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Helping the Poorest Access Resources, Training, Financial Services

November 02, 2011

Luckshmi Sivalingam, Program Officer for Grameen Foundation’s Solutions for the Poorest program, oversees the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest (LPP) project in India.

One week last August, after slogging barefoot through a kilometer of muddy fields and monsoon rains, my colleagues from The Livelihood School at BASIX India and I reached our first ASHG (adapted self-help group) meeting of the week. We were greeted with warm smiles from the female members of one of the strongest ASHGs developed through the Livelihood Pathways for the Poorest (LPP) project in Bihar, India, to date. Trust levels and self-confidence are slowly building, as are savings habits among our members. Our project has two main goals: identifying and building a diverse and stable group of livelihood activities that will generate increased income throughout the year, and providing immediate and long-term socio-economic support for the group members and their families.

We have been working with the local government since May to link poor households to various support programs, including child and women's healthcare and work for unskilled laborers. (The 2005 Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees 100 days of wage labor for adults in rural communities who are willing to do unskilled manual work or the equivalent in wages.)  Though the households in our project were eligible to receive these government programs, they either didn’t have the required proof of identification (India is one year into a national ID campaign that many hope will alleviate this problem) or were not aware of them. With our help, they now appreciate the immediate, tangible benefits of engaging in the government programs, as they begin to gradually access and experience the much-needed services that are rightfully theirs. Since we began our discussions with the local government, our target villages have been assessed to see which eligible households lack job cards; the ones that do are currently being processed. In addition, the households will each receive one to two fruit saplings for planting next month.

[caption id="attachment_1878" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Participants in one of the LPP project's Adapted Self-Help Groups, or ASHGs, discuss the importance of savings."]Participants in one of the LPP project's Adapted Self-Help Groups, or ASHGs, discuss the importance of savings.[/caption]

Understanding our clients’ thinking and the conditioning caused by a lifetime of chronic poverty is one of the most challenging aspects of this work. Our ready access in the developed world to the conveniences of modern life can limit our ability as practitioners to relate to and understand the very different reality of the poor we are seeking to help – a reality that can be a painful one. Living and interacting with them provides us with a window into the challenges of their daily lives, and shapes our own understanding of their needs and the context in which they live. It also helps us to understand the rationale behind the difficult daily decisions they must make – how to feed themselves and their families, what they must forego for the survival of their children and what sacrifices must be borne by the entire household, regardless of age. Designing a methodology, products and services to create “livelihood pathways for the poorest” will be a process of testing and retesting these next two years.

 

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Will the Government of Bangladesh Ruin Grameen Bank?

April 20, 2011

Barbara Weber, who worked at Grameen Foundation from 2002 to 2006, was a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar in Bangladesh and is now working on her Ph.D. in depth psychology.

Bangladesh went from being dubbed the world’s basket case in 1973 by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to becoming a beacon of development innovation that the rest of the world has since sought to emulate, thanks in large measure to its pioneering in microfinance. This renown is fast turning to infamy, however, as political vendetta cannibalizes the very source of the nation’s well-deserved pride.

The country’s acclaim reached a crescendo in 2006, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Grameen Bank and its founder, Professor Muhammad Yunus, for creating a system that has enabled the poor to pull themselves up by their boot straps. It has done this so effectively that its microfinance model has been studied exhaustively and replicated around the world.

What ensued next seems to have won Yunus the ire of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. In 2007, the newly ordained Nobel laureate made a fleeting and ill-fated foray into politics in a vacuum that was created when a military-backed interim government began jailing operatives of the country’s top political parties. Sheikh Hasina herself was temporarily in exile and charged with masterminding crime.

[caption id="attachment_1599" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Prof. Yunus and most of the Board directors who represent the borrower-owners of Grameen Bank tour the streets of Oslo the day before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006."]Prof. Yunus and most of the Board directors who represent the borrower-owners of Grameen Bank tour the streets of Oslo the day before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.[/caption]

Some saw this as a potential turning point for a country that had topped Transparency International’s list of the most corrupt governments in the world. Bangladesh was number-one on that list for five consecutive years. But when national elections were held in 2008, Sheikh Hasina – who had held the post of prime minister from 1996 to 2001 – again took office. Now, she and her party in power seem intent on systematically dismantling Grameen Bank.

