backcontentsnext

2.0 THE CASE OF GRAMEEN BANK

2.1 Background: The economy of poverty

Bangladesh has one of the highest population densities in the world. Close to 100 million people live on its 55,598 square miles which means that 1763 people attempt to survive on each square mile. Eighty-five percent of the population live in the rural areas of the country. About 45% of the land holdings are smaller than 2.5 acres; 37% are between 2.5 and 7.5 acres, but over 60% of the population are landless or near landless. (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 1985) This large majority constitute the poorest of the poor. They survive mainly as agricultural wage labourers for the landowners. By and large the poor are underemployed and attempt to eke out a living through various kinds of service occupations: buffalo carting, rickshaw or cart pulling, spice processing, mustard oil preparation, weaving, mat making, vegetable trading, cattle fattening among others.

The economy of poverty is characterized by a high degree of labour division. In the endeavour to survive, human ingenuity appears inexhaustible. One can easily list 350 to 400 income-generating activities the poor undertake with skill and perseverance. Despite its labour and skills, however, the economy of poverty is at the losing end of the rope. The resources base is too narrow. Poverty is poverty because it cannot, on its own, overcome the inherent and chronic gap between production and consumption. Much less can it start and sustain the process of accumulation that is a premise for progress. (Yunus, 1982)

The poorest have no land or a very limited access to land. They have no access to credit or only to credit which is highly exploitative. They are underpaid for their work and this cycle of degradation is compounded by the inadequacy of food intake which depletes their only remaining resource, their labour.

In the economy of poverty, prices, profits, wages, interest rates, shortages or famines are not functions of quantifiable economic variables, but results of powerful social processes which can be described better in qualitative terms. Another factor is nature, which intervenes frequently and erratically in the system. (Fuglesang and Chandler, 1986)

2.1.1 Human manipulation. Although famine is triggered by events beyond human control, this does not explain entirely the severity or delay in food distribution. Natural factors such as drought, pests, tidal waves or river flooding may disturb the complex and intense cropping cycle in Bangladesh and create local or widespread food shortages. However, the poor are quite aware of the human manipulation which aggravates the famine situation. The social structure in the villages prevents the suffering from the famine to be borne equitably by all members. Food shortages are aggravated by stockpiling. The larger landowners tend to act in concert and maintain an informal monopoly control of the food supply. In times of famine, it is not uncommon that the price of a family's daily rice supply is five to six times higher than the daily wage rate of a labourer.

2.1.2 Moneylending. Faced with desperation, the final recourse for the poor is to pawn or sell the miniscule piece of land they might possess. Other meagre possessions such as household utensils, furniture, or a coveted piece of jewellery soon line the coffers of the moneylenders. Their acute need for cash to buy food for the family, forces the poor to borrow from the moneylenders who usually are rich landowners. Pawning is preferred to selling their last possessions. Taking full advantage of the situation, the moneylender has the sovereign power to set the price for the item pawned--normally half or one third of its market value. The interest charged ranges from 300 to 400 percent annually.

With these crippling interest rates, the poor virtually have no chance of repaying the principal of the loan in the allotted time. The loan transaction becomes a means of establishing a social and economic relationship based on the permanent dependence of the poor on the moneylender.

2.1.3 Social discontinuity and distrust. Famine tears up the cohesive social elements that exist among the poor. Groups that normally eat together, split apart. An increasing unwillingness to share with siblings and relatives can be observed. Cordiality, mutual respect and trust deteriorate. Quarrels, petty theft and serious crime are more prevalent.

The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee has analyzed the situation of discontinuity and distrust as it operates in the villages. (1984) In rural Bangladesh, although the individual household is the production unit, extended family units are not uncommon. At this level most decisions are taken regarding the cultivation system, deployment of labour, cropping technique and similar matters. This does not exclude, however, that several households will tend to associate in clusters or groups. In Bangla, such groupings are referred to as dal. These are informal social formations based on proximity and/or political allegiances that often play an important role in regulating inter-household cooperation. For our understanding, the term faction might be more descriptive. The degree of cooperation and interaction is high among households aligned with the same faction. However, the effect of vertically-dominated factions among the poor is to minimize their horizontal linkages. The feeling of solidarity and common cause observable among the members of a faction contrasts sharply to the lack of solidarity and cooperation between factions. This social discontinuity and distrust blocks out horizontal and large-scale attempts of cooperation among the poor in economic or social affairs. The conflict generated takes the forms of inter-household disputes and hostility, barriers to a free-flow of reliable information, and subsequent suspicion and lack of cooperation towards development efforts directed to the poor.

Rural factions are another dimension of a social relationship configured by dependence and exploitation. Factions arise and expand as a result of vested interests and rivalry between its leading members. Often the fight between these personalities is fierce. Violence, intimidation and trickery are commonly-used means to gain ascendancy and control of the local resource situation. Relief operations directed to the poorest are exposed to the cynicism that derives from a viciously competitive milieu. The local leaders, or leaders to be, systematically gather support and expand the power of their faction by holding out the promise of benefits or economic support to the poor who will give their allegiance. The highly unequal distribution of limited resources in the rural areas of Bangladesh, along with their control and use by a few, is the socio-economic source of a relation of dependence. The exploitation materializes in the grossly unequal economic exchanges we have described. The connection between natural disasters and socio-economic processes is essential for an understanding of rural poverty in Bangladesh.

