SIRAGANJ, Bangladesh -- In the shadow of Milk Vita's success, marginal community members -- the landless and assetless men and women from tribal groups -- were going hungry. The Grameen Fisheries and Livestock Foundation, a sister organization of the world-famous Grameen Bank, decided to help them by rehabilitating a nearby government fish farm that had fallen into disuse.

But Grameen found that fish farming only provided a few hours of employment each week for project participants. They also found they were spending a lot of money buying cattle manure to fertilize the ponds. In 1999, Grameen solved the two problems at the same time by getting into the dairy business. It formed and trained user groups and created veterinary and breeding services based on the Milk Vita model. Cattle and other livestock produce manure that is used as fertilizer in the fish ponds.

Parboti Rani Rabi Das is 45, with a lifetime of suffering in her face. Thin and soft-spoken, she tells the harrowing story of life as a member of a marginal tribal group, without land or secure food supplies.

"We were poor, living 10 kilometres from here in a remote village," she says, standing in the courtyard of her mud-brick house, her husband Bimal Rabi Das, 55, at her side. The couple has three sons and two daughters. "We had no land before and we don't have any land now. Fifteen years ago we came here. My husband was a night watchman, and I worked as a midwife. We didn't have enough food. We were starving."

The government eventually offered the Das family the use of a small plot of land and with their small savings they bought pigs, a goat and some chickens.

"Still it wasn't enough," says Mrs Das. "Our two daughters had to be maids in other people's houses."

UN financing for Grameen a first

The Grameen organization got the family involved in rehabilitating the fish pond next to their house, and even that relatively modest activity helped pull them back from the brink of starvation. "After we started fish culture we had enough money for wedding ceremonies for our two daughters and to put an iron roof on our house," recalls Mrs Das.

The Community Livestock and Dairy Development Project is the first project in Bangladesh to be financed by the United Nations Development Programme but operated by a non-governmental organization. UNDP typically finances projects run by the government or a United Nations agency.

UNDP provided US$3 million in funding over five years on the condition that FAO be brought in to provide technical assistance, since the Grameen people were new to animal husbandry and milk processing. They wanted to make sure that people who live on 20 US cents a day each didn't go into debt buying livestock only to have the animals sicken and die for lack of technical know-how and backup. Grameen put US$200000 into the project.

The Das family now has a handsome brown milk cow in their courtyard. Mrs Das continues to serve as the community midwife and puts in a few hours a week tending the nearby fish pond. Mr Das is also paid to guard the pond at night from poachers. They are getting by.

Almost 4 000 villagers, most with similar stories, participate in the project, which is organized into 880 village groups. Each group receives up to US$330 as a micro-credit loan to buy livestock. Under the classic Grameen formula, peer pressure ensures that borrowers make prompt loan repayments -- all members know that once money and interest returns to the revolving fund, they will be able to take loans and buy livestock. Grameen hopes its network of villagers will produce 9.5 million litres of milk in 2004, processed in the village for local consumption and sale.

As for the relationship between UNDP/FAO and the Grameen Foundation, the honeymoon continues.

"It is a good marriage," said K. Ganeswaran, a veterinarian and team leader at the project site. "The Grameen people are interested in helping these forgotten people, which is good, and will accept funding from any donor. I think the cooperation will continue and expand."

M. Chowdhury, who has worked for the Grameen Foundation for 13 years, agrees that Grameen's grassroots network and proven microbanking system combined with FAO's technical expertise is logical -- after all, FAO assisted Milk Vita for 15 years in the same region.

"We are dedicated to helping people who are living hand to mouth," said Mr Chowdhury. "We have our work cut out for us here."

August 2002