRAC is going to do this."

Abed says BRAC does not see itself as competing with the state. But he acknowledges that some lower-level officials might be jealous of BRAC's reach and says there will ultimately be a political impact if it succeeds in raising the living standards and awareness of millions of grassroots Bangladeshis.

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