Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

Nurjahan's Story

"I don't understand why anybody should be poor on this planet."

Muhammad Yunus, 1997

Sarishpur, Bangladesh, April 2013

I was born in 1971, the year Bangladesh fought its way to independence from Pakistan and became a nation. My name, Nurjahan, means "the light of the world."

I never knew my real parents. I have been told that my grandfather was a wealthy peasant farmer who owned six acres, who had five sons and a daughter. Each time one of his sons married, he sold a piece of land to pay for the wedding. When his daughter married, he sold more land to provide her with a dowry. By the time of his death he owned one acre, which was divided between his five sons.

My father, Abu, was his fifth son. When Abu married my mother, she was often sick, so Abu had to sell part of his acre to buy medicines. He sold more of it to the local moneylender to repay a family debt, and by the time I was born, there was none left. Then came the civil war, and in the confusion of it all, my parents fled the village, leaving me with a neighbour. I was three months old.

I think of Komla as my mother. She and her husband Shafiqual were landless labourers who worked in the fields for a pittance with two children of their own. During the famine of 1974, when the rice was being hoarded by the merchants and sold for fifty times its normal price, they were forced to gather wild greens and roots to keep us alive. One of my earliest memories is of searching in the dirt outside the merchants' houses, looking for grains that might have fallen from their sacks. Komla's youngest child died during the famine.

We lived all together in the poorest of shacks. Our floor was packed mud; the roof was made from sagging straw that would collapse every monsoon so that the rain came in and soaked everything; the walls were made from a few dried palm leaves, hung on bamboo poles. We had no furniture. We slept together on burlap bags laid on the floor. In the winter, Komla stuffed straw into a bag to cover us against the cold. We were always hungry. Sometimes Shafiqual would lose a job because he was too weak to do the work, for lack of food.

When I was twelve, they married me off to a rickshaw driver from Bajitpur, the nearby town, in exchange for my dowry - a new sari and a small gift of money. It was horrible. My husband - I have vowed never to speak his name again - would come home drunk every night and beat me, then force me to lie with him. Then he started bringing other women home. They would shout at me and treat me like a servant, expecting me to cook for them while they had sex with my husband on the other side of a screen. I never knew which was worse, lying with him myself, or listening while he lay with these other women.

After a year, when I was two months pregnant, one of his women became very angry and demanded that he throw me out. I sat outside the door for three days, crying and asking to be let back in, but he just came out and kicked me. None of the neighbours helped. I didn't come from their families, so they owed me nothing. In the end, I picked myself up and walked the seven miles back to Sarishpur, where Komla and Shafiqual took me in and let me stay while I raised my son, Siddique. I was thirteen years old. Komla and her husband have always been kind, no matter how little they had. Sometimes when there was no money, Komla would go for days without food, chewing betel nuts to dull the stomach pains, while feeding us any scraps of food she could find.

They were kind to me three years later, too, when I fell in love with a boy from a nearby village. I am still ashamed of myself. I must have encouraged him, because one day when we were walking by the rice paddies, I softened to his advances. Two months later, I became pregnant again. I know it was wrong. Other families would have thrown me out. But Shafiqual simply said, "If Allah wishes you to have his child, you will have his child."

My boyfriend's family were furious, and we were forbidden from seeing each other. They called me a prostitute, a fallen woman - all sorts of terrible things. If we had lived in Pakistan, they would probably have given me a hundred lashes and then stoned me to death - or poured cooking over me and set me on fire.

That was the darkest time of my life. There were times when I cried all day and all night, wishing that I had never been born. Siddique was three and always crying from hunger. When there was nothing to eat, I would walk the seven miles into Bajitpur with Siddique on my hip and spend the day begging outside the bus station. I had to sit on the roadside, competing with the lepers, the men with no legs who got around on little wooden trays on wheels, and children whose limbs had been deliberately broken by their parents to make them better beggars. I was terribly ashamed. Sometimes a man offered to take me somewhere in a taxi. Most of the time I refused, but when we were really hungry, I would leave Siddique with another beggar woman and go with them. It was horrible, but I had to feed Siddique. I had to live. Luckily, Komla never found out that I was doing this. Sharifa, my daughter, must have wanted to be born very much. If she hadn't, I'm sure I would have had a miscarriage. Allah must have loved her and wanted her to live.

Today, Siddique wears a smart suit and drives a fast yellow car. He looks very important with his well-groomed hair and his cellular telephone. He is a regional director with Grameen Shakti (Grameen Power), where he advises farmers how to set up solar and windpower co-operatives. He has even been to America.

