A thinker, dreamer, idealist, ardent observer and traveller

Month: November, 2011

Micro-finance and women

I have been researching on a new topic. I find myself drawn to financial issues within the development discourse. My observations from the field in various countries illustrate that the supposedly backward, underprivileged people in rural areas are innovative, inventive, entrepeneurial- plain and simple go-getters. They know if they fail to get an income somehow, there will be no bread going into their stomachs. They usually have more than 3 mouths to feed. So they think of ways to earn a few coins.

They might set up a small mobile snack or tuck shop selling things from a trolley or a basket they place on their heads while seeking customers. They sell eatables, such as corn, pakoras, and other typical snacks, women may sell hair accessories, elastic or cotton ropes (azarband). Or they may work as servants, do handicrafts and sell them through a middleman or nowadays, NGOs. In general, the so-called unskilled are very skilled in something. In this respect, I don’t understand when the development studies literature discusses the non-economically active or unentrepeneurial poor. When they commonly complain that micro finance programs seem to work with the poor just above the poverty line, or the economically active poor, I find this very confusing because to my understanding, even a beggar is economically active because at the end of the day, they never go home empty handed. However, it could be the economically poor I have mentioned are unsuitable for microfinance/ credit programmes because although they manage to make a living by their small enterprises, their incomes are irregular and whatever revenue they accrue there is nothing left for savings. Or it could be that whatever is left once household and business expenses have been met, the rest is saved in a community rotating savings fund, and hence joining a microcredit scheme is unnecessary from this perspective.

Nevertheless, successful participation in a microcredit scheme requires a regular income flow to repay the loans taken. Moreover, it requires an income which allows money being set aside to repay a microcredit loan after other responsibilities have been provided for. It could also be that for some reason local money lenders seem a better source of temporary funds than an NGO provider due to more accommodating repayment arrangements. There are many reasons which seem thinly covered by the academic literature. It could also be that focusing on the non-poor of the poor segments is much easier and less challenging. Afterall poverty eradication is supposed to deal with structural issues of inequality and deprivation.

Reality, however is different. The structural issues are usually not dealt with because it requires an acceptance of reformist views by the powers that be, as well as a functioning legal system. Something which in most developing countries remains non existing due to lack of implementation of rules and regulations. If looking from the perspective of women’s empowerment, how effective are micro-finance/microcredit programmes if structural issues remain unaddressed? According to the literature, microcredit programmes target women because their repayment rates are better. Moreover, even if the loans go to men to support their income generation by buying a cart, it is argued that it still benefits the household because it shows women as a source of income. In this connection, there is an element of empowerment engendered by microcredit programmes.

Nevertheless, what are the actual effects/impacts of micro-finance on women empowerment? Confidence, awareness and busineness knowledge may increase, but at the social/society level how much is that actually worth and does it bring the desired change, or does it contribute to disempowerment at other levels? How are these processes manifested within the household? If it is effective, to what extent does microfinance serve women’s long term goals of economic independence? This last bit is rather vaguely covered in the literature. Only a negligible fraction of women have gone on to become SMEs through micro credit schemes. The ones who do are not micro-credit clients. They have managed to gain funds through personal savings or family loans. The microcredit loans are too small amounts and participating in the group meetings is a waste of their time. The question regarding women empowerment, micro-finance credit, enterprise development remains unanswered. There are different case studies on microcredit ventures. Some studies with negative results, others with positive results depending on the organizational backing such Grameen Bank and the World Bank. And yet, microfinance programmes such as credit projects are an important tool in the poverty eradication drive because even if the loans are repaid, subsequent loans are taken on and repaid. They support tailoring skills, husband’s trade, sometimes they go to pay for health and education or weddings even. They serve as a lifeline in difficult times. If previous loans have been taken out, their loan record might speak for itself and act as a guarantee that the loan will eventually be repaid.

In this connection, and finally, micro-credit programmes are not wastage of resources, and do contribute to social and economic uplift of the poor. However, there is a need for better clarification of financial services and goals of micro finance programmes, as opposed to just meeting output objectives. Moreover, the question remains, what is to be done with those households where microcredit does not work? How can their deprivation be targeted?


Interfaith harmony between Jews and Muslims

I joined up for an interfaith dialogue process . A Muslim will be paired up with a Jew over 4 sessions. I always found it strange that in past times Jews, Christian and Muslims have been living alongside each other, intermarrying. Then due to some crises or another, usually military-political differences are created and they are at each other’s throats and become worst enemies. This aspect I find a bit peculiar because besides politics, we are actually quite similar. Muslims eat Halal, Jews eat Kosher. They say Shalom, we say Alasaalam o Alaikum. Their women also cover their heads, particularly the orthodox ones. Both communities practice circumcision. All three religions believe in Judgement Day.

In times past, Jews always sought refuge in Muslim dominated areas. I’m Muslim, but I dislike it when people rubbish another religious community. I’m supposed to hate Israelis because of their occupying Palestine. The Muslim community whether Arab or non-Arab always confuse me, but then, Muslims are not each others brothers and sisters, children and parents. They are each other’s competitors. They go by Arab non-Arab, Indian- Pakistani Muslim. They don’t think in terms of community, they think in terms of colour, in terms of a benefit system. Albeit, the latter being a normal human trait irrespective of caste, race, creed.