In apparent collusion with the current government, the country’s highest court recently upheld the ouster of Grameen Bank’s founder as managing director. The Supreme Court will have one more opportunity to review the case in a ruling that is due on May 2. In the meantime, Prof. Yunus remains managing director of the Bank while the world watches attentively and awaits Bangladesh’s next move.

From Bottom Billion to Next Billion

June 11, 2010

Luckshmi Sivalingam is a Program Officer for Grameen Foundation's Solutions for the Poorest program.

Before joining GF, I interviewed fifty clients of a Nepal savings and credit cooperative as part of an impact assessment. I saw that particularly for those living in extreme poverty, the solution to changing their situations can’t be limited to providing access to microfinance’s traditional product: an enterprise loan.

[caption id="attachment_685" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="THP client on her new farm in West Bengal"]Indian woman in the field[/caption]

Nearly all the clients I spoke with said that if they’d undergone appropriate skills development or received training on value addition for the goods and services they were selling, then their microenterprises could have generated the additional income required for them to progress out of poverty.

International Women's Day - What does it mean?

March 08, 2010

Darwin Cruz is Online Communications Officer for the Grameen Foundation.

Today is International Women's Day. I first learned about this holiday a few years ago. Back then, I didn't  understand the nature of the celebration or why it's been celebrated for the past 100 years. But now I realize that though in the US it's not yet a major holiday, around the world this day has a big impact.

Take a look at the over 750 events celebrating this day around the world. This year's theme is: Equal rights, equal opportunities: progress of all. I definitely believe in that last statement: unless we are all making progress together, there is no true progress. I wanted to share a couple excerpts from NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a huge advocate for women worldwide. From his book Half the Sky, he writes:

Yet if the injustices that women in poor countries suffer are of paramount importance, in an economic and geopolitical sense the opportunity they represent is even greater. “Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it’s not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos.

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Social Businesses in China

March 10, 2008

Muhammad Yunnus’ book Banker to the Poor opened my mind to a new type of philanthropy – venture philanthropy – where donations to a Microfinance Institution are loaned out, repaid at an extremely high rate, and then reinvested. The thought that my small donation not only made a significant impact to the loan recipient but also was recycled appealed greatly to my entrepreneurial bent. After all, I wanted my hard-earned cash to be well-spent.

Now the Nobel Laureate has written a new book – Creating a World Without Poverty – which I hope will open the minds of business people around the world as his first book had done for me.

In the United States particularly, we have come to assume that a business’ mission must be to “maximize shareholder value”. Yunus defines these as PMBs, or Profit-Maximizing Businesses. In his new book, he shows us there can be another way, “Social Businesses” which are “cause-driven” instead of profit-driven.

This concept may be seen as radical, or even heretical, because it conflicts with our US point-of-view favoring free market capitalism. In a Stanford VTSS (Values, Technology, Science and Society) class, I learned that changing society’s values is perhaps the hardest and slowest thing of all, often lagging science and technology advancements by 10 or more years. We cling to our values and customs, not necessarily because they are right or the best, but because we are afraid of change; we are comfortable with the status quo.

However, in China, this concept of Social Business is not so radical because the relics of the Communist infrastructure, the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), are similar in result, though not in purpose. In other words, SOEs were not created for a socially-minded cause, but they were one of the last social safety nets, the “iron rice bowl.” But due to foreign competitive pressures from China joining the WTO (World Trade Organization), these inefficient dinosaurs are being dismantled and/or restructured, causing millions of workers to be laid off. Currently, China has an estimated 220-300 million people under the poverty line. The poor people are a powerful destabilizing force, and thus the Chinese government strongly supports, and sometimes even demands, businesses to accept social responsibility.

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