2.1.4 The negation of women. The two words purdah and bari are entry points to gain an understanding of the social norms that contribute to a marginalization of women. In general, purdah requires that women should not be seen by men outside of the family. The logical extension of this norm is that women are largely restricted to work which can be carried out within the family homestead, i.e. bard. This places limits on the types of income-generating activities open to women. When travel is necessary for any reason, women must rely on husbands, brothers, sons or other male relatives for assistance.

A time allocation study shows that the average peasant woman spends 43% of her time on activities related to farm production, about the same on household work, and about 11% on childcare and other family matters. (Westergaard, 1983) This is the situation when the household owns or leases some land. Women in landless families face a different situation. In Bangladesh, rice accounts for about 75% of all food grains grown. It is a highly labour-intensive crop and most of the processing operations are undertaken by women. In the busy harvest season, women in households with one or two acres of land tend to be over-employed. By comparison, the landless and poor women were up to 36% underemployed. The most common complaint of the poorest which applies most acutely to women, is the lack of employment opportunities. Those who find paid employment work almost exclusively as domestic labourers in nearby wealthier baris.

In rice processing, women use a traditional mortar with a foot-operated pestle, a dheki. With the introduction of diesel-operated rice-husking mills, this work is disappearing. Husking by mill is cheaper than by traditional technology. The result is a worsening of the situation of poor families dependent on the supplementary income from this source. Again, wealth is transferred to households which are already wealthier and to the ricemill owners. For women, ownership of ricemills becomes a primary development issue.

Poor women are increasingly being marginalized in the labour process. This is accompanied by a pervasive devaluation of women which, unfortunately, ends in complete social negation. It starts with the female child who is less well fed, less looked after and receives less medical attention. Women in Bangladesh have a higher mortality rate than men. Child brides and premature deliveries are common. While sons are perceived by parents as the future source of social security, daughters are viewed as a cost from which others will benefit eventually. Violence against women is not uncommon and appears to be increasing.

The final and very dominant issue in the negation of women is dowry. Parents must provide the bridegroom-to-be with a payment in cash and/or in kind for marrying their daughter. The practice of dowry correlates with the decreasing size of land holdings and the resultant decline in the importance of female labour in agriculture. The decreasing demand for wives is accompanied by an increasing demand from potential grooms for higher payments. Dowries of 10,000 take are not uncommon. For the poor, such a sum is a crushing burden, propelling a vicious downward spiral which tosses the family deep into debt and dependency.

2.1.5 Through the women to the poor. Donor agencies, development planners and-programme implementors are constantly lamenting that projects do not get through to the poorest of the poor. And in that dilemma, women are the hardest to reach. A mounting number of evaluation reports confirm this. At the same time, there is an emerging rhetoric about women as the socially most legitimate venue to development. However, operationalizing this in a practical programme has not been achieved on a large scale. It is well acknowledged that there is a clear connection between the social and economic status of women and the nutritional and welfare status of their families. There can be little doubt that development initiatives should address the women among the poor directly as a priority. But the 'how' of it and the scale of the need have presented seemingly insurmountable hurdles.

2.1.6 Rural credit for the poor. Various attempts have been made to provide the poor with credit as a catalyst to development. Some commercial banks in Bangladesh are obliged to offer rural credit programmes. Specialized rural credit banks exist as well. Loans are given on the basis of collateral surety in land or other assents. Invariably, this means only those with assets get loans. The poorest of the poor--65% of the population--are bypassed. The result is that the wealthier farmers benefit from such credit schemes. Even more disturbing is the fact that these schemes suffer from very low repayment rates by their privileged clients. In some banks, only 40% of the loans are relayed. There are even cases of repayment rates as low as 10%. It appears the defaulters may get away with it since the judiciary does not have the capacity to handle the large number of foreclosures implied. Therefore, rural credit banks are hesitant to take legal action and the situation remains uncertain. If funds do not revolve, mortgages are of little help to banks. This situation in Bangladesh's rural credit schemes demonstrates how enormously important it is to restore and ensure social and economic accountability.

2.2 From action research project to bank

In 1976, Professor Muhammad Yunus launched an action research project in Jobra village near the university in Chittagong. The objectives of the project were to extend credit to landless poor men and women, to eliminate the exploitation of moneylenders, to create opportunities for self-employment among these vast but underutilized human resources, and to bring the poor within the folds of some organizational format which they can operate for mutual support and benefit. (Yunus, 1982; Grameen Bank, 1986)

The project was extended to several villages in Chittagong and, over the period 1976 to 1979, demonstrated its strength and viability. With the collaboration of Bangladesh Bank and other nationalized banks, the Grameen Bank project was extended to Tangail District in 1979. Success in Tangail led to further extension of the project's services in the districts of Dhaka, Rangpur and Patuakhali. In 1983, the project was transformed into an independent bank. It is called Grameen Bank which in Bangla means Village Bank.