Being Pakistani, I can say that Pakistan always sticks up for Muslim causes wherever it is in a position to speak up, whether for Palestine, Kashmir or elsewhere. It saddens me that Arabs despite their sense of pan-Arabism seem unable to unite when it comes to the Palestinian cause, other than their charitable donation drives, orphan support and education/scholarship schemes. Being Muslim, I can say I find many things admirable about the Jewish community. They stick up for each other, they are strongly united because they know it is their strength. They are successful and due to corporate leverage gain support even from people of Arab Muslim background, making them only pay lipservice to the Palestinian cause because basically, they don’t care as it’s not really affecting them if people are stateless.

I’m enthusiastic about this dialogue process because on a Saturday I drove through Hendon, which is in north London. I saw a lot of Jewish people. In certain parts of London you see one or two. I saw two Jewish men on the tube once. The orthodox don’t make eye contact when you look at them. As we were driving in Hendon, I saw men with their sons, mothers with their children, women walking in couples. They were all dressed up for the Sabbath. Some men wearing yamuras, others wore the black hats. The women wore traditional dresses. I have never seen so many Jews in one place before. They were either going to attend Sabbath or they were returning from it. I noticed a lot of churches, but I didn’t see a synagogue. For me it was an interesting thing to observe because I’m more used to watch south Asians in their traditional clothes going towards or from an event. And to identify a Jew is very difficult on a normal day, unless they tell you they are Jewish, which few people do nowadays. This they will do only if they are practicing Jew.

When my parents moved to Denmark, they attended Danish courses at Copenhagen University. They were a young curious couple, most of the friends they made in their early days in Denmark were Jews from eastern Europe, who later settled in Israel. Back then their Jewish friends felt they had more in common with my parents than they had with the native population. They told them that Christians discriminated against them for being Jewish. Back then being Jewish was a slur, just like being an ethnic minority is today. Things have changed a lot since those days, but there is a greater need for interfaith reconciliation today because the world is getting smaller and being different is increasingly becoming a part of daily life due to technology and general progress.

The other day I read an article in a magazine that Jews and people of Jewish background are increasingly joining BNP and EDL to protest against the perceived increasing Islamisation of British society. BNP is changing its focus from anti-semitism to anti-Islam and is the only political party taking that stand. The BNP and EDL have rabbis among its members. BNP has Jewish MPs. However, when it comes to islamisation of British society I find this a bit far fetched. I don’t think there are more Islamists in England, but that they are more vocal than 20 years ago because as a community they are better educated today. Also, religious association, think tanks and charities are run by better educated people who are keeping connected with their communities through legal and other social services. So, to make their voices heard is much easier than when their parents arrived in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, the political presence of BNP and EDL are evolving and offering a platform to voice alternative opinions within race relations, which in itself is an interesting phenomenon. However, I say, whether islamist, Zionist/whatever, or racial supremists, every standpoint needs to meet other opinions because it is through dialogue we can make this chaotic world a better place to live in for everyone.

My Jewish partner is an elderly lady who works in the healthcare sector. She was one of the children who came by train from Eastern Europe during World War II. I told her that one thing I admire about the Jewish community is that they are really united. She disagreed and gave me an example of another participant, who is a member of the Palestinian friendly support groups, while she belongs to the more moderate orthodox branch. But she did concede that when it comes to Jewishness or things that affect them as a community they do stick together, which is so unlike the Muslim community.

My partner told me she had only been eating kosher for the past 7 years. Her son went into an orthodox phase which started some years ago. Now he is an atheist. I found this interesting because going puritanical at some stage in life is a common thing to do for many people in their religious journey. Some come out of the experience moderate, secularized or atheist. Others get further embroiled in the dogmatism of faith.

One of the people I met through an online community also jokes about the time when he went all Wahaabi. He came to realize that the rules and regulations turned you into a machine rather than a human. Basically, the rules create fear not love for the Divine. To me it is about creating a balance between the love and fear of the Almighty. However in order to create that balance, I suppose you need to experience the different spectrums of the faith. But now he enjoys spiking up his drink with some alcohol, because at the end of the day he has to live in the real world. Besides, when you live as a minority in a society, it is easy to find a connection with the orthodox/puritanical aspect of the faith you practice. You might as well go the extreme way when you can’t get accepted as part of mainstream society beyond your daily associations through schooling or work.

Politically, I disagree with what is happening in the Middle East. It’s abnormal for a nation to be stateless. Getting representation at the UN without a geo-political existence makes little sense because the need for a geographical existence remains. I disagree with what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank, with the wall fencing in an entire nation from its surroundings . It will only contribute to entrenching the victim syndrome and breed even more hatred and need for vengeance, which will eventually culminate bigger and deep-seated unforeseen responses.

Fencing communities in a ghetto like existence happened to the Jews during the Holocaust and what did the Muslims ever do to the Jews to make them this vengeful? Nevertheless, I have heard from others that the Jews who originates from Israel are not inhumane. The Jews are not inhumane. It’s the Zionists. They are the ones pursuing aggressive and expansive settlement policies. It could be argued that the Israeli government is Zionist. However, one must not overlook the increasing numbers of Jews both outside and within Israel who oppose the government’s policies. Grassroot level initiatives to foster peacebuilding and reconciliation between Israeli/ Jewish and Palestinian Arabs are cropping up. Nevertheless, since Israel won the 1967 war, a victor will always feel more entitled to its winnings and exploit it to its advantage. Clearly, there is a need to re-defining the Israel/Palestine conflict. Responsibility for past mistakes must be made, certain realities must be accepted. Israel is a geopolitical reality and has been for the past 64 years, but the Palestinians need and must have a country to call their own. The world needs a Palestinian state. It’s a basic, innate human right.