02 October 2012

Missed Connections: Hasina's Take-down of Yunus and its Impact on Women

Nick Kristof used his Sunday column to chastise Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina for her role in the force out of Muhammad Yunus from the Grameen Bank. Hasina's hostility against microfinance became widespread when she said that the practice was, "sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation."

In a January 2011 OpEd for the New York Times, Yunus made the case for microfinance in the face of attempts to force him from Grameen. He concluded by pointing out what he had accomplished and how leadership from the government provided support.
Governments are responsible for preventing such abuse. In 1997, then First Lady Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh met with other world leaders to commit to providing 100 million poor people with microloans and other financial services by 2005. At the time, it looked like an utterly impossible task, but by 2006 we had achieved it. World leaders should come together again to provide the powerful and visionary leadership to help steer microcredit back on course.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad YunusKristof takes the problem and attempts to connect it to women.
What a topsy-turvy picture: We see a woman who has benefited from evolving gender norms using her government powers to destroy the life’s work of a man who has done as much for the world’s most vulnerable women as anybody on earth.
His overall argument is that a women in power of Bangladesh is slowly trying to destroy the very institution that supports women. The motivations, as pointed out by Kristof, seem to be personal, but he makes the leap that Hasina's actions are a direct attack on women.

The critical Fuck You Grey Lady blog took issue with the column.
Women have not fought and won what little advances they have achieved in a world beset by sexism, patriarchy, and oppression. No, they have “benefited from evolving gender norms,” a formulation that conveniently removes the agency of women from our liberation and also, even more conveniently, overlooks the astonishing forces of male supremacy that fight back against that liberation every single goddamn day. In Kristof’s world, women aren’t agents in their own fights for justice. It’s men like Yunus, “a man who has done as much for the world’s most vulnerable women as anybody on earth,” to whom we owe our thanks.
Writer Julia Carrie Wong also calls Kristof a "smug patriarchal bastard" in her sharp-tongued criticism of the piece.

One other problem is Kristof's underlying assumption about microfinance. In order for his argument to be sound, we have to begin with the assumption that women's access to microfinance is beneficial to their lives. This is an issue that Kristof passes over, rather he focuses on the other gains made by women in Bangladesh like improved education and lower birthrates.

Microfinance Meeting; India - Tom Murphy
Investing in girls has been a success in Bangladesh, says Kristof. The gains he lists are remarkable and worth celebrating, but do little to help prove that the gains made by women are under attack by the Bangladeshi government.

David Roodman found that there is little evidence to show that microfinance empowers women when researching his book on microfinance called Due Diligence. He explained it in Foreign Policy earlier this year writing,
But though credit is a source of possibilities, it is also a bond -- potentially an oppressive one when enforced through peer pressure. Indeed, greater sensitivity to social pressure helps explain why microlenders have favored women: In many cases, they have paid back more reliably, putting up less argument than men. 
Anthropological studies have found a mix of stories about the link between credit and empowerment... From what I can tell from the fragmentary evidence, the most famous form of microcredit -- group-based credit as pioneered by Grameen -- is the least empowering and most fraught with risk, because of the way it marshals peer pressure to enforce loan repayment. Individual microloans, given one-on-one, without the burdens of weekly group meetings and peer pressure, appear to have less of a dark side. If microbank staff can't outsource loan decisions to the group, though, they must spend more time vetting customers, making the whole enterprise less profitable and less likely to focus on the neediest.
Roodman's research found that the previous studies that showed the strong impact of microfinance did not hold up when reexamined. There are instances when microfinance is beneficial to a family and there are times when it is damaging. On the whole, microfinance does not lead to the massive benefits touted by its supporters.

That does not mean that microfinance should go away. Roodman points out the importance of access to financial products, such as credit and insurance, for most people in the world. One area that does show some promise is savings. Recent studies on savings programs show that families are better equipped to handle life's shocks when they have adequate savings. It may not be as sexy as lending to a group of women who use the money to start businesses, but savings might just be the better direction.

Since the best evidence on microfinance returns a middle result, Kristof errs from the onset in trying to connect the force-out of Yunus by Hasina to women's rights. Though there are other concerns that are worth raising such as the hostile move by the government and the fact that the Grameen Bank offers one of the best interest rates in the country; certainly well below the government-owned banks.

Hasina's permissive behavior towards other forms of lending while attacking Yunus and Grameen is likely evidence that it is personal. The slow takeover of the Grameen Bank is painful to watch as an outsider, but it should not be confused with an attack on women and girls.


John Paul Fawcett of Results offered his disagreement with the post tweeting:

He is right about my oversight and it is a pretty important point. The fact that Grameen Bank is run by the borrowers is something that Kristof points out and does bolster his argument concerning attacks on women. It is an example of female leadership in action that flies in the face of Hasina's actions. By trying to take over the board, Hasina is in effect stripping power from the women who lead Grameen. That is a big deal.