It is important to realize that the Bank has evolved as the result of a long learning process. At the time of writing, it has 200,000 members, 71% of whom are women. There are 248 branch offices which disburse 4.0 crore take or 1.3 million U.S. dollars in loans per month. The average loan size is about 2000 take only. Normally, the biggest loan for an individual does not exceed 5000 take. The Bank's recovery rate is extraordinary. Close to 98% of its loans are repaid--and on time. As mentioned, the members undertake more than 400 income-generating activities based on skills they already have.

As Grameen Bank members gain experience and prove their reliability, they may take out loans for joint enterprises. The loan amounts for joint enterprises are much larger and may be upto 500,000 take. More than 100 different kinds of joint activities are financed in this way. Most joint loans are for activities in agriculture and forestry followed by activities in livestock and fisheries and the running of mills and factories. By the middle of 1986, the Bank had disbursed 5.0 crore taka or about 1.6 million U.S. dollars.

Well established Grameen Bank members can also borrow upto 18,000 take for building a house. Houseloans are repaid over 10 to 15 years. To date, more than 1800 houses have been built with these loans.

All loans are repaid in weekly instalments. The current national rate of interest (16% per annum) is charged for loans. Financially, the Bank is almost self-sufficient, even running with a small profit. To its members, Grameen Bank is much more than a bank in the conventional sense. Through a variety of programmes it supports activities to improve sanitation, health, nutrition, education, family planning, dowryless marriages and mutual help among its members. The Bank makes vegetable seeds and seedlings available at cost price. By end of June 1985, about 1 million seed packets and 1 million saplings were sold and distributed by the Bank. School textbooks for primary school are also sold at cost price. (Grameen Bank, 1986)

Many evaluation studies qualify that Grameen Bank's activities are beneficial for the poorest of the poor and especially for women. It is well documented that the Bank reaches the poor who are defined as those having 0.5 acre of cultivable land or less, or other assets of corresponding value. Over a period of time, a borrower's income increases substantially and her/his asset base widens. It is now recognised that the Bank clearly contributes to an increase in the wage rate for agricultural labour in the areas where it operates. Through their groups, the Bank's members own 75% of the paid-up share capital. Four landless poor--two women and two men--are members of the Grameen Bank Board of Directors.


Figure 1

Grameen bank's operation is characterised by many types of interacting functions. In our description we follow this figure type step-by-step.


Figure 2

This overview shows the various management units and the categories of staff attached to those operating at the field level. The enlarged circle represents one centre with its 30 members. It shows how members organize themselves according to their groups in rows of five at the weekly centre meeting.


Grameen Bank is a very successful development effort in a dynamic process of expansion. It expects to have 500 branch offices in operation by 1988 and close to 500,000 members.

For more information on the Bank's merits as an economic development initiative, we refer the reader to the attached bibliography. Our purpose is to describe and analyze the communicative features of the Bank's organization and functioning which have played such a significant role in its success. By this we mean Grameen Bank's approach to external and internal communication and information processing, its methods of information, management and decision-making.

2.3 A socio-economic formation

To describe the Bank in terms of relations between sections or departments that are presented in an organizational chart would not adequately explain the communication processes it sets in motion. It does not conform to the typical bureaucracy of an agricultural extension agency for example, which operates as an entity cognitively different from its social environment. Grameen Bank is a dynamic organizational reality better characterized by the term, socio-economic formation. It is a cluster of interacting organizational functions which absorbs more and more of the social environment in itself, recreating it in a process of continuous transformation. The Bank is formative in the sense that people create a new social and economic environment for themselves through it. Such a 'formation is expressed both in physical or spatial arrangements and in the thinking, the feeling, the attitudes and the behaviour of the participants, right down to their body language.

Figure 1 provides an overview of three main types of functions carried out through this socio-economic formation. They are:

2.3.1 Centre functions. The centres are comprised of the landless poor who carry out responsibilities and activities as part of their work to further their own development, individually and collectively.

2.3.2 Development facilitation functions. If the situation of the poor is to be met effectively, three inter-related processes have to be set in motion. We characterize these processes as three functions which serve to facilitate the development the landless poor endeavour to achieve through their work. These are: the banking and economic development function which makes credit available, the social development function which makes information and supplies available, and the organization development function which engages in development and management of the socio-economic formation as a whole. This aim is to ensure that the Bank is appropriate for its purpose of serving the poor.

2.3.3 Service functions. Specialized operations are required which carry out a variety of services directly or indirectly related to the social and economic development of Grameen Bank members. We are familiar with descriptors such as General Management and Accounting, Monitoring and Evaluation, Auditing, Personnel Administration, Research and Development and Training. All these functions have easily identifiable purposes.

