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Bangladesh: Economic Development

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Case Study
A thriving global economy is linked to reduction of poverty. Microcredit loan programs have affected the economies of many developing countries. Many of these loans are funded by non-governmental organizations (NGO) and are made to marginalized groups, such as women. Bangladeshi women face severe challenges due to their economic, social, and cultural positions and the country's physiographic conditions. Bangladesh's physiography renders its economy and people vulnerable, exacerbating the impact of poverty. Located in the Indian sub-continent, with the exception of the Chittagong Hills, most of the country is low land, on or below sea level, located at the mouth of the two major rivers, Ganges and Bramhaputra. Rising population and growing demand for land have forced people to move into low-lying areas, thus putting millions of people at risk from annual flooding and strong cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal (Cannon, 2002; United Nations Development Programme, 2007). Bangladesh's economy depends upon agriculture and manufacturing. In rank order, its agricultural production in 2006 was rice, sugar cane, condiments and spices, jute, oilseeds, pulses, tea and tobacco, while its manufacturing products in the same year were cement, jute goods, sugar, cotton yarn, paper and soybean oil (Asian Development Bank, 2007).

Bangladesh ranks seventh among countries in high population density, with 1,035 persons per square kilometre

. The population continues to grow at 1.91% annually and is estimated to reach 190 million in 2025 and 231 million in 2050 (Population Reference Bureau, 2007). Because of the rapid population growth, the country has a high percentage of young dependents. In 2007, about 33% of the population was under 15 and 4% was over 65, indicating that the country is relatively young. Although the total fertility rate has declined from 7.0 in 1970 (World Bank, 1995) to 2.9 in 2007, the country's population will continue to grow in the next 50 years (Population Reference Bureau, 2007). With regard to mortality rate, Bangladeshi women continue to be vulnerable to death during childbirth. In general, lower access to food, nutrition, and health care leads to higher mortality among girl children than their male counterparts (Adolescent Health, 2007). A combination of these factors paints a picture of poverty for Bangladesh.

Poverty, according to the World Bank (2004), has many dimensions, including low income, lack of education, environmental degradation, and gender inequality. According to the World Bank (2007) nearly 41% of the Bangladeshi population lived on $1 per day over 1990-2005, and overall 50% lived below the national poverty line. According to the United Nations Development Programme (2007), Bangladesh ranked 140 out of 177 countries on the Human Development Index (HDI), which focuses on life expectancy, literacy level, and percapita income. Based on this value, countries are classified as high, medium, or low HDI countries, with Bangladesh falling in the medium category The Human Poverty Index (HPI) measuring life expectancy, literacy rates, and proportion of people living below a certain level of income, ranked Bangladesh 93 among 108 countries (United Nations Development Programme, 2007). The Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) helps us to understand gender inequalities and its connection to vulnerability, particularly inequalities between men and women. When this measure is taken into consideration, Bangladesh ranks 120 of 156 countries. A similar index on gender issues is the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which takes into account gender inequality in economic and political spheres. According to the United Nations Development Programme (2007), Bangladesh ranked 81 out of 93 countries for which data are available. All these indicators place Bangladesh among the least developed countries in the world.

Women and Development in Bangladesh

Typically, Bangladeshi girls grow up with limited access to education, which further impedes their capability to earn a living, often forcing them to seek employment in the informal sector. In the formal sector, women's work is concentrated in the garment industry and in service sector jobs such as teachers, lawyers, public service, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others (Asian Development Bank, 2001). Women in Bangladesh increasingly play an important role, especially in the informal sector. Some examples of informal sector work include selling groceries in roadside shops, working as domestic help, scavenging, and, in the construction industry, grinding bricks (Asian Development Bank, 2001). NGOs play a very important role in the lives of Bangladeshi women by generating employment opportunities through microcredit programs, providing training to augment skills, increasing literacy levels and awareness about their rights, and thus attempting to transform the traditional roles of women in society (Asian Development Bank, 2001; Ulvila and Hossain, 2002; Hunt and Kasynathan, 2001; Feldman, 2003). In spite of these efforts to improve the status of women in the last three decades, women continue to face discrimination in the areas of health, nutrition, access to education, employment, and political participation.

