One of the best kept secrets of Bangladesh is that women are the best investments especially when it comes to paying back loans. Professor Yunus' gut feel that led to the world's most replicated micro-credit scheme, has proved that long ago. It has strengthened women's belief in themselves, started the concept of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in poultry business and is accepted by all but policy planners and banks. Notwithstanding all the exhortations of women chambers and visionaries such as Bangladesh Bank governor Atiur Rahman, there is a feet-dragging reluctance by fiscal institutions; such institutions had to be literally forced before foraying in to a territory that was so fertile.
The ladies are hard-nosed when it comes to business. They abhor unnecessary risks, rarely gamble and have their heads screwed on the right way when it comes to their planning. Their in-born capabilities of organising the home on frugal expenses make them ideal in business planning especially on a small scale. But as always the obvious is ignored. Banks often fudge the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR), mainly because the concept of CSR is so often maligned and misinterpreted. So much so that the wrong is fast becoming the norm.
But it is the decision of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to pump in $200 million in rural Bangladesh that will leave such institutions with egg on their face. In line with its policy of skirting the archaic system for more dynamic routes, the ADB will be financing firms run by women, especially in subsistence trade and retail activities. They will be the ones less educated and typically find it difficult to obtain loans. As reported in the media, 15 per cent of the allocation will be targeted to women entrepreneurs. Lest it is forgotten there are about 7.2 million SMEs in the country, that employ 70-80 per cent of the non-agriculture workforce, accounting for a quarter of the gross domestic product (GDP) and 40 per cent of manufacturing output.
It is embarrassing that home owners don't know what is there in the kitchen cupboards, but the ADB is going to pump in money to set up dedicated women's desks in financial institutions as well as strengthen their access to credit and even legal services. Incredible as it may sound, this is what women chambers gave been clamouring about for so long. Their voices haven't really been heard beyond the government's increasing the mandatory funds for women businessmen. The red-tape as always has been a huge deterrent to the ladies' gaining access.
Bankers aren't known to want to wander in the rural areas to talk to such clientele and most of the sleepy branches of state-owned banks have to run so much by the book that innovative solutions are either not proffered or aren't listened to. Every year, big banks talk about the SMEs and how they will be serviced. The results against targets are never fully fleshed out but now, one sincerely hopes there will be a change. Maybe even to match the rates at which the ADB lends. It would be a new revolution of sorts and everyone knows, the risk of bad debt will be negligible.
(The writer may be reached at [email protected])