Figure 2 illustrates the various management and supervision units in Grameen Bank. At the time of writing, there are in operation 5 zonal offices, 20 area offices, 248 branch offices and 8850 centres, of which 6524 are female. In total, the Bank has 3000 employees. Approximately 2500 constitute various grades of bank staff, referred to in this paper as bank workers, who are directly engaged with the centres. The development facilitation functions and the service functions are operationalized through these units in interaction with the poor in the centres.

2.4 Communicating through trust

In Grameen Bank, all work springs from and focusses on the activities of the landless groups and their centres. People organise themselves in groups of five. Then six groups of five members join together to form a centre. Therefore, a centre usually comprises 30 members. The name, centre, derives from the obligation of the six groups to construct a meeting-centre, a house or shed where they can discuss their concerns and conduct their business with the Bank.

2.4.1 Groups of five landless. The poor who want to become members of the Bank are encouraged to form groups by finding five like-minded people who are in a similar economic condition and enjoy mutual trust and confidence. Whereas group members must be inhabitants of the same village, only one member of a household may be in a group. If several people from a household want to join the Bank, they must take membership in different groups in the centre, or in another centre entirely. Similarly, relatives must not be in the same group. Membership in groups and centres is according to gender. Women comprise their own groups and centres and so do men. It is crucial that this group formation process is an autonomous one in which the people involved identify and recognize each other as having shared interests and agree that participation is to mutual benefit.

Each group elects a chairperson and a secretary who hold office for one year only. They cannot be reelected before all other members have had the same learning experience that accompanies the responsibilities of these positions. The group chairperson is responsible for the discipline in the group. Members conduct their business with the Bank through her or him at weekly meetings. All members are obliged to attend these meetings and to be fully aware of the rules governing the activities and procedures of the group.

When a new group is formed, it is kept under close observation for a month by bank workers and other staff to see if the members are conforming to the discipline of Grameen Bank. For a minimum of seven days the members participate in a training programme.

Part of the training is to establish trust among the members. Each member must contribute one take a day to a cash savings fund which is entrusted to the members in turn. The money is kept first by the chairperson, then by the secretary and finally by each remaining member. This procedure demonstrates to the group an individual's capacity for honesty and reliability with an asset held in common and-is the first step towards establishing a relationship of accountability. If the training is satisfactory, two members will receive their loans and be observed for a month or two to ascertain if they pay their instalments regularly. Only then will the next two members be eligible for loans. The fifth member of a group will receive her or his loan when the second set of loanees have established their reliability. Usually, the group chairperson and secretary are the last to receive their loans.

New loans are not approved before the individual accounts of each group member are settled. Thus, the group members interact in a micro-network of mutual accountabilities. The individual is kept in line by a considerable amount of peer pressure. Equally, an individual is sustained by a considerable amount of peer support. This is the whole basis for the singular fact that Grameen Bank can give loans without demanding a collateral surety. The credibility of the group as a whole--and its future benefits in terms of new loans--is in jeopardy if one member defaults on loan repayments. In practice what often happens in the case of financial difficulties is the group arrives at a private arrangement to pay a member's instalment. This is one of the reasons the Bank has a repayment rate as high as 98%.

The group decides -its business on a consensus basis. The chairperson is expected to be the spokesperson who voices the group consensus at the centre meetings. Therefore, the homogeneity of the group is clearly essential.

2.4.2 Trial and error. After various experiences, the Bank has settled on a group size of five. Initially, loans were given to individuals, but this procedure quickly proved itself uncontrollable for Bank staff. Then the idea of peer control was introduced and groups of 10 or more were organized. However, these were found too large to be effective. The necessary self-discipline and mutual trust did not emerge and the meetings became clumsy to conduct. Agreement was slow to take place and the chairperson's overview of the group's situation was complicated by its size. In the end, five members turned out to be the most practicable size. Corresponding to the five digits of a hand, it is also an easy figure to communicate.

In the early stages of Grameen Bank's development, group formation on the basis of specialized activities was monitored for its effectiveness as a cohesive element. It was found that groups based exclusively on specialized activities such as cow fattening or rickshaw pulling did not function too well because the members came from different places and could not meet easily. The spatial and social closeness of being from the same village emerged as a major premise for a well-functioning, cohesive group.

If a group member behaves in an undisciplined manner, for example, by not attending meetings or by not repaying loans regularly, the remaining members may, by unanimous decision on, impose a fine. The fine is deposited in a group fund for mutual benefit. In the same way, they may decide to expel a member for chronic breach of discipline. In such cases, the member to be expelled must repay the total loan before leaving.

A member may leave the group at any time as long as any loan is fully repaid. If a member leaves without repaying the entire loan, the responsibility for paying the balance falls to the remaining group members. Any person may join a group if its members unanimously agree and the person meets the qualifying criteria set by the Bank.

2.4.3 Centre meetings. The regular centre meeting coincides with a weekly repayment of instalments. Early in the morning, the six groups meet in the centre house and are assembled before the bank worker arrives. During the meeting, current issues of interest to the members are discussed, various problems are raised, repayment of loans and other bank business is conducted, and decisions of concern to the centre are taken on a consensus basis.

