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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The poor aren’t poor by choice


THIS IS the belief held by many in our society today about the poor. But what possible reason would allude to the fact that 70 million Pakistanis actually want to live in such destitute conditions? Those who believe that the state of poverty is an inescapable trap, tirelessly attempt to help others break free from this vicious cycle. These people run NGOs, fundraise, and engage in various philanthropic activities to alleviate poverty in any capacity that they are able to. But why do they simply donate money to the poor instead of diverting those funds towards the setup of a self-sustaining project that facilitates greater income-earning abilities in the long-run? The poor do not want to be poor. But until recently, they had no choice but to be poor.

Thanks to Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, millions of poor people all over the world are now financially stable, and are rising over and above the poverty line every day. Dr Yunus founded the Grameen Bank on the basis that it would only grant loans to the poor, who, to this day, remain unrepresented in most large private financial institutions. The founder of microfinance has been able to change the face of Bangladesh by giving loans of small amounts to the poor. With the help of structured weekly meetings in over 400 Bangladeshi villages to collect loan repayment instalments, the Grameen Bank has an astounding loan repayment rate of 98 percent. One would think of comparing this figure to the big banks on Wall Street that came crashing down during the economic meltdown but there really is no comparison.

According to a recent opinion piece by Jamil Nasir in The News, poverty alleviation policies need to be formed based on careful research and analysis of the living conditions of the poor (August 11, 2012). He draws extensively from the seminal research undertaken by professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT. They assert that the analysis of expenditure patterns, basic necessities, and economic environment of the poor, are necessary for effective policy-making. If there is one thing I have learned during my time at the Grameen Bank, it is that they know their clients. They know the lives of the people whom they serve, and they understand the limitations of the social structure in which they operate. This is why the Grameen model of microcredit is not only based on the provision of finances, but also on the more human concepts of trust, motivation, and community. These emotional sentiments stir from “The Sixteen Decisions” of Grameen, a concept that encourages and facilitates an overall higher standard of living to all of its borrowers.

When a woman is granted a Grameen Bank loan, she must promise to abide by the Sixteen Decisions to the best of her ability. These are a set of agreements laid out by Dr Yunus to help improve the overall standard of living, which include promises to use sanitary toilets, drinking clean water, and fully educating their children. The Sixteen Decisions serve as a motivating tool for Grameen borrowers all over Bangladesh, not only to better their financial conditions, but to improve all aspects of their living standards. As I witnessed in the villages of Bangladesh firsthand, the implementation of the Sixteen Decisions has had an astounding impact on the entire country. Not a single woman that I met in the village of Sherpur had more than four children, and 97 percent of the women were educating all of their children, including daughters. Each one of them owned homes made of solid tin-shed, equipped with fully-functioning latrines. Most importantly, these women owned clothing and press factories in which they had employed their own husbands.

Take a moment to note the vital difference in the social structures between Pakistan and Bangladesh, a country 24 years newer than our own. Dr Yunus has not only facilitated banking to the poor, but has also changed the way they live on a daily basis. His carefully crafted model of microcredit truly has transformed the lives of the poor, not only in Bangladesh, but all over the world. The “poor” Bangladeshi women, whom I have lived with over the last few months, are living proof that anything is possible with just a little bit of trust, organization, and guidance along the way. Amazing what empowering women can do for a country.

In order to reduce poverty, a much better understanding of the Grameen model is required. We should understand the lives of the 70 million Pakistanis currently living below the poverty line, and need to truly ascertain the basic human needs they are deprived of. We should understand their spending patterns, their job structures, and the culture of the communities in which they live. Simply distributing microloans every month will not bring anyone out of poverty, because poverty is not only determined by monetary wealth but also by a combination of sanitary living conditions, access to education and healthcare, and adequate nutrition.

A concept similar to the Sixteen Decisions is necessary to bring about any overall change, as it accounts for all of these facets of living. Perhaps, we as Pakistanis should spend more time delving into, and truly understanding, the needs of our people. Once we are able to tailor a poverty alleviation policy directly to their needs, the results will be nothing short of incredible.

First published in the Pakistan Today, September 2, 2012

Bismah Kasuri is a graduate in anthropology and economics from the University of Virginia, USA, she is also Social Business Intern at Yunus Centre

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