My daughter Sharifa is a teacher here in Sarishpur and is studying for a distance-learning degree in education from the Open University, in England. She has a good husband and two daughters, who live with Komla and myself in our new house, with our garden and our solarvoltaic roof. Shafiqual died seven years ago. This week Sharifa is away in Dhaka, where she is speaking at an international conference on poverty and family planning. We own six acres of land, where we grow rice, and we own four pigs, three goats, five cows, a hundred chickens and a share in a fishpond. We live in a clean, well-built house, and I pay 30 taka a year into a community health plan. I contribute to a mutual fund for my retirement for when I am too old to work, and Komla does the same. We cook with the biogas that our pigs produce, and we harvest our own fruit and vegetables, which we have learnt to grow organically, using compost instead of expensive chemicals. We are part-owners in a farmers' windpower co-operative, and the roof of our house is covered in solar shingles, which give us the power we need for lighting, a radio, and the computer Siddique gave me to keep in touch with him by video-mail. I sit on the advisory committee of the Sarishpur Grameen Bank and am chairwoman of the Reforestation Co-operative. Every day, when I arise before dawn, I give thanks to Allah for the miracles he has given us, and I give thanks to Muhammad Yunus, who made it all possible.

***

I still ask myself - how did this happen ? It started on a day in February 1991, when a woman from the Grameen Bank came to Sarishpur looking for women to form a lending circle. She only wanted the very poorest women, who would never receive a loan from a regular bank.

I was twenty years old and had never been near a bank. When Komla and her husband needed money, they went to a moneylender. They couldn't go to a bank, because they had no land to use as collateral for a loan. The moneylenders charged 10 percent per day. If you borrowed 50 taka, you had to repay 55 taka tomorrow. That was how the moneylenders grew rich - and how the rest of us grew so poor. They didn't call it interest, because Muslim law doesn't allow that, but they still did it. That's a kind of prostitution, too.

Komla was very suspicious about the new bank. She didn't want me going to the meeting, but I was interested. What kind of people wanted to help a woman like me ? There were thirty of us at the first meeting. By the time we finished, I had agreed to join a circle with four other women from the village. We had to decide which two of us would receive the first loans, and what we were going to use them for. The Grameen Bank didn't require any collateral, and they didn't require our husbands or fathers to sign the loans for us, but if the first two did not repay their loans, the rest of our group would not be able to borrow. We were suddenly together, and we had to help each other. As women, we knew what our troubles were. We never thought to waste the money, or spend it on stupid things. The interest was just 20 percent a year, and we had to start repaying the loan within two weeks.

I decided to borrow 200 taka to buy three chickens, repaying the loan by selling the eggs. The chickens did fine, and six months later I was able to apply for a second loan, which I used to buy a very small portion of land and a goat. By milking the goat every morning and evening, I was able to repay this loan too, so then I applied for a third loan to buy a cow. That's how it started. By the time I had my third loan, Komla had joined a circle too. She received her first loan to buy a sewing machine, which she used to do clothing repairs. One of the women in my circle used her loan to fatten her cow, while another used it to get her rice husked.

One of the things we had to do if we wanted to receive a loan was think about the Grameen Bank's "16 Decisions," and take an oral exam to show that we understood them. The woman from the bank said they were very important and would help us build better lives. The one that caused the most discussion was "We shall not take any dowry at the time of marriage of our sons, and we shall not give any dowry at the time of marriage of our daughters." This meant breaking with a very powerful tradition. The thought that I might not have to find a dowry for Sharifa was very liberating. Many mothers cursed the day they gave birth to a daughter, and often wished her dead, even to her face. We lived with the daily knowledge that when our daughters married, we would have to sell whatever we had and go to the moneylender to pay for their dowries. If we did not, our daughters would not be able to find good husbands. If we took this pledge, however, our daughters could find themselves good husbands by marrying sons from families which had also taken the pledge.

We also had to decide that we wanted to change our lives; that we wanted to live in a well-built house; that we wanted to send our children to school so that they could become educated; that we wanted to ensure a healthy environment around us; that we wanted to grow trees; that we would grow vegetables all year round, eat plenty of them, and sell the surplus.

I was lucky - I had no husband to tell me I couldn't do these things. Some of the women had a terrible time persuading their husbands to let them continue. They said it was a Christian plot or a western scheme to destroy the Muslim faith. As soon as they started bringing cows and banana seedlings home, however, their husbands began to change.