Over time centre members have arrived at a seating arrangement which makes it possible their meetings more effectively and efficiently. The six groups assemble in rows of five. Each row is one group. Each chairperson sits on the far right of her or his group followed by the secretary and then the remaining members. Normally, the centre chief's group will occupy the first row. (See Figure 2) Although the number of people in a centre may vary, more and more the optimal size of 30 members is the practice. Larger centres do not allow for the same degree of participation by individual members and eventually divide to form two centres as necessary. During the meeting, the group chairpersons conduct the business on behalf of their respective members.

From among themselves, the group chairpersons elect a centre chief and a deputy centre chief who hold office for one year only. It is a rule that new centre officers must be elected after a year has expired, and bank workers are increasingly supervising to see the rule is followed. Even a particular month of the year is specified for the elections so the whole process can become a standard matter of practice.

Centre chiefs ensure attendance at the weekly meetings, payments of loan instalments, overall discipline and generally conduct the programme of the meetings. If a centre chief regularly breaches discipline, she or he can be removed according to certain rules and a new person will be elected. Almost on a daily basis, both the group chairpersons and the centre chiefs are involved in the essential task of supervising if members are utilizing their loans appropriately. Any misbehaviour in this regard is reported to the centre meeting. Office holders in groups and centres are not paid for their work. The groups and the centres are the basic decision-making units in Grameen Bank. The service functions and the management of the Bank see it as their primary task to respond effectively to the decisions taken there.

One of the most significant features of the centre meetings is that all bank business is conducted openly in front of the members. There are no private transactions, much less any shady deals. Every member knows what is happening and can assess her or his own position in relation to others. Carrying out all transactions in public and dealing with problems together, combined with the rotation of officeholders by obligatory yearly elections, severely mitigates the entrenchment of vested interests and generation of distrust. At the same time, the openness of the procedures- prohibits individuals from misbehaving. The fear of public exposure is a heavy disincentive for inappropriate actions. Thus the centre meeting reinforces a relationship of accountability that is established in the groups. What starts out as an essentially economic accountability, evolves into a much wider social accountability and a state of mutual trust. The individual members are very aware that they enjoy the benefits of membership only if they play by the rules of the game. They know that as long as they stick to the rules they can trust each other.

2.4.4 Straighten your back. In a social environment characterized by discontinuity, uncertainty, starvation and frequent violence, the centre provides its members with much more than economic support. It provides continuity, protection, power, communal support and unity of purpose. The physical manifestation of poverty is in the bent back, the lowered glance and the almost inaudible voice. The bank workers constantly reinforce the growing self-confidence of the centre members: "Whether you stand straight or handle your money straight, it is the same thing." "Speak up, straighten your back, you can be proud you have improved your assets by your own work."

We have visited many centres, attending their meetings and interviewing members. Here are a few stories which reveal the social significance of the centres:

It is a remarkable experience to observe how forthright and open is the communication taking place among the members themselves and between bank staff and members. It is especially notable in the behaviour of women who only a few years ago would have regarded this as unacceptable. The discussion is orderly and to the point and often peppered with good humour. Personal conflicts in the community are solved within the social framework of the centre, sometimes with the assistance of the bank worker. However, the emphasis is on the centres finding solutions to their own problems.

The bank workers become trusted by the members and even regarded with affection. A strict discipline, though, guides their relationship to members. For example, they are not allowed to receive any gifts from members, no matter how humble. Also, the bank workers are rotated so that at intervals they are responsible for new centres.

In our many visits to Grameen Bank centres, we had ample opportunity to observe how members take great pride in being honourable and making their payments on time. When a centre does well in its activities and in implementing its development decisions, each member has a share in the communal pride. The accomplishments of individual members, which would never have been possible without having access to credit, are also a source of pride. The spirit of solidarity and mutual trust has very tangible consequences for individual members.

Throughout Grameen Bank the prevailing attitude is that the group must progress as a whole. If one member is lagging economically behind and another is forging ahead, the prospering member's new loan will be delayed until the others achieve the same standard. Field staff are sensitive to the issue of differences in economic status arising in the groups or centres. They use every occasion to reinforce the message, "You must go forward together and help each other." Senior staff are very concerned with the possibility of acquired wealth by its members, modest as it is in relative terms, leading to any exploitative relations developing vis-a-vis other landless. Shared interests and mutual trust are the basis for communication about issues, as it is for the social contract as a whole. It is such a self-evident truth, that it is almost shameful communication theoreticians and practitioners need to rediscover it.

2.5 The oral culture--the mouth as a medium

What makes us give priority to the marginalization or disadvantages of the poor at the expense of recognizing the value and distinctiveness of their own culture? All cultures develop special skills in people, so does the culture of poverty. In a very literal sense of the word, it is a sub-culture. When we assume that people are disadvantaged, we rush to create a development programme to deal with their disadvantages, instead of a programme based on the skills people have at their fingertips.