Bangladeshi society is deeply rooted in tradition and stereotypes of dependent women. According to Jahan (1995), male domination and subordination of women are the underlying tenants of the country's social structure. The basic unit of the social structure is the family, which sets roles for men and women. Men have the economic control and therefore are the decision makers. Women's lives in such a traditional patriarchal Muslim society are dominated by a highly restricted social structure. Although women contribute to the family income, often their efforts are not valued. Women are responsible for all domestic work, which is time consuming and exhausting. Their role is associated with family, and as such, biological reproduction and nurturing are of paramount importance. In Bangladesh, the average age of women's first marriage is 16, and the median age of first birth is 18 (Adolescent Health, 2007).

Based on existing research'(Khan, 1999; Hadi, 2005; Salway, Jasmin and Rahman, 2005), women in Bangladesh have limited choices compared to men because women are viewed as needing protection by men. In Islamic societies, women are considered to be in need of protection throughout their lives which is provided by a male member of the family: father, husband, brother, or son. In most instances women have little contact with the outside world, with men playing the intermediate role between the women and the environment outside of home. This creates a dominance-dependency relationship between men and women (Salway, Jasmin, and Rahman, 2005).

In many developing countries, parents see little economic value to educating girls. Daughters have greater value to parents when they help with household chores and take care of younger siblings. The decision about female education is also influenced by social norms of sexuality and marriage. Parents in many south Asian countries are reluctant to allow their daughters to travel to school and come in contact with the boys or be taught by male teachers. The lack of education results in unequal power relations between females and males, which, in turn, deprive women of decision-making. In Bangladeshi society, the male children are more highly valued because they are expected to provide for and carry on the family name. Girls are considered to be temporary members (Asian Development Bank, 2001) until they are married and leave the natal home. This influences a family's willingness to allocate resources toward their education, especially when resources are scarce, and restricted access to education leads to high unemployment rate among Bangladeshi women. Further, the heavy burden of household work presents another challenge to their participation in the labor force.

In summary, although Bangladesh is an extremely poor country and all its citizens suffer as a result of that condition, fundamentally, the women and children bear most of the poverty burden.

Empowerment Strategies Linked to Economic Development

How is empowerment measured and is women's empowerment linked to economic development? Measuring empowerment to assess poverty reduction programs has become the thrust of current research. In three inter-linked studies, the World Bank extensively studied the opinions of 60,000 poor people in 60 countries from 2000 to 2002 to determine how to attack poverty (Narayan and Petesch, 2002; Chambers, Narayan, Shah, and Petesch, 2000; Narayan, Patel, Schafft, Rademacher, and Koch-Schulte, 2000). These studies gathered the perspectives of poor people and consistently illustrated the overwhelming feeling and reality of voicelessness and powerlessness leading to limited choices and opportunities (Narayan, 2000).

The concept of empowerment is critical to those leading the way toward eradicating poverty. It can be defined in many ways, but fundamentally the concept is about the power to make decisions. Empowerment's definition has been refined from year to year as the comprehensive body of research increases. Narayan (2005a) defined empowerment as "the expansion of assets and capabilities of poor people to participate in, negotiate with, influence, control, and hold accountable institutions that affect their lives."

The World Bank suggests that promoting engaged citizenship and empowering poor people through education, health care, access to land and financial capital can improve the effectiveness of economic development, especially with projects funded at the local level where civil liberties are robust (Isham, Kaurmann, and Pritchett, 1997). Empowerment of the poor leads to their access to health care, increased skill development, income-generating opportunities, individual and family security, freedom to make choices, and self-confidence. The research measuring empowerment has been linked to improved economic development, but a causal relationship has not been robustly measured (Petesch, Smulovitz, and Walton, 2005).

Empowerment is difficult to measure and varies depending upon many dimensions (Nabeer, 1998; Mason and Smith, 2003; Malhotra, and Schuler, 2005). However, it appears to be influenced by multiple factors (Narayan, 2002; Malhotra, and Schuler, 2005). Some key measures are access to income-generating activities, access to health care, education, land ownership, political participation, freedom of choice and movement, and role in decision making (Malhotra, Pande and Grown, 2003; Mason, 2005; Narayan, 2005a).