At the time when the Grameen Bank came to Sarishpur in 1991, it was already established in 25,000 villages in Bangladesh, providing three million loans a year to very poor women like myself. The bank started in the mind of Muhammad Yunus, an economics professor from Chittagong who was frustrated with the dull economic theories he and his colleagues were teaching while people were starving to death in the nearby villages. He started by lending his own personal money to very poor women, observing how they would use it to improve their lives and then repay him. In the end, he persuaded the government to let him set up a bank - but a bank that was different from any other bank in the world.

The lending program grew and grew, and people began to copy it in other countries. An English author wrote that "the Grameen Bank is probably the single most important social invention of the 20th century : it demonstrates the power and vitality of community economic development with extraordinary success." Others have written petitions, nominating Muhammad Yunus for the Nobel Prize for Peace. By the time I was thirty, if you counted all the micro-credit programs inspired by Grameen, this unique kind of peer-group circle lending was reaching 60 million of the world's poorest families.

I still find it strange to use big words like "micro-credit." I never went to school, and I never learned to read or write as a child. It was only after I received my third loan that the Grameen committee encouraged me to join a literacy class and learn to read. It took me a year, but then it was as if a candle had been lit inside my head. Someone gave me a book of poems by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and I loved them so much that I learned them by heart, getting up early each morning to read before the day started. I began to remember how many cruel words had been spoken to me and women like myself, who never had the chance to go to school. We were treated like dirt. Nobody had any respect for us. So I started teaching other women to read. Everyone should have this excitement, I thought, to travel on flights of imagination through the poetry of the printed word.

When I was twenty-five, the local Grameen committee turned its attention to the problems of the land. In Sarishpur, as in so many Bangladeshi villages, the land is scattered among many small landholders, making it difficult to irrigate. There was no shortage of water. Bangladesh is full of water from the three huge rivers that flow through it, but it takes co-operation to set up an irrigation system. The Grameen Bank set up an organization called the Grameen Agricultural Foundation (GAF), which showed us how by pooling our land into a fifty-acre "Primary Farm," we could irrigate it with a single deep tubewell. We still own our own land, but the GAF brings us together. It helps us to co-operate.

The GAF financed the well and the irrigation system, and we paid for it by selling a share of our crop - no money was needed. I had one acre of land by then, and I soon discovered that my irrigated field was producing twice as much as before. The GAF helped me to buy fertilizer, seeds and farm equipment. Before, I often had to sell my crop as soon as I had finished harvesting, often at a terrible price. GAF helped me to store the rice, and then trucked it to Dhaka for me, where I got a much better price.

Later, I got together with my immediate neighbours to create a shared fishpond. I took out a loan to buy another two acres, and I was able to pay to send Siddique and Sharifa to the village school. This was a very exciting time. My income was increasing every year, and the future was looking good.

In the late 1990s, the Grameen Bank started moving into all sorts of new areas. None of the villages in our region had power, and it would be years before electrification arrived, so Grameen Shakti was born. Using the same system of lending, women were encouraged to become solar and biogas dealers. Later, we set up our wind-power co-operative, starting with a Vestas wind turbine from Denmark to meet the needs of the village.

At the same time, the Grameen Phone company and Grameen Cybernet were set up. I didn't think I knew anyone outside the village to call, but once the cellular phone was in place, run by a woman as a small business, I started calling the GAF to discuss harvesting details and market prices. It was Siddique who showed me how to use the Internet. They had one at the school, powered by solar energy from the school's rooftop. When Siddique showed me the messages he was receiving in English from a school in America, I could hardly believe it. I had never travelled more than seven miles from Sarishpur. Suddenly, the world had become a much bigger place.

Since 2000, the changes we have seen in Sarishpur have been amazing. Many of us women who used to struggle in poverty have steady, reliable incomes. Komla and I took out a loan to build ourselves a new house, which Siddique fitted with a solar shingles roof and a biogas plant for cooking. We built ourselves a garden and planted fruit trees. Grandmother Komla joined Grameen Check, working at home as a hand-weaver to produce Bangladesh's traditional cotton check fabric, that is exported around the world.

Now everyone in our family is working. Sharifa's husband and I work in the fields, planting, weeding and harvesting the rice. Komla is at home, weaving, and Sharifa teaches at the village school, where the children learn about micro-enterprise by running their own businesses. The Grameen Bank has even set up a daycare centre, where Sharifa's children play while we're working. At the end of the day, we eat well.

One of the good things about the Grameen Bank is that women who join the lending circles have fewer children. Sharifa has become very involved in family planning, and is working to make sure that every woman in the village has the information and the contraceptive supplies to limit her family to one or two children. The women in the lending circles also suffer less violence from their husbands, and have fewer divorces. It used to be that very few women could read or write. Today, almost everyone can. The ponds and rice paddies are alive with fish, and the village is full of coconut, mango and jackfruit trees. Many of the houses have garden trellises covered with climbing squash and beans, which taste a lot better than the wild greens, roots and grasshoppers we used to eat when I was a child. It is quite unusual today for children to suffer from night blindness caused by a vitamin A deficiency because they are not getting enough to eat.