The poor have always been researched, described and interpreted by the rich and the educated, never by themselves. Still today, development literature largely assumes that poor people must change their attitude and behaviour before they can take the first step out of poverty. Surely the inference is that poverty is a self-inflicted, self-generating phenomenon? The focus then is placed on what the poor are doing to themselves, rather than on what an oppressive economic system is doing to the poor.

It is time the social and communication sciences seriously question the assumptions behind the models of attitude and behaviour modification. These have splintered poverty into myths that are quite damaging in their attributions about the poor: The poor lack innovativeness, surrender to mutual distrust, have no empathy, are apathetic. They do not have quite the same feelings as 'us', lack aspirations and motivation, are intransigent, unwilling to take risks, cannot conceptualize progress, and finally, are handicapped by not understanding the larger political context. In other words, the poor are mentally stunted and ignorant. They have no skills and are inept problem solvers. The poor must be the recipients of new knowledge, through more and more effective communication programmes utilizing the latest in media technology, preferably satellites in stationary orbits. Enlightenment shall be beamed down on the poor around the world, around the clock. Why don't we attempt to find out what the culture of poverty is, rather than what it isn't?

2.5.1 The assets and skill" of poverty. In the South, the culture of poverty is oral in the sense that the technology of writing is used only by a few. Oral cultures develop two very important skills in people. Listening is taken so much for granted that it is rarely considered a skill. Yet, it is a perceptual and conceptual ability or capacity to 'read' reality through the ear. People develop listening skills acutely when they rely exclusively on oral communication. This capacity extends beyond reading the sounds of the natural environment and into the skills of social intelligence, the ability to perceive and interpret social situations. In daily life, it means applying the spoken word deftly to participate and survive in the community. An oral culture is a communal culture in a very special sense: it does not survive without the spirit of the community. (Fuglesang, 1982)

When people have no other means of storing information and knowledge, they develop an excellent memory. As a skill, this is

glibly overlooked. The folklore of puns, euphemisms, colloquialisms, proverbs, songs and stories is more than folksy fun. These various and entertaining forms have special functions in an oral culture. Eloquence and subtlety are valued, a well-phrased statement is remembered. People listen for hours to a good storyteller. Particularly older people use proverbs to enlighten or comment on the happenings of the day. Proverbs are ingenious mnemonic devices for communicating the insights and experiences won in the past.

There is a price to pay for acquiring the skills demanded by the technology of writing. It is the deterioration of listening and remembering skills. We can all recognize that we still belong to an oral culture, but it is quickly receding.

In general, poor people have remarkable survival skills and vocational skills. There is a high degree of labour division which is expressed in skills ranging from spice-processing to broom making, from hide preparation to weaving. Common to such skills is the high level of competence involved if people are to make a living from it. Most remarkable perhaps is people's general skill in resource utilization. Every source of energy, every material object, every resource available, is explored for its particular qualities and applications. Always, an available resource is utilized in a remarkable variety of ways and combinations to maximize its potential. The evidence of this endeavour is everywhere in the culture of poverty: utilization of land, water, crops or building materials. Observers from affluent societies have reason to feel deeply ashamed of their incompetence in the skill of resource utilization. Certainly the slum dweller's shelter of rusty iron flakes, cardboard boxes, newsprint and plastic sheets is a heap of leftovers. It can also be seen as a masterpiece of resource utilization. Saying this does not deny that development is necessary and urgent. The point is: the poor are very capable of making appropriate use of resources made available to them in appropriate ways. This also concerns information resources.

Our emphasis on the many skills of the poor does not mean training in new skills is not necessary. People willingly acquire a new skill and easily utilize an information resource when they recognize its benefit. The point is simple: a self-reliant development can be initiated and generated only from the skills people already have. Training in new skills is part of the ongoing process once it has started. All too often we overlook that people enjoy and gain self-confidence by utilizing the skills they already master.

2.5.2 Memorizing decisions. Grameen Bank has managed to employ people's skills, and in particular people's communication skills, as they are. Certainly, writing is essential in keeping the banking business in order, but that is largely done by Bank staff. The only requirement of members is that they each learn to write their signature.


Figure 3

THE SIXTEEN DECISIONS

1. THE FOUR PRINCIPLES OF GRAMEEN BANK -- DISCIPLINE, UNITY, COURAGE AND HARD WORK -- WE SHALL FOLLOW AND ADVANCE IN ALL WALKS OF OUR LIVES.

2. PROSPERITY WE SHALL BRING TO FAMILIES.

3. WE SHALL NOT LIVE IN DILAPIDATED HOUSES. WE SHALL REPAIR OUR HOUSES AND WORK TOWARDS CONSTRUCTING NEW HOUSES AT THE EARLIEST.