Microcredit programs combine poverty reduction with empowering women (Kabeer, 1998). As mentioned, contemporary measurement of women's empowerment is multidimensional and complex and depends on many variables, especially norms, values, and culture (Mason, 2005). While the factors affecting women's empowerment are many, control over their own economic livelihood is a key consideration. Hashemi, Schuler and Riley (1996) studied Bangladeshi women who received microcredit loans from the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAe). They suggested that the microcredit loan programs improved the women's income and enhanced their sense of self-empowerment related to control over their freedom of movement and decision-making. However, Mason and Smith (2003) found in their sample of microcredit female participants from five Asian countries that freedom of movement outside the home was not well correlated with the power to make financial decisions at home.

These studies suggest that poverty reduction is multidimensional, as is the empowerment of women. To overcome these obstacles, NGOs worldwide have focused on increasing the political, economic, and social status of women by seeking to reduce their poverty and increase their empowerment.

Case Study of Nari Uddog Kendra: An NGO in Bangladesh

Awal and Azad (2005) reported that "Bangladesh is often considered the birthplace of modern microfinance." The Grameen Bank began in 1976 in Bangladesh, and by 2003, there were 20,000 NGOs in Bangladesh (Asia, 2003), many filling needs that would normally be provided by government. Consequently, there is often significant political tension between the ruling government parties and NGOs. The political partisanship for or against the Bangladesh government has helped some and hindered other NGOs in their quest to serve the population. When Nobel Laureate Mohmmed Yunus was interviewed (Kala, 2007) on his opinion of the role of NGOs and their use of microcredit programs, he reported that NGOs had demonstrated the ability to expand microcredit programs even without the legal framework to do so. Without microcredit programs with their lower interest rates, the people would continue to struggle in poverty.

This case study examined one Bangladeshi NGO founded in 1992: Nari Uddog Kendra (NUK), which translates into English as Center for Women's Initiatives. NUK manages several women's empowerment and leadership development programs. Our field research centered on NUK's Poverty Alleviation and Family Development (PAFD) Project founded in 1996, now called Women's Empowerment, Gender Awareness and Capacity Building Project. It seeks to raise the status of women within their rural communities, promoting gender equality in the economic development of the family and community. The project provides microcredit lending and trains participants establish and run small enterprises or cottage industries, encourage cooperative partnerships among members to create economies of scale, and educate both women and men on gender awareness and sensitivity and family peace building. Training programs also include leadership and empowerment training. NUK also manages a hospital in the Kishoreganj, a rural district in northeastern Bangladesh. This study sought to determine how NUK's women entrepreneurs in its microcredit lending program demonstrated indications of empowerment related to income generation, education, land and asset ownership, civic engagement, freedom to make choices, and decision making.

NUK's empowerment goals include 1) attaining free mobility for women, 2) educating girls and women and preparing them to attend college, 3) developing self-reliance in girls and women and assisting in their employment by offering literacy education and vocational training to generate profitable income-earning projects and businesses, 4) increasing women's confidence to work productively with men, 5) promoting women's self-reliance to unburden them from disadvantages of dowry, divorce, early marriage, and polygamous husbands, 6) providing local health care, disease prevention, and family planning, and, 7) developing leadership and awareness to eliminate violence against women (NUK, 2007).

NUK's 7,300 microcredit loan participants were placed in 375 groups from 187 villages, with 25 to 30 members per group. Each group membership comprised women from 18 to 45 years old and had a maximum of one member per household. Each member attended weekly meetings of their microcredit loan group. The non-collateralized loans ranged from Tk2,000 to Tkl0,000 (US$33 to $167), with 5.5% of the loan deposited into the group fund. The 12-month term rate was 12.5% interest, with 8.5% going to savings deposits earnings. Repayments were made weekly and ranged from Tk1 to Tk25 (1 cents to 42 cents).

Research Methods and Analysis

The major purpose of the case study was to understand the level of empowerment women exhibited by participating in a microcredit loan program. To that end, information was gathered about the subjects' personal and family background, current family situation, educational history, economic situation, experience with the microcredit loan program, role in personal, family and business decision making, participation in community activities, and experience with NUK's empowerment and leadership training programs.

