In Bangladesh Villagers are Gambling Their Lives for Microcredit

A link appears this morning–well. it’s morning here–in the LiveJournal community debunkingwhite sparking discussion of microcredit as extended by the Grameen Bank to poverty-ridden individuals, mostly women, in Bangladesh. This is a comment on that post. I am writing, admittedly, without researching microcredit much further, so it is a gut reaction to the bare outline that can be made out, in this one post’s small collection of links, of how Grameen Bank gives comparatively tiny loans (hence the term “microcredit”) to some of the poorest women of Bangladesh, in the name of helping them to help themselves.

The post contains a link to a twelve year old article from the Left Business Observer, which critiques microloans from a slightly different perspective from that in the video link. The striking thing to me in this article is its reiteration of Grameen Bank’s–and Muhammad Yunus’, the orginator of the concept of microcredit–basic assumption that the women to whom these loans are made have the “innate” ability to use the money given to them in a way that would make them successful entrepreneurs. Apparently, this works in some cases. But in some it simply doesn’t.

Honestly, I am not all that interested in the numbers: exactly what percentage of women are succeeding with their microcredit enterprises and are able to pay back their loans and raise themselves out of poverty is not my main concern. Grameen Bank is optimistic, whereas France 24 is less so. The 1996 artical from LBO lists rather unhappy figures that suggest that in some regions loan default rates were up to 80% at the time that it was written.

Whatever the numbers are, what the video makes clear is that microcredit is tearing some families apart and is digging ever deeper holes of poverty for some unspecified number of Bangladesh families and villages. It also makes clear that Grameen Bank is not interested in answering criticisms of its program, or at least it was not willing to talk to the people producing the video.

It is no doubt true that microcredit helps some of the world’s poorest families to earn some money. The question that I would pose comes from a general position of critique of exploitation and profit, and in this case, critique of profit from lending paltry amounts of money and charging interest for its return, creating a need for ever-expanding markets and ever-expanding economic growth in order that capital continue to be created. Which is to say, what, exactly, is the price we are willing to pay–no. What is the price we are willing to extract from others in order to spread the gospel of the (compulsory) free market, where some, with certain talents and abilities and a measure of luck, are able to achieve a measure of success, whereas others, with other talents–unsalable perhaps–and other abilities–unmarketable perhaps–or simply less favorable luck, lose what little they have to begin with and wind up carrying what is for them a crushing burden of debt, but for world capital, a trifle, a drop in an ocean, an amount of money it could afford to give away for free, without any wealthy individuals suffering even the slightest grievance? Save, that is, for the knowledge that someone, somewhere, might be making an “unearned” living.

Why are we asked to “earn” life? What is it that makes us think that certain people deserve wealth–namely, those who have it–while others
“obviously” do not–to the point that they do not deserve food, shelter and healthcare? In a scene from the France 24 video linked to above, an agent from Grameen Bank is faced with an angry crowd in a Bangladesh village. It seems that most, if not all, of the people he has come to see cannot pay back their loans, and his paternalistic admonishment to them is that “good people will be able to pay back their loans.” The villagers demand to know what he means to imply about them.

I would ask the same thing. What is it about the qualities necessary to succeed at free-market capitalism that leads us to call those who are blessed with them “good,” whereas those who are not must be less good–since, after all, good people can pay back their loans because they can make $500 turn into, say, $700 over a period of years? And if one is able to do such a thing, will it reduce one’s own poverty, or will it push one into a never-ending cycle of borrowing and debt?

Now I know the arguments here: that productivity is good, that trade is good, that being able to create goods and services that other people will pay for is good, and that the production and exchange of wealth is good. Of course, one can question these assumptions from all angles, from asking whether activities that don’t produce wealth might not also be good, to asking whether producing and exchanging wealth can be achieved through means that do not require deeply impoverishing a vague, but always necessary, proportion of the world’s population.

My main point is just this: that global capital is itself based upon a large number of assumptions that often go unexamined, and that those assumptions, in almost all cases, draw a line around certain individuals while excluding others, based upon arbitrary beliefs about how we should share–or not–the resources that are freely available from the world around us, or, that is, freely available until one of us stakes a claim and makes the ultimate presumption of “owning” them. At least one woman in Bangladesh has lost her husband to suicide, the only place he apparently felt he could go to escape the shame of being unable to pay back the family’s loan. Were he the sole casualty of microcredit, would this program which avoids redistributing wealth but instead demands that villagers create their own, would it be worth the price?

Buried among the thousands of internet memes constantly circulating among social networking sites, one contains the following question: if you had the choice between your own death and the death of some random person elsewhere on the planet, which would you choose? What if ten people were to die in your place? One thousand? One hundred thousand? At what number are you no longer willing to ask for the death of others instead of yourself? Why that figure? Why not a lower one?

Now, how many of your neighbor’s lives would you require? Is the number different? The video seems to me to make it clear that in Bangladesh, this is similar to the question the Grameen Bank asks of its borrowers: whether they are interested in competing in the game of the free market, in which some of them will surely lose. Everything.

But of course, that’s what they deserve. Right?

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