Women and Children in Bangladesh: The Effects of the Grameen Bank, the World Bank, and the Global Partnership for Education
University of Central Florida
The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effectiveness of three institutions at improving educational and financial outcomes for women and children in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, a densely populated South Asian country that borders India. It is a United Nation’s “least developed country,” with many of the 163 million residents living in poverty.
The Grameen Bank
The Grameen Bank was founded by Dr. Muhammad Yunus in the 1970s to provide small loans to poor Bangladeshis living in rural areas. Billed as the “bank for the poor,” in 2006, the bank and its founder won a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. In particular, the bank focuses on loans to women so they can start or further their small businesses. Unlike other banks, Grameen lends to the poor without collateral at a lower interest rate (16% per year). A mandatory component is regular meetings with a support group of four other prospective borrowers—the bank builds “collective responsibility” by requiring a pilot test with two of five borrowers from each support group before the other three are allowed to borrow (Grameen Bank, 2018). As of 2006, the bank claims it had loaned a total of $24 billion USD to nine million borrowers.
In 1996, Pitt and Khandker administered questionnaires to loan recipients in Bangladesh, and found that although Grameen loans improved household wealth for both males and females, the loans especially helped girl’s schooling and empowered women to participate in the labor force. The authors looked at micro-loans to men as well, finding that such men were more likely to enroll their children in school and to use contraceptives. The Grameen Bank can be seen as a “three-in-one,” so to speak—an anti-poverty program, a pro-education program, and a women’s empowerment program. However, the authors note that in addition to the micro-loans themselves, the support groups with four other borrowers might contribute to positive outcomes for Grameen loan recipients. Regardless, both components are important parts of the Grameen program, which has shown excellent results in benefitting the poor. At the same time, it has managed to be cash-flow positive while lending to people who are seen as undeserving of credit by traditional banks and lenders.
Kabeer (2001) provides an account that factors in the nuances of a patriarchal culture and gender differences. In particular, even wealthy women may be discouraged from pursuing entrepreneurial efforts due to sexist stigmas in Bangladesh. A prime finding of importance, however, is that women who receive micro-loans are more likely to share it with their family, benefiting their children’s education and their partner, in addition to their business venture. However, men are less likely to share the micro-loan. Therefore, lending to women has the inherent benefit of an increased chance of benefiting the entire household rather than just the husband, father, or man.
A dissenting viewpoint is Karim’s (2008), who blasts the Grameen Bank for its 98% loan recovery rate. Karim argues that the rural poor are being subjugated by Grameen, which is only cemented by their 2006 Nobel prize award—specifically, that “Bangladeshi rural women’s honor and shame are instrumentally appropriated by micro-credit NGOs in the furtherance of their capitalist interests” (p. 5). Nonetheless, Grameen inarguably offers collateral-free loans to those who would not typically qualify, at interest rates that are relatively fair—16% per year. Even a creditworthy borrower in the US might be charged a higher interest rate on a credit card. Like educational stipends which provide direct support for rural girls to go to school (Hahn, Islam, Nuzhat, Smyth, & Yang, 2018), micro-loans can support women’s capital expenditures needed to jump-start a successful business, such as purchasing equipment or inventory.
The World Bank
The World Bank provides loans and grants to poor and developing countries for projects that alleviate poverty and promote economic growth (World Bank, 2018e). It has two main branches: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which offers loans with interest to countries able to repay, and the International Development Association (IDA), which, via subsidies and donations from member countries, offers interest-free loans to the poorest countries (World Bank, n.d.). IDA recipients must have growth national income (GNI) of about $1,200 USD per person or less, on average—a threshold Bangladesh is about to cross which will make it an IDA/IBRD “blend” country subject to 2% annual interest on its many existing IDA loans rather than 0.75% as it paid in the 2017 fiscal year and before (Dhaka Tribune, 2017). While $1,200 per person is low compared to the US, it is an important milestone for Bangladesh and other poor-but-developing countries.