The subjects for this study included 100 women from 14 different villages participating in the microcredit loan groups of NUK in the Kishoreganj District in Northeast Bangladesh. The subjects, who were guaranteed anonymity, completed a survey through a translated interview conducted in their native language, Bangla. The survey instrument included 105 items. Interviews were conducted by a local team of researchers who spoke both Bangla and English. The interviewers asked the subjects a survey question in Bangla, the subjects answered in Bangla, the interviewer reported the subjects' response in English to a university researcher, and the researcher wrote the responses on the survey instrument.

Background of the research subjects: Table 1 summarizes the background of the subjects. The median age of the subjects in the case study was 35 years old. Most were Muslim (86%) and 13% reported themselves as Hindus. Almost half (49%) of the subjects could both read and write in Bangla, which was very similar to their husband's literacy level. Almost half (43%) never attended school, while 35% attended primary school, 22% attended secondary school. The educational level of their husbands was similar. Most of the subjects were married (90%), 8% were widowed, 1% divorced, and 1% single; 62% of the subjects used birth control, and 96% of the marriages were arranged. Although they grew up in families whose median size was 7.5, the median number of children in their current family was three.

Microcredit loan program: Table 2 provides an overview of the micro-credit loan program. The median number of loans received was three with median total loan amounts of Tk9,000. The median family income per year was Tk36, 000 with the median women's contribution of Tk6, 000. When using the mean, the total family income remained about the same, Tk37,469 with the average women's contribution being almost double the median, Tk11,820. All microcredit loans were in the subject's name and 100% of the subjects paid back their loans, with 98% having savings. Ninety-two percent identified themselves as operating a business. Only 23% of the women owned land that they could claim was under their own control as opposed to the total number of families, 90%, that owned land. The respondents owned 95% of the animals in the family and could make independent decisions regarding buying and selling them. Ninety-three percent (93%) of the subjects were the primary decision-maker on how the loans would be used, and 66% were the primary decisionmaker on how the income generated from the loans would be used.

NUK micro-credit entrepreneurs responded to open-ended questions reporting the types of businesses they formed from the micro-credit loans. The micro-credit enterprises fell into three categories: agricultural cultivation, selling products, and selling services. The agricultural businesses focused on fish cultivation, goat rearing, padding husking, and cow fattening. The products that were sold were rice, firewood, vegetables, poultry, bananas, milk, handicrafts, and machine parts. Service businesses were grocery shops, sewing and tailoring, rickshaw services, carpentry, blacksmith, cloth trading, tea stall, beauty shop, and hotel services.

The NUK women entrepreneurs reported how they used the money earned from income-generating activities resulting from the micro-credit loans. The loans were used to reinvest in their NUK-funded businesses as well as to support their families. The NUK women entrepreneurs used additional loans to reinvest in their NUK businesses, as well as to support their families. Money earned from income-generating activities resulting from the micro-credit loans was used to repay micro-credit loans (100%), savings (97%) income-generating activities (88%), family health care (66%), children's education (64%), food (57%), household goods (14%), purchase livestock (47%), land (26%), and house repair 40%).

Decision Making and Empowerment: Table 3 displays percentages of the subjects' overall participation in their family and small business decision-making based on a number of activities commonly perceived as reflecting empowerment (Malhotra, Pande and Grown, 2003; Mason, 2005; Narayan, 2005a). Sixty-one percent of the subjects identified themselves as the head of the household, with 53% heading the household alone and an additional 8% indicated that they shared household leadership with their husbands. Thirty-nine percent identified the husband as the head of the household. In terms of participation in overall decision making, 96% indicated that they participated in financial decisions, 84% in family planning, 77% in birth control, 85% in their children's education, 66% in their children's marriage, 82% in working outside the home, and 97% in the microcredit loan system. Widows and older respondents responded "no" or did not respond to questions regarding family planning and birth control.

Mobility: Table 4 lists subjects' responses to whether or not they have freedom of mobility, as well as their involvement in their communities' political processes. Ninety-nine respondents reported going to banks, markets, health centers, and other places outside their village, and 99 subjects traveled to visit their families, primarily with their husbands (34%) or alone (43%). Thirteen traveled with their husbands and alone. Twenty-five attended Union Parishad (local government meetings) but only four participated on committees, 61 participated in Shalish (a village arbitration council), and six participated in groups or organizations.

