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Lessons Learnt Over Quarter of A Century
Grameen Bank has come a long way since it began its journey in the village of Jobra in 1976. During this quarter of a century it has faced many operational and organisational problems, gained a lot of experience through its successes and failures. It incorporated many new features in its methodology to address various crises and problems, or utilise new opportunities; discarded and modified the features which became unnecessary or less effective. There were a number of major natural disasters in Bangladesh during the life span of Grameen Bank. The 1998 flood was the worst of all. Half of the country was under flood-water for ten long weeks. Water flowed over the roof-tops for a prolonged period.
Grameen borrowers, like many other people of Bangladesh, lost most of their possessions including their houses because of the flood. Grameen Bank, which is owned by the borrowers, decided to take up a huge rehabilitation program by issuing fresh loans for restarting income-generating activities and to repair or rebuild their houses. Soon borrowers started to feel the burden of accumulated loans. They found the new installment sizes exceeded their capacity to repay. They gradually started to stay away from weekly centre meetings. Grameen Bank repayment started to show quick decline. We tried to improve the situation, but it did not produce desired result. Impact of the post-flood repayment crisis was compounded by its overlap with a recovery problem from an earlier crisis. In 1995, a large number of our borrowers stayed away from centre meetings and stopped paying loan installments. Husbands of the borrowers, inspired and supported by local politicians, organised this, demanding a change in Grameen Bank rules to allow withdrawal of "group tax" component of "group fund" at the time of leaving the bank. It continued for months. At the end we resolved the problem by creating some opening in our rules, but Grameen's repayment rate had gone down in the mean time. Many borrowers continued to abstain from repaying their loans even after the matter was resolved.
These external factors reinforced the internal weaknesses in the system. The system consisted of a set of well-defined standardised rules. No departure from these rules was allowed. Once a borrower fell off the track, she found it very difficult to move back on, since the rules which allowed her to return, were not easy for her to fulfill. More and more borrowers fell off the track. Then there was the multiplier effect. If one borrower stopped payments, it encouraged others to follow.