I've always, liked pictures more than words. I understand them better. However, even pictures donít tell the whole story. For example, one rainy day in my past, I was thumbing through a random magazine on the coffee table. Inside were images of bloated bellies, skinny legs and sunken eyes. These seemingly lifeless appendages belonged to people my age. They were a few of the countless victims of yet another flood in the state of Bengal in Eastern India and Bangladesh. I did not understand those pictures, and did not understand the emotions created by them. However, there was one picture that I could relate to. It was of a boy doing a backflip off of a water buffalo. He appeared to be extremely content. That spirited buffalo herder taught me a lesson that I did not understand until later. There are more children in the world with smiles on their faces than the flies in their eyes. Thatís reality, not photography. I felt I needed to see the reality, so I left for the distant land.
Iíve always thought the world to be a comfortable place for humans. Cows have it bad and insects have it bad. But humans, at least the ones Iíve always known, have always had a steady supply of food, shoes, education, and homes that didn't float away every year with the floods. In Bengal, things look different. It feels like a world apart from mine. I now recognize the segregation in this comfortable world. Tractors and designer jeans are on one side, water buffalo and a boy doing the backflip, are on the other. We exist together but know of each other only through photographs in magazines. Photographs donít tell the whole story.
Development projects are often perceived to be quite beneficial. Often they are miserable failures. This leaves many potential developers open to criticism from those they are trying to help. A common response to such criticism unfortunately is, "beggars canít be choosers". It is forgotten that these people are buffalo herders, not beggars. Nevertheless, many development project sponsors lose patience and move out.
There are also developers who don't know what to develop. They are confused and are waiting. They are afraid to make a mistake, so stand at the crossroads biting their nails. There are also those who are willing to venture out and find solutions, but their enthusiasm is underfunded. They bite their nails. We bite our nails. Meanwhile, the buffalo herder happily does backflips off of his water buffalo. Every so often the world gives us a Christopher Columbus. He had nothing but a simple idea. Many thought he was a raving lunatic. Fortunately, the King and Queen of Spain did not. The world is better off with these type of raving lunatics. They somehow manage to change the face of the planet.
There is a just such a person with a very simple idea in Bangladesh. His name is Muhammad Yunus and his simple idea was to provide small financial loans to poor people so that they could provide for their needs. His idea has now been solidified in Grameen Bank. Yunus and the staff of Grameen Bank never go home to the real world for Christmas because it is not their home. They live here with the people they work with.
It is ideal to help others meet their needs and not their wants. I have many individuals whose want for a television set took priority over their childrenís need for proteins. These are trying to climb a ladder without using the bottom rungs. Grameen struggles daily with such over-ambitious behavior. Borrowers are encouraged to use their loans wisely. They are counseled to make investments in independence and not expend their loans carelessly on fruitless endeavours. Grameen encourages it's borrowers to educate themselves and their children. They are encouraged to learn how to read and write. The borrowers are advised to grow gardens and to eat vegetables. Homes are to be kept clean. Pit latrines are to be used. Pilot programs such as the one involving a VCR bolted to a roving rickshaw, serve to educate borrowers in numerous villages about important social issues.
It is ideal to work within cultural boundaries. Grameen has been heroic in it's attempt to guard the traditions, languages, and customs of Bangladesh. The bank is staffed entirely by Bangladeshis who understand, for the most part, the behaviour of those they work with. Grameen has even been somewhat of a champion for age old traditions such as hand-looming. Nevertheless, despite their attempts some section of society think Grameen is interfering. Religious fundamentalists argue that Grameen is interrupting the social structure by encouraging women to step outside the system. They also hold collection of interest from the poor to be an outrage. Other traditionalists worry that Grameen is transplanting too much from the tractor side of the world. They warn that such transplantation not only leads to a dependency on foreign systems, but it also leads to a global monoculture. Monoculture is boring and easily ignored. Only time will tell if these critics are justified in their objections. In the meantime, growing pains must be dealt with sensitively. Necessary changes must develop on the inside and not be violently stapled to the exterior. Compromises should be made. Haste to roll forward should not make waste of the culture.
It is ideal to help people to help themselves. Organizations, governments and economic systems are like South Asian firecrackers, you never know exactly when they will blow up. The yearly floods seem to be more consistent. Grameen therefore encourages character development and nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit. The borrowers are organized into small groups which provide a remarkable support system. Together the borrowers pull each other up. They can no longer be ignored by policy makers. To the world they are now a voice connected to a healthy mind, instead of a mouth connected to an empty stomach. Under the Grameen system families are also a source of strength. The women are given a greater say in financial matters and decisions concerning their families future. They are empowered. Unfortunately, the empowerment is conditional. Some of the borrowers cling too tightly to the Grameen system. After years of borrowing from the bank they still live from loan to loan. Thus, they are powered rather than empowered. They squeeze more than is intended from the support system. Anything more than support perpetuates dependency and tends to be permanent. Anything more is degrading. They should be helped to help themselves.
It is ideal if the organization has a conscience. As Grameen has recognized, people are touchy subjects. They are easily lost in paperwork. They are crushed far too often in organizational cogs. I was impressed by Dr. Yunus' sincerity. The good doctor is emotionally attached to all the two million borrowers he serves. However, the bank has not kept the same pace. It is not that the bank is too obese, it is simply tripping over itself; It's rapid growth has not been in synchronized with its emotions. I once helped a long-time borrower count her piles of banknote. The time had never been taken to teach her to do it herself. So much time was therefore wasted.
It is ideal not to demean others through thoughtless development work. How is a beggar in India to feel when given tattered and unusable banknote and worthless coinage as alms? How does a Sudanese famine victim feel while opening up relief crates from the United States full of electric blankets and weight-loss drink powder? How is the Bengali slum dweller to feel when his government offers to provide his family with meat from British' mad cows? These thoughtless charities were worked by those who canít see. We can't see those whom we ignore. Grameen Bank fortunately has eyes. Yunus and many of the bank workers have incredible faith in the poor. Their faith in the poor is so great that they have often been criticized for not giving them adequate instruction or training. But as Yunus says, "The poor know what to do".
It is ideal not to be always ideal. Grameen has pioneered a new system of development. To do so, the Doctor of Economics had to forget all his previous economic ideals that he had learned earlier. He had to relearn. He had to keep his composure while others chuckled at his outrageous ideas. Now that his innovative method has been proven successful, a forward motion has been established that has carried Grameen into the lives of many. The bank still remains open to new ideas. The search for a better method continues. Mistakes are still made, but through those mistakes comes refinement.
I havenít had enough time in Bangladesh to see all the million different faces hidden within. But I did see enough to realize that they are all attached to the necks of people who are not as helpless as photographs make them out to be. These are the faces of million fighters. They are fighting against famines and floods. They are fighting against malnutrition and malaria. They are fighting against mad cows and against the world's neglect. If we, like Dr. Yunus, will continue to think of simple ideas that will lend just a little more support and attention to their needs, they will overcome it by themselves.
Unfortunately, Christmas is approaching. This means I must return to the real world, a world that for me, no longer holds a monopoly on realism. I sat yesterday with a yet another buffalo herder and looked at a magazine full of photographs of well-fed teenagers in designer jeans. This buffalo herder could not relate, he just stared blankly at the kids in the magazine without embarrassing holes in their pants. He wondered out loud where the cows and chickens could possibly be hiding. Before he could toss their absence off as some bizarre magic trick, I explained that in my country we use trucks and tractors instead of cows. He flashed a confused smile in response. At first, I thought that he hadn't understood, then I realized that he was probably just trying to figure out how anyone could possibly do a backflip off of a tractor.