Life in Kosovo was dramatically different from the life we were used to in Bangladesh. Apart from the cold weather that we had to get used to, language and culture were big obstacles that we had to overcome at the beginning. To enter a country that had just been through a major war was the greatest challenge for my team members and I. With no obvious place to start, as all official records were destroyed during the conflict, the task at hand seemed impossible. Trying to learn about a country, even the basic facts of the economy and geography, proved to be a daunting task as no information at all was available. Movement around the country was restricted and train stations and the only airport were destroyed forcing planes to land and take-off in nearby fields. There was no opportunity to purchase a vehicle and with no running public transportation system, travel was made difficult in Kosovo where the population is spread out. The roads too were unsafe and littered with mines and it would take months before they were discovered and removed by international agencies.
The first question, “Who were the neediest?” was the easiest to answer. The war left everyone belonging to the project's target group. In a country with less than 1.5 million inhabitants, the question of viability was raised, as at least a thousand members would be needed to make a branch self-reliant. Worse yet, Kosovo’s population was widely spread out along the country side and the country so sparsely populated that there were no set borders for what defined a town or a village, a complete opposite of Bangladesh, a densely populated country with thousands of village. The question of whether to start a Grameen type credit program in a city or in the country, could not be easily answered.
This did not deter us, and we continued with our primary task. To find the poor in Kosovo, we decided to approach the small vendors at local markets, as they held the kind of business that Grameen encouraged its borrowers to pursue. We worked towards establishing a relationship of trust with them. It was important to realize that in a project like ours in Kosovo a good relationship with the potential clients was the most important ingredient. An open, transparent relationship must be established with the borrowers as well as other important members of the community. Relationships had to be established at every level of the local, regional and national government and local banks, NGOs, UNMIK, K-FOR army etc. They all had to be informed about Grameen’s mission in Kosovo.
Initially, as we started to approach distressed women in different parts of Kosovo, the women were not that interested in our program. It was very difficult to convince them to form groups amongst themselves. They were repeatedly urging us to take their husbands, brothers or sons as group members, instead of themselves, due to the restrictions imposed by their religious and social norms. This was not a new problem for me as I had to deal with the same issues in the early stages of Grameen Bank. It was very similar to our experience in Bangladesh. I tried to understand their feelings and slowly began to motivate them, using practical experiences to encourage them to join our credit program. After the initial field visits, meetings and introductions to the local people, a ‘projection’ meeting was held. This meeting was an open invitation to the whole community to come and learn about Grameen’s mission and microlending. It spelt out the criteria for the target group, Grameen’s methodology and demonstrated examples of the system’s success stories. These meetings proved to be fruitful in forming female groups and my colleagues soon started to conduct the training sessions. But in the middle of the sessions, most of the group members departed. Instead of panicking, we continued with our objectives and methodology. We continued our discussion with those that stayed on. Finally, our hard work paid off and we received a positive feedback in the form of our first female borrower groups. The first two groups were formed and recognized in Alba Vogel in Peje branch, on 6th July 2000. This was our greatest day. When I left Kosovo at the end of 2003, we had established 4 branches in Pristina, Peje, Gjilan and Prizren, with as many as 6,197 members. Until then, about US$ 9.7 million had been disbursed as microloans amongst the borrowers, with a 97% recovery rate.
Former Project Director
Kosovo Grameen Missione Arcobaleno
Microcredit Fund (KGMAMF)