Demonstrating Empowerment Reported by NUK Participants

Subjects were asked a variety of open-ended questions focusing on what they believed they gained from the NUK loans to prepare them for their business ventures. Their responses revolved around their ability to generate income that was sustainable, improved family economic conditions, increased status with their families and communities, increased mobility, and increased self-esteem. Respondents offered a variety of responses to the question: "What did you learn in the training or leadership program? Some examples were: "Men and women are equal," "disadvantage of early marriage; .... family planning," "human rights," "disadvantage of dowry," "got courage," "gardening," "negotiation," "how to manage small trade," "how to manage credit," "how to pay installments," "identify the role of savings in revolving fund raising," "community participation," "leadership and different types of leaders." The training programs appear to offer subjects support in organizing and managing their small businesses, as well as encouragement to build self-confidence and make decisions in their families.

Key Findings

The survey data on literacy and contraception are comparable to Bangladesh's national average where approximately half of the population is literate and half of the women use contraception (Population Reference Bureau, 2007). In this study, 49% of the women were literate, while 98% were defined as empowered. Studies suggest that education and literacy are associated with women's empowerment, but women may be empowered without being literate, and vice versa (Malhotra and Pande, et al., 2003). When looking at this survey's data and comparing them to the literature on microcredit loan systems and empowerment, there are several key findings. The data indicate that NUKs microcredit program has empowered its microcredit participants by increasing family income, land ownership, political participation, freedom of movement, and primary and joint roles in decision making.

If empowerment is measured by expansion of assets and capabilities (Narayan, 2005) and access to land and financial capital (Isham and Kaurmann, 1997), NUK's microcredit loan program appears to have empowered its participants since their assets increased through the microcredit loan program. The women supplemented the family income with a mean contribution of Tk11,820, owned businesses (92%,), owned 95% of the animals, and land that was under their control (23%). Upon further examination of land ownership, the subjects that owned land were more likely to be literate, older, and to identify themselves as the head of the household than the subjects that did not own land. The level of the differences was not a deciding factor in whether or not a subject could own land.

Further evidence of empowerment is suggested by the data on political participation, as operationally defined by the number of women voting. In the face of Narayan's concept of the voicelessness and powerlessness of poor people (Narayan, 2005b), the importance of engaged citizenship may be attributed to the NUK microcredit loan system, where 98% of the women surveyed voted and 90% were not told for whom to vote. Freedom of movement (NUK, 2007 and Hashemi, Shuler and Riley, 1996) has been described as an important identifier for empowerment in the Bangladesh society. In a society where males do most of the traveling and the women are limited in their movement, the survey data show that 99% of the women went to banks, health centers, and other places with their husbands, and 99% traveled to visit family, including 43% who traveled alone. Sixty-one percent of the women attended Shalish meetings.

Another indicator of empowerment is decision making (Shuler and Riley, 1996). Sixty-one percent of women reported primary responsibility as heads of household. According to Kabeer (1998) and Mason (2005), women may generate income, but are not necessarily the decision makers on how the income is spent. In sharp contrast, our survey data show that two-third of subjects reported themselves as the primary decision makers regarding how the income from their microcredit business was spent. Ninety-three percent indicated that they were the primary decision-maker on how the microcredit loan money was to be used to generate the added income. Finally, in terms of spending the overall family income 95% of the subjects reported that they participated in such decisions.


Bangladesh continues to be destabilized by population growth and the degradation of the human rights of women and children, among other outcomes. Women's access to education improves their economic contributions to society and reduces population growth, thus promoting their role in the developing economy and in society.' Bangladeshi women perform an important role, especially in the informal business sector. NGOs contribute to the lives of Bangladeshi women by generating employment opportunities through microcredit programs, providing training to augment skills, literacy levels, increasing awareness about their rights, and, thus, attempting to transform the traditional roles of women in society. Subordination of women is an underlying belief of the country' s social structure. Bangladesh's NGOs, specifically those led by women, have developed nationwide programs supporting the advancement, leadership development, and empowerment of women. Microcredit loan programs have led to empowering women and developing them into small business owners.

