Continued from Grameen Dialogue # 61
In this part of the interview, Mr. Hai Khan continues to discuss the specific challenges and rewards of microcredit programs in post-war Kosovo, delving into personal as well as professional experience.
GD: In earlier stages of KGMAMF operations, you faced many infrastructural problems, as well as post-war dangers, such as mines, etc. that hampered your operations. Do these problems still persist, or how have they been tackled by your staff?
HK: I have heard from my colleagues that in 1999 or 2000, there was no infrastructure, roads, utilities, nothing…but I found a better situation than the past. Now there is electricity round the year, and a good communications system. Roads from cities to villages are still not so good, but others are fairly good. I don't think there are any landmines now. Perhaps there are few problems in the region of Mitrovicia, but not elsewhere. So the conditions are definitely better than in early days.
GD: How are your living conditions there?
HK: Electricity is a big problem in Kosovo. If you compare the overall socioeconomic conditions now with what existed in 2000, without doubt there has been a lot of progress. But still there are problems. This year the supply of electricity is on a 4:4 basis, meaning four hours with electricity and four without. For this, we have some backup. In every house, there is one room with a wooden stove, which uses firewood to heat the room; so people are protected if there is no electricity, as the fire still provides heat.
GD: Please tell us about the recent attempted robbery that took place in Prishtina. This is the second such violent event that took place at KGMAMF. Why do you think KGMAMF or microfinance is under attack?
HK: What had happened in Prishtina was that four of our staff members from that branch were out to conduct center meetings and collect repayment. About 10 km away from the city, in Obillage, their vehicle was signaled to stop by two youth, around 18 years old, who were armed with weapons. Luckily, our driver was very smart, and he pretended to stop, and then sped off quickly when the robbers were caught off-guard. The robbers then shot twice at the car, but the staff escaped unscathed. Although the vehicle was damaged, the robbers failed, as they couldn't harm our staff and take the €10,000 worth of installment money.
I think this is a result of the socioeconomic conditions of Kosovo, and it's not targeted towards KGMAMF or microfinance. Unemployment is a very big problem in Kosovo, so there is crime. Also, these two attempts happened only around the capital Prishtina, where unemployment is even more acute. It's not the same in other places.
GD: Now, moving on towards your personal experience in Kosovo, do you feel that there are many cultural barriers for a Bangladeshi to work in Kosovo?
HK: Yes, there are a lot of cultural barriers for a foreigner. Language is a very important barrier, which I mentioned already. Then, being an outsider, you are treated as a foreigner. In Kosovo, the social structure does not allow anyone to simply walk into someone's house without a prior appointment. But our Grameen philosophy is to go to our borrowers'/potential borrowers' home to talk to them about microcredit. Since they are quite formal, this poses a barrier for our program.
Also, there are still some areas of Kosovo, where people are very conservative. Sometimes I discuss with my other Bangladeshi colleague about how this can be so in Europe, that women are not interested to come in front of us, to talk to us. The sentiment is that, "Make your program for men, we don't give permission to our women to do such things." This is a very different picture from what you would expect in Europe, but this is admittedly in a few areas. It reminds us of our country actually. See, the perception is that women do only housework. So if you give loans to women, how will they utilize this credit? But now, people have changed this position and hopefully, will be convinced further.
GD: What do you feel you have learnt from your experiences in Kosovo, particularly from the people of Kosovo?
HK: No doubt we have learnt a lot from the culture and society of Kosovo. The most important lesson is their discipline. Undoubtedly, they are a disciplined nation. Their punctuality and sincerity are also remarkable. Their family relationships - still they live in a joint family; even in our country the joint family has already broken down, but they have it.
Last October, Kosovo had its second parliamentary election. Just for our curiosity, my colleague and I visited some polling stations. There is something to learn from them in how they conducted their election. The atmosphere was so quiet, no demonstrations, no meetings; just the voters patiently going to the centers and casting their votes. So there are many things to learn from the Kosovo people.
GD: What about work ethics in Kosovo? As a Bangladeshi, how does the work environment differ in Kosovo from our country?.
HK: The people of Kosovo are no doubt very sincere. But not all five fingers are the same. We have 21 local staff members, who are all different individuals. But we tried to create a good working environment, mixing their culture with ours. As you know, in Europe they follow the 9-5 work schedule. But if you look at KGMAMF activities, people are working up to 8 or 9 pm. If someone doesn't finish his work by 5, he knows that he must do so, no matter how late. As our main focus is field work, if we maintain a strict eight hour timetable, we might not get all the daily work done. So we created new work ethics, combining the European and Grameen cultures together.
Mr. Abdul Hai Khan, Project Director of KGMAMF, flanked by members of the project at a center meeting
GD: What did the prople think of you when you first assumed your position in Kosovo?
HK: I felt very welcome when I first joined. The KGMAMF staff welcomed me, and we have worked very well together for the past year. Now I understand them, their skills, their way of working…When I conducted my first workshops for the center chiefs of each branch, I felt that the borrowers were also very friendly.
GD: How do you think they feel about Bangladesh and its people?.
HK: There is a two-sided reaction, both positive and negative. They know Bangladesh is a very poor country, a country that's always under water, with political instability. This is the negative side. The positive side is that they admire Bangladeshis, particularly the poor women, who have established such a large organization like Grameen. They are impressed about this and what they have learnt from Grameen and KGMAMF.
Also, there are many Bangladeshis working in UNMIK, the UN administration in Kosovo. There are more than 94 police and over 10 civilians, whose performance is also very good. So now the Kosovo people have a positive impression about Bangladesh.
GD: So, what are your plans for KGMAMF in the future?
HK: We plan to increase our outreach to 8,000 members by 2009, and disburse more than €50 million. We already have already introduced the Grameen Generalized System (GGS) in KGMAMF, so we'll have more savings products in the future. We increased the loan ceiling, as there are many borrowers who want to take out more money to increase their business. If we don't open a window for them, they'll go to other commercial banks. These are members who have been with us for the past four years, and we have helped them develop their skills. Now that they have become entrepreneurs, why should we let them go to other banks? So we are providing bigger loans for these borrowers.
We are seriously thinking of transforming the project into a bank, which will be a strong financial institution for the Kosovo people. As I have already mentioned, one of the main challenges for MFIs, is funding, so becoming a bank will solve this problem. We'll then get permission from Banking and Payment Authority of Kosovo (BPK), i.e. the Central Bank of Kosovo, to mobilize more savings, which will provide the solution for
more than 60% of our funding problem.
GD: Please give us an update on KGMAMF operations.
HK: In August 2004, we formulated a new loan product circular. The new products are providing fresh loans after six months and also microenterprise loans. Up to June 2005, we have provided 776 fresh loans after six months, and 40 microenterprise loans . So now we have 40 Gold Members. This number will increase this year, as we are moving very cautiously at the moment, letting borrowers see how microenterprise loans can be utilized. And about 20% of our members have already graduated out of poverty due to participation in the KGMAMF microcredit program.