4. WE SHALL GROW VEGETABLES ALL THE YEAR ROUND. WE SHALL EAT PLENTY OF IT AND SELL THE SURPLUS.

5. DURING THE PLANTATION SEASONS, WE SHALL PLANT AS MANY SEEDLINGS AS POSSIBLE.

6. WE SHALL PLAN TO KEEP OUR FAMILIES SMALL. WE SHALL MINIMISE OUR EXPENDITURES. WE SHALL LOOK AFTER OUR HEALTH.

7. WE SHALL EDUCATE OUR CHILDREN AND ENSURE THAT THEY CAN EARN TO PAY FOR THEIR EDUCATION.

8. WE SHALL ALWAYS KEEP OUR CHILDREN AND THE ENVIRONMENT CLEAN.

9. WE SHALL BUILD AND USE PIT-LATRINES.

10. WE SHALL DRINK TUBEWELL WATER. IF IT IS NOT AVAILABLE, WE SHALL BOIL WATER OR USE ALUM.

11. WE SHALL NOT TAKE ANY DOWRY IN OUR SONS' WEDDING, NEITHER SHALL WE GIVE ANY DOWRY IN OUR DAUGHTERS' WEDDING. WE SHALL KEEP THE CENTRE FREE FROM THE CURSE OF DOWRY. WE SHALL NOT PRACTICE CHILD MARRIAGE.

12. WE SHALL NOT INFLICT ANY INJUSTICE ON ANYONE, NEITHER SHALL WE ALLOW ANYONE TO DO SO.

13. FOR HIGHER INCOME WE SHALL COLLECTIVELY UNDERTAKE BIGGER INVESTMENTS.

14. WE SHALL ALWAYS BE READY TO HELP EACH OTHER. IF ANYONE IS IN DIFFICULTY, WE SHALL ALL HELP HIM.

15. IF WE COME TO KNOW OF ANY BREACH OF DISCIPLINE In ANY CENTRE WE SHALL ALL. GO THERE AND HELP RESTORE DISCIPLINE

16 WE SHALL INTRODUCE PHYSICAL EXERCISE IN ALL OUR CENTRES WE SHALL TAKE PART IN ALL SOCIAL ACTIVITIES COLLECTIVELY

Formulated in a National Workshop of one hundred women centre chiefs in March 1984, the 16 Decisions might be called the social development constitution of Grameen Bank. All Grameen Bank members are expected to practice and implement these decisions.


As part of its social development programme, the Bank is organizing workshops for female centre chiefs who, during 7 intensive days, are exposed to a whole range of development issues. The centre chiefs return to their centres with the purpose of communicating the knowledge to the members and, together with them, implement action-decisions. This whole process is entirely oral. At the end of the workshops for women, it has become the practice to draft a set of decisions that the women would implement on return to their respective centres. In 1984, a national workshop took place which was an historic occasion in the Bank's development. The 100 participating women representing the five zones agreed upon 16 Decisions which they committed themselves and the general membership of Grameen Bank to implement. These 16 Decisions have become the social development constitution of Grameen Bank. It has become the focus for the participatory process whenever members meet. (figure 3) Members may rearrange priorities or give different emphases to the various decisions, but the list remains the major guideline for household or community action.

The '16 Decisions' are no abstract ideological resolution. Quite the opposite, they constitute a concrete document for action arising from and expressing the needs of the landless. Grameen Bank 's role in the manifestation of the 16 Decisions has been its preceding years of facilitating development around the general values of solidarity, health, education and work. In this document, social and economic distinctions overlap. Solidarity and mutual help are as much a practical concern as building a pit latrine or drinking tubewell water. Saving and investment- in collective enterprises reflect the same spirit as tree planting or growing vegetables. Abolition of dowry payments is linked with the issue of discipline, physical exercises and courage with the quest for social justice. Environmental sanitation is as important as children's education. The subject matter of the 16 Decisions has become the major focus for a comprehensive process of change.

With a starting point in the 16 Decisions, Grameen Bank members create their own slogans according to their own interests and priorities. These slogans are iterated in unison at the opening and closing of centre meetings and every day at the workshop sessions. Bank staff are continuously checking the members' knowledge of the 16 Decisions, and arrange oral memorizing sessions if they are not satisfied. This applies as well to the general rules and regulations of the Bank. Frequently the slogans are accompanied by exercises in the centres and in centre schools.

It is an energizing experience to observe the fervor and vitality with which the slogans are repeated. The mouth is the medium. Below we list a ream of slogans as they might appear:

How does this oral process of memorizing succeed in communicating information from the bank workers through the centre chiefs to the individual members? It should be noted, of course, that the issues in the slogans are followed by a body of factual information also communicated orally. Moreover, this information is backed up by the Bank's provision of tangible services which facilitate implementation. For example seed packets with instructions for growing vegetables, oral rehydration packets with directions for use, and cement slabs for latrines with the necessary installation steps provided are all offered through the Bank.