NUK women made their own decisions, registered the loans in their names, and repaid their loans in full. The success of the microcredit loan system can be seen in the number of loans obtained and the 100% repayment rate. The women's investment of their funds and participation in operating a business is extremely positive. The NUK women have been empowered to be the primary decision-makers around these loans and have tremendous participation in the financial decision-making process in their homes and businesses. Through the efforts and activities of the PAFD project, including training programs centered on self-employment, leadership, gender and human rights, social awareness, health and reproductive rights, income-generating activities, and credit management, NUK women appear to have independence and are participating in family, economic, and community decision-making. These NUK results are similar to other studies that describe empowered women as those who generate their own incomes, own land, are involved in the political process in their communities and their countries, have the freedom of choice and movement and have decision-making roles in their homes and in the communities (Malhotra, Pande and Grown, 2003; Mason, 2005; Narayan, 2005a).

Implications of NUK's Micro-credit Loan Program for Other NGOs and Their Countries

NUK's micro-credit loan program is one example of the power that microfinance can have on empowering women to lead their families and their communities out of the situation of "helplessness" as described in the World Bank studies (Narayan, 2005b). NUK's policy that each loan borrower must be in a loan group is a feature of ten found in microfinance projects in other countries, such as in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (Narayan and Glinskaya, (2007). The collective action and cooperation of the participating women in a community may play a central role in assisting the women entrepreneurs to achieve their goals. The addition of NUK's comprehensive training program may be a component that other micro-credit programs should consider. These training programs not only provide skills and increase small business knowledge, but also build communities that help one another, while holding one another accountable for achieving goals and loan repayment (Aiyar, Narayan and Raju, 2007).

Limitations and Future Research

The researchers had access only to NUK recipients available at the time of the study trip to Bangladesh. Therefore, this study's limitations focused on the lack of control and experimental groups. Also, it lacked a pre-test and post-test measure of how women would have responded prior to the loans and training programs. Future research should seek to conduct pre-test and post-test measures and to include control groups.

In the future, we would like to conduct focus group interviews and ask the participants if they faced opposition as they expanded their roles as entrepreneurs and, if so, how they were able to overcome it. Additional research comparing the outcomes of microcredit enterprises in other economically developing countries, as well as the how such loan programs might reduce poverty in developing countries, would expand our understanding of the impact of microcredit enterprises on the world's economy. Also, future studies of NUK should examine whether the NUK women business owners face cultural conflicts as a consequence of the participation in the PAFD program, and how they overcome cultural traditions that may be barriers to their entrepreneurial ventures. The data collected in this examination will guide a future research study assessing NUK's leadership development training programs and their effects on women's empowerment levels and on building a community of colleagues who assist one another to achieve their business goals. Future studies should consider the effects that social accountability mechanisms may have on the success of particular micro-credit program goals. The present case study will serve as the baseline for the next phase of the research, which will explore the possibility of adapting Western leadership concepts and practices to the Bangladeshi cultural environmentp.

Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank the Compton Foundation for providing the funding for the data collection, to Colleen Richardson for her outstanding work in the survey and interview process, to NUK Executive Director, Mashuda Khatun Shefali and to the NUK colleagues who served as interpreters: Selina Akhtar, Nargis Arifa, Mahsura Khandaker, Zakir Chowdry, Sayedur Rahman, Hosneara Leena and Quazi Shahnz Shaheen.

Solution Preview

Step 1
The social structure in Bangladesh is such that men have economic control over the family. The efforts of women are not valued. The women are responsible for domestic work and biological reproduction. The social structure is such that women are married off at young age and the median age of first childbirth is sixteen years. The education of women is adversely affected by social norms of marriage and sexuality. There is a need for a change in social structure so that women have more scope of becoming economically independent. The example in the case study such as Nari Udyog Kendra shows how women can be empowered and can play a meaningful role in the economy.
The women are traditionally not allowed to play a role in business. However, the Nari Uddog Kendra project shows that women in Bangladesh can play a more meaningful role in the business of the country. Also women play an important role in the informal sector. Examples include selling groceries in roadside shops, in the construction industry, working as domestic help, and scavenging. However, women are ...

Solution Summary

The role of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is discussed step-by-step in this solution. The response also has the sources used.