Bangladesh receives many IDA loans, including ones that benefit women and children. The IDA committed $510 million in December 2017 toward the Transforming Secondary Education for Results Operation (World Bank, 2018d), dedicated to addressing Bangladesh’s education gap—less than a quarter of its 57 million workers have completed secondary education. The IDA has also specifically benefitted out-of-school children via a $130 million loan in 2013 that helped blanket one-third of the country with 20,400 learning centers in rural and disadvantaged areas, which have enrolled 690,000 students (World Bank, 2017b). While academic publications on the IDA’s recent efforts are scant, it would appear the IDA has made a powerful impact to benefit children and women in Bangladesh. For example, another $500 million IDA loan aims to establish “safety net systems for the poorest” (World Bank, 2018a), and a $29 million loan targets women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh’s poor northern region (World Bank, 2018b).
Sarker and Salam (2011) performed a gender-based literature review of the impacts of the World Bank and UNESCO toward primary education in Bangladesh. Overall, they speculated that the bank’s efforts toward alleviating poverty had resulted in increased primary school enrollment—76% in 1991 compared to 98% in 2008 (91% net)—because poverty is a prime reason for failure to enroll in school. The authors also commended the World Bank for recommending focusing on girls’ education, and noted that Bangladesh’s culture is a limiting factor because it may discourage girls from going to school. Further academic research is needed to examine the World Bank’s substantial recent efforts toward education, gender equality, and poverty alleviation in Bangladesh.
The Global Partnership for Education
The Global Partnership for Education’s (GPE) efforts in Bangladesh focus on implementing a World Bank IDA-funded project called the Primary Education Development Program III (World Bank, 2018c), a $9.8 billion program to improve primary education equality, quality, and participation. The project is primarily funded by Bangladesh’s government, along with loans from the IDA and other organizations, plus a $100 million grant from the GPE for “implementation of the entire program as budget support” (GPE, 2018b), which Bangladesh began receiving in 2016. Disbursement of the grant is tied to nine key indicators including distribution of textbooks and increasing completion rates of Grade 5 primary exams.
Founded in 2002, the GPE funds education in developing countries around the world, focusing on primary and pre-primary education, girls, out-of-school children, and disadvantaged children in general (GPE, 2018a). Bangladesh was the 60th country to receive funding, and $100 million is the maximum amount a country can receive. Use of the money is wide-ranging within the IDA-funded project, and the GPE’s contribution has aided large progress for children in Bangladesh. Primary enrollment increased from 84.7% in 2010 to 98.0% in 2017, with completion rates increasing from 54.9% to 80.8% in the same timeframe (GPE, 2018b; World Bank, 2017b). Now, 32.8% of schools meet the Primary School Quality Level Indicators as compared to 17% in 2010, which is still low, but much better than before. The vast majority of schools receive their textbooks within the first month of the school year now, and 2,032 teachers have been recruited or trained.
Although the GPE is a small part of educational funding in Bangladesh that began funding the country only two years ago, its focus on rigor and standards and its experience working in other developing countries has likely contributed greatly to the wellbeing of women and children in Bangladesh, by improving educational access and quality. If they continue to be sustained, these efforts will have a positive impact for many decades to come.
The efforts of the Grameen Bank, World Bank, and Global Partnership for Education synergize. Grameen focuses on micro-loans to poor people in rural areas to start or further their business ventures. Although these people are often uneducated and do not gain education directly from the micro-loans, their financial standing tends to improve, which can allow them to provide better nutritional and educational opportunities to their children. The World Bank’s focus is broad and wide-ranging, including infrastructure and electrification projects not relevant here, but also many educational and poverty-mitigating initiatives, such as constructing a social safety net. These projects are quite important toward equity of chances and outcomes for poor women and children. The GPE, through both its organizational capital and direct financial support administered by the World Bank, improves the scope and quality of primary education in Bangladesh which further enables upward economic mobility for the poor. Overall, the efforts of these three organizations, along with many other stakeholders including a substantial commitment from the Bangladesh government, are helping to move Bangladesh from the list of least-developed countries toward the list of middle-income countries.
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