How do you assess the role and performance of micro-credit? How much has it contributed to the capitalist penetration of rural Bangladesh and its integration in the global network of finance capital?
Anu Muhammad: Micro-credit in different forms has been in practice for long in this region. Dr. Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank) and Fazle Hasan Abed (BRAC) could institutionalise it and could attract global attention through its monetary success. Initially, their micro-credit programmes began with the promise of poverty alleviation, gradually its success showed its strength in other areas. Currently, BRAC, Grameen Bank and ASA control more than 80 per cent of the micro-credit market. From micro-credit business these organisations have accumulated a lot of capital and shown that micro-credit can become a corporate success. They have also linked multinational capital with the micro-credit network.
For instance, Grameenphone started its operation by relying on micro-credit, offered borrowers mobile phone as a commodity form of micro-credit, on condition of paying back in installments. Its initial declared aim was to ‘help poor’, ‘alleviate poverty’, now Grameenphone has become the largest company in Bangladesh with 90 per cent of its subscribers being non-poor urban people. Grameenphone is actually an entity of Telenor, Norway. They started with the poor and relied on micro-credit and then at one point migrated to more profitable areas. Grameen Bank has opened many other businesses, has developed joint venture companies with French companies such as Denon and Veolia (a water company), all in the name of poor. Intel and many other companies are coming to Grameen Bank to make use of its wide network through micro-credit.
The same thing is true also for BRAC. BRAC was initially interested more in education, health and other essential public services. With its increasing accumulation of capital through micro-credit, it shifted to the business of textile, printing, education (including setting up of a university). It is also in business with multinational seed company Monsanto. In fact, its focus on education and health care for the poor shifted more towards commercial activity. Thus the micro-credit operation, in its process, has successfully been used as a weapon to make macro business to grow in tandem with global capital.
But question remains, what about the much publicised objective, i.e., poverty alleviation through micro-credit? If we look at the hard facts, compiled from different studies (not sponsored by BRAC or Grameen Bank), we find a new debt trap for the poor people has been created by micro-credit. You cannot find more than 5-10 per cent people who could change their economic conditions through micro-credit. The people who could change their economic conditions were those who had other sources of income. If we closely look into the system of micro-credit it appears clearly as a means to create a debt trap. If you take loan, you have to repay in weekly instalments and it means you have to be active, healthy and working all over the year, which is not possible. In fact, it is impossible for the poor millions, who constantly live in adverse conditions, to keep paying weekly instalments all over the year. If there are any unfavourable circumstances you are bound to be a defaulter. And once you become a defaulter it creates a chain and you have to take loan from another lender/NGO to repay the same. Micro-credit has connected the rural areas and the population with the market but has made done that by pushing them into a chronic debt trap.
Today Dr. Yunus is not talking any more about sending poverty to museum. He has come up with a ‘new’ idea of social business, which is also unclear and seems to be fraudulent. The impact of micro-credit is now well understood by people around, especially millions of victims. However, the IFIs and global corporations seem to be very happy with these experiments, as they find that the poor people can become very useful objects for profitable investment of finance capital. Thus the WB, HSBC, Citibank, and other multinational banks are entering into the micro-credit market. Bangladesh has given a gift to crisis-ridden global capitalism, which has consequently found the market of four billion poor through micro-credit. It is very relevant here to quote the Wall Street Journal, an important part of the global corporate media. It said: “Around the world, four billion people live in poverty. And western companies are struggling to turn them into customers.” (26 October, 2009). Obviously, micro-credit is a very useful instrument to go with this objective.