We have been planting thousands of trees to stabilize the river banks and absorb some of the surplus carbon dioxide that is pouring out of the world's chimneys and cars. Here in Bangladesh, we face a terrible threat from flooding. Every year, the monsoon rains seem to get heavier and the typhoons that surge in from the Bay of Bengal get stronger, destroying more villages and drowning more people. Sarishpur is inland, away from the worst of the weather, but along with most of Bangladesh, we are only a few feet above sea level. If the world's sea level rises by as much as some people are predicting, our whole village will drown. It will be the end of us, and everything we have been struggling to achieve. We will have to flee and become refugees in someone else's village, like the families that have been arriving in Sarishpur from the south, having to start all over again from nothing.

When we were living in poverty, global warming seemed very unfair. It was like a plot by the world's richest countries to undermine the poorest countries. Why should we have to suffer because they lived such wasteful lives ? As we started to grow more prosperous, however, the same thing began to happen here. The wealthy landowners started to buy jeeps and four-wheel-drive trucks and seduced the young men into wanting to drive. With solar energy in the village, people were buying televisions, where they saw movies full of violence, sex and fast cars. The rich people took it as their right to drive their cars wherever they wanted, causing huge fights and arguments. Even my own son loved to borrow a friend's car and drive around the village at top speed, chasing the chickens and frightening everyone.

We were not alone with this problem. It was happening throughout Bangladesh, wherever the Grameen Bank was bringing prosperity to the villages. We wanted progress, but we liked the old traditional ways, where we walked around on foot without fear of being killed by a car. Cars are for the city, where everyone drives like a maniac, not for a place like Sarishpur, where everyone knows each other by name.

The Grameen Bank's solution was threefold. Firstly, they encouraged us to stick to the decision we had made about protecting the environment, so we closed off the village centre to motorized vehicles. This was very controversial, since the families who own the cars are also the wealthiest and most powerful. There were many more of us who do not own a car, however, and after a big argument, we won.

Secondly, they established a new organization called Grameen Transport, and gave us loans to buy bicycles and bicycle trailers. For the longer trips, they helped us establish the Sarishpur car-share co-operative, which gives us shared ownership of a truck, a minibus and three hydrogen-powered bicycle-trailers. Grameen Shakti and Grameen Transport have just signed a partnership with Sanyota, the Japanese solar-automobile conglomerate, and we are going to build ten new Vestas wind turbines on our land, using the energy to manufacture hydrogen for the hydrogen-fuelled vehicles and bicycle-trailers that Sanyota is manufacturing for developing countries. We'll use some of the fuel in our own vehicles, and sell the rest to Sanyota for use in Dhaka, where there is such terrible air pollution. The hydrogen vehicles produce no greenhouse gases and give off only water as a waste product, so it is a very good arrangement which will bring us extra income.

On one level, I have never been happier. We no longer live in poverty. We own six acres of land, as my grandfather used to do. I have two very happy and successful children, and two granddaughters. I have come a long way since the days of begging in the dirt of Bajitpur. Today I wear a clean sari, and carry a gold pin in my nose. But I also see lots of troubling signs. The television is encouraging people to waste their money on all sorts of unnecessary things, and the Internet allows our children to see terrible videos of real sex and naked bodies, which I find very shocking. When I did it, I knew it was wrong, but we had to survive. Today, the young men seem to think they have a right to make love to the girls before they are married.

I am also troubled because the big global corporations have seen how successful the Grameen Bank has become and are trying to set up all sorts of partnerships with Grameen. Some have been good, like the ones with Sanyota and Vestas, but others have not. It started with Mongrando, in the 1990s. They tried to persuade Grameen to partner with them to buy their genetically modified seeds. We would have had to buy new seeds from Mongrando every year and been forced to spray their chemical pesticides on our rice. Luckily there was a worldwide protest by people who knew about Mongrando's dirty tricks, and they persuaded Muhammad Yunus to scrap the deal.

