Helping the third-world's poor women

BANGLADESH is a battered country. But it is also one of hope on a quite unlikely front. Economic development projects for poor women there are making a difference. Those initiatives offer promise and exciting opportunities for third-world development. But hope, promise, and opportunity must be coupled with significant changes in the budgets of development agencies if the Bangladesh projects are to serve as more than isolated success stories. This is a major challenge for the UN World Conference on Women that begins this week in Nairobi, Kenya. Just before the cyclone hit the coastal areas of Bangladesh in May of this year, my colleague, Meg Berger, and I did a preliminary evaluation of the Women's Entrepreneurship Development Program (WEDP). It was set up in 1982 with government funds and United States aid, to provide credit to poor women in rural Bangladesh. Eighty-three percent of the population in the country is Muslim and a majority of the women practice ``purdah,'' which confines them to the home and its immediate surroundings. Men do most of the transactions in public places and dominate both in the rice fields and market towns. But women's physical seclusion masks their increasing participation in the market economy and their parallel demand for credit.

To date, WEDP has reached about 6,000 rural women with average size loans of about $70-$100 (US). After a slow start, loan repayment rates have reached an average of about 70 percent -- a figure well above the average repayment rates for lending from the national development banks. In Laksham, a village southeast of Dhaka, the state bank's branch manager handling WEDP loans indicated that, in terms of repayments, his best customers were WEDP borrowers. Next were small farmers, who repaid about 60 percent of loans due, while the rate for large industrial and other loans stood at around 20 percent.

Productive use of capital is another element to be considered in the success of a credit program, and it does seem that WEDP clients are putting the money into good use. In Laksham we met a young fishnetmaker who received a WEDP loan of $70 (US) for working capital, repaid the loan, made twice the amount in profit, and used the money to purchase a bicycle-drawn rickshaw for her then-unemployed husband. He now drives the rickshaw as a taxi, and, as she candidly revealed, has stopped beating her.

A similar credit program for the landless appears to be even more successful. The Grameen Bank, an innovative program started by a visionary man, Prof. Mohammed Yunus, offers credit to the landless rural poor and shows an average loan repayment record of above 90 percent. Sixty-one percent of Grameen's clients are poor rural women who, like the WEDP borrowers, had no prior access to formal credit; they had to either not borrow at all or be at the mercy of moneylenders or pawnbrokers, paying interest rates between 100 and 300 percent yearly.

WEDP and Grameen are meeting the economic needs of poor women in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, they are not the norm in the third world. A decade of experience with programs for low-income women in developing countries, that began with International Women's Year in 1975 and ends with the current gathering of about 10,000 women in Nairobi, has resulted in enlightened policy statements about poor women, but few gains for them.

In the last 10 years poor women throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, have repeatedly voiced their needs for development projects, such as Grameen and WEDP, that will help them and their families economically. International development agencies and governments have responded to women's plight by issuing enlightened policies; but the majority of projects for women in the past decade have experienced financial misfortunes and survived them only by replacing economic with social goals.

One typical example was the women's group that learned to sew, invested in sewing machines to produce school uniforms that it could not sell, and ended up organizing raffles to pay debts. Another is the group that continues to operate on social grounds, even if its members sell the crafts they make at a price that does not cover the cost of materials, let alone women's labor in production.

Productive objectives in these projects have evolved into few, if any, economic benefits for women. The economic failure of these projects is a direct product of the meager financial and human resources allocated to women's activities by international development agencies and national governments. While successful economic oriented programs require financial investments and technical expertise, most women's projects have been done cheaply and left to the hands of well-intentioned volunteers with no technical resources or skills.

This sad state of affairs is a result of increased competition for shrinking development budgets and foreign aid coupled with the lack of any competitive edge for the women's lobby in the male dominated world of international and national development agencies.

At this juncture in the arena of women's programs, Bangladesh offers both hope and despair. Grameen and WEDP show that programs giving poor women access to economic resources work. But they also confirm that success is contingent on having sufficient financial resources. Fortunately, both these programs have secured development funds, and this has been made easier because in Bangladesh there is plentiful donor money sitting in the pipeline waiting for project opportunities, while the opposite is the case in most other developing countries.

The women that are convened in Nairobi face the difficult task of convincing their governments and international agencies that failure to invest in women's projects translates into missed opportunities for economic development.

Mayra Buvini'c, director of the International Center for Research on Women, Washington, D.C., recently was a scholar in residence at the Rockefeller Foundation's Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, Italy.

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