Two separate evaluation studies found that Grameen Bank members had very high scores on a number of development and participation issues. One study shows that 92% of the members knew how to prepare a saline solution for the rehydration of infants compared to 52% in the control group. Sixty-four percent do use birth control methods; 90% are not prepared to marry off their daughters in child marriages or give dowry. Awareness of the larger social context and the exploitative powers is also high among members. With respect to voting in the last election, a significantly larger percentage of women in loanee families had cast votes: 73% in contrast to 46% in the control group. In regard to the 16 Decisions, only 17% of the women and 26% of the men were incapable of memorizing any of them. However, 23% of the women and 17% of the men could memorize them all. Most loanees remember some of the decisions and women memorize better than men. In trying to gauge whether members were practising the decisions the behaviour around drinking water was isolated for assessment. The tenth decision states, "We shall drink tubewell water. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum." It was found that 76% of female loanees drink tubewell water and 71% of the men. Of those who do not have access to a tubewell, 60% of the female loanees responded that they boiled the drinking water compared to 42% of male loanees. (Rahman, A., 1986 and Rahman, R.I., 1986) More interesting than these impressive figures is the fact that the members are themselves involved in a continuous evaluation process, the mediation of which is oral.

2.6 Communication is participation

Grameen Bank has managed to initiate participatory evaluation through the mechanism of exchange visits between women in various centres. Women attend each others centre meetings and the process of communication takes place in a practical and familiar context. Exchange visits are seen as an indispensable way of internalizing and gaining knowledge and opening new perspectives. They combine three powerful reinforcing elements: peer learning, peer motivation and peer solidarity. When a group of women visit

other centres to assess implementation of the 16 Decisions, not only do they learn from the experiences of their sisters, but their presence as guests has a considerable supervisory effect. When the bank worker notifies about the intended exchange visit the hosts--like hosts everywhere--take great pride in being well prepared. The message creates a flurry of activity and excitement.

Exchange visits between centres take place in the same branch or different branches. Sometimes, the visits are connected with the development of joint enterprises and may even take place between zones. The social development officers are usually involved in both planning and implementing the visits and ensure that the information communicated is relevant.

A centre exchange visit is for three days. The women stay as guests in their sisters' houses, participate in the centre meetings of the hosts and inspect their income-generating and social development activities. On return, the women must report the results of their visit to their own centre and bank staff. A little later, the three-day visit is exchanged and the roles reversed. The branch manager reports to the zone' office on the results of the exchange. At this point, the otherwise oral process of communication is converted into written reports for management and planning purposes.

The example of exchange visits illustrates a process of action, evaluation and learning. It brings forward a simple and pertinent point: Successful communication is participation. The essence and ultimate purpose of communication is participatory action. The groups and centres with their autonomous networks of shared interests, their homogeneity and mutual trust, are communicative units of great potential for people's participation in development.

All too often communication practitioners focus on the effect of media. Which medium is most cost-effective? What media-mix is best? The starting point for our professional judgements are more often the presence of technology than the primacy of people. If we could forget about media for awhile, we might start asking more fruitful questions. Isn't it time to consider: How do we create the social environment that is most conducive to people's participation? What kind of organization is capable of doing it? In the process of answering such questions it is likely we will learn how useful media can really be.

2.7 Some organizational modes of thought

Although not stated explicitly, Grameen Bank appears to process information, promote communication and participative decision- making according to the following generative modes of thought.

- Errors are absorbed as experience and converted into opportunities for learning.

- Decisions are advance adaptations to changing circumstances. Plans are tentative outlooks, but with a strong sense of direction.

- Creativity is actively promoted. Conformity is discouraged. Attitudes and talents are not considered to be by inheritance alone: staff become good performers by virtue of what their organizational environment allows them to learn and realize.

- Social accountability and participation emerges from discipline and supervision.

- The more equal people are the better do they communicate and collaborate.

To observers of Grameen Bank it is striking how the management and staff members communicate and work creatively together, comporting themselves with openness, perceptiveness and self-confidence. It is an atmosphere very different from that in a typical hierarchical bureaucracy with the stagnancy derived from prevailing factors such as fear of authority, inefficiency and corruption. The driving force in Grameen Bank's progress for the benefit of the poorest is undoubtedly person-to-person communication. By 1988, the Bank expects to nearly double its number of bank workers to 4000. Remarkably, once they are working, the bank workers' salaries are generated from the Bank's own earnings.

2.8 Appropriate media

Bank workers and social development officers have very few communications media at their disposal for centre meetings or workshop sessions. There are no slide or film projectors, no video equipment and rarely a poster. This does not derive from any aversion to the use of technology. Computers and pocket calculators are considered indispensable for the Bank's operation. It is simply the result of a judgement about cost-benefit and appropriateness.

Meetings are taking place in remote community halls without electricity. The heat makes it necessary to close window shutters. The halls are rectangular and it is the custom to sit on mats along the walls so that all participants are facing each other. Under such circumstances, few can make meaning of wall posters. But human ingenuity can solve such a problem. The Bank has introduced an innovation in visual aids. Small picture cards 10 x 15 cm. are handed out to the women so each participant can tangibly hold the topic of discussion in front of her. After use, the cards are collected ready for use in another meeting. It works beautifully and it could not be simpler and cheaper! Quite recently, the Bank has decided that the time has come for trying video in its training programme and, characteristically, staff members themselves will learn by trial and error whether it is worth it.

backcontentsnext