Next it was MacDonuts, who wanted a Grameen franchise to set up a fast food restaurant in every village. We had to fight them off, too. Then it was Global Telus, who tried to sell us the very same phone cards that had almost caused a war in France. The cards were invented in Italy and featured a fully clothed woman who slowly undressed each time you used one of the units on the card, until she was completely naked. The Italians thought nothing of it, but the Arab community in France was outraged, especially because one of the women on the cards had been given a darker skin and looked like a famous Egyptian singer. Someone must have forgotten to tell the Italian company that Bangladesh was a Muslim country, where the sight of the female body is totally taboo. The Grameen Bank has always tried to be totally transparent, and they keep us informed by a weekly newsletter which we get through the village e-mail. Bangladesh is notoriously full of corruption, but by being open, we have avoided the disease. It was only because of the Grameen Bank's openness that we learned about the MacDonuts and Global Telus proposals, and were able to send messages back, asking them to stop them. We did the same when Mongrando came back with another proposal, five years later. This time, they were proposing to finance improvements to all of our wells and irrigation systems, in exchange for part-ownership. We told them "NO!" It looks as if they are trying to take over all of the world's food, the way they are behaving.

Sharifa studies a lot, as well as teaching and going to big conferences. She tells me that the micro-lending that has transformed our lives here in Sarishpur is being used all over the world to lift people out of poverty. They want to abolish poverty so that it becomes something you learn about in museums, not in real life, she says. She says micro-lending is reaching 170 million of the world's poorest families, or 850 million people, and that by the year 2025 they hope to reach all of the world's poorest people.

She says that half the people who receive loans through lending circles pull themselves out of poverty within five years, as we did, and that a quarter need ten years. The other quarter take longer because they have serious health problems, or live in an area where the topsoil has been destroyed, or there's no water for irrigation. Every year, also, some people are hit by a typhoon, a flood, or a terrible drought, as the world's climate continues to become more disastrous. I give thanks to Allah that we have been spared, so far, in Sarishpur.

The other aspect of the Grameen Bank that I haven't mentioned is that we own the bank ourselves. There are no absent shareholders who profit at our expense. When the bank makes a profit, it is returned to us as a dividend. It is such a simple idea, that people can co-operate together to help each other. What if the whole world were organized this way? Why do we have to have businesses that break the laws and corrupt people, paying politicians to write weak environmental and safety regulations so that they can make a bigger profit ? We have a much better system here. We think about the welfare of the whole village, including the land, the rivers, and the forest. We help each other to be successful in our businesses, and we prosper together. And I am so happy that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will not have to starve, or prostitute themselves, as I did.

That's why I say a prayer for Muhammad Yunus every morning.

*****

Notes

Nurjahan's life is based on the imaginary life of a Bangladeshi villager. The details about the Grameen Bank are all real, but I have invented the partnership with the Japanese corporation Sanyota, and the part about hydrogen powered vehicles. The description of Mongrando trying to persuade the Grameen Bank to buy genetically modified seeds reflects a real-life episode when Monsanto tried to do exactly that. The section about Mongrando and water is accurate, too - Monsanto is currently buying its way into the water infrastructures of India and Bangladesh. ("Monsanto estimates that providing safe water is a several billion dollar market. It is growing at 25 - 30% in rural communities and is estimated to be $300 million by the year 2000 in India and Mexico. This is the amount currently spent by NGOs for water development projects and local government water supply schemes and Monsanto hopes to tap these public finances for providing water to rural communities and converting water supply into market." - Vandana Shiva).

The English author who wrote the lines about the Grameen Bank being "the single most important social invention of the 20th century" was myself, in my book After the Crash : The Emergence of the Rainbow Economy (Greenprint, 1988, 1996). I still believe this to be so.

The data about the world's poorest being reached by micro-lending is correct. The Micro-credit Summit's campaign "Countdown 2005" aims to bring micro-credit to 100 million of the world's poorest families by 2005, and to 1.3 billion by 2025. The descriptions of poverty come from Needless Hunger : Voices from a Bangladesh Village by Betsy Hartmann and James Boyce (Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1982).

Microcredit Summit, 440 First St, NW, Suite 460, Washington, DC 20001. (202) 637-9600 microcredit@igc.org www.microcreditsummit.org

Grameen Foundation, 1709 New York Ave NW, Suite 101, Washington DC 20006, USA. (202) 628-3560 info@grameenfoundation.org

Grameen Bank, Mirpur-Two, Dhaka, 1216 Bangladesh

www.grameen-info.org

This is a story, but it is not a fantasy. We can eliminate poverty from the world, if we work together to achieve that goal. My thanks to the staff at the Grameen Foundation for their help in checking this story.

***

First published in Earthfuture: Stories from a Sustainable World, by Guy Dauncey (New Society Publishers, 1999). (www.earthfuture.com/earthfuture)

About the author

Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and ‘A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US’ (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative, and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.

His website is www.earthfuture.com