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Microfinance and Its Discontents

Women in Debt in Bangladesh

Lamia Karim

Publication Year: 2011

In 2006 the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh won the Nobel Peace Prize for its innovative microfinancing operations. This path-breaking study of gender, grassroots globalization, and neoliberalism in Bangladesh looks critically at the Grameen Bank and three of the leading NGOs in the country. Amid euphoria over the benefits of microfinance, Lamia Karim offers a timely and sobering perspective on the practical, and possibly detrimental, realities for poor women inducted into microfinance operations.

In a series of ethnographic cases, Karim shows how NGOs use social codes of honor and shame to shape the conduct of women and to further an agenda of capitalist expansion. These unwritten policies subordinate poor women to multiple levels of debt that often lead to increased violence at the household and community levels, thereby weakening women’s ability to resist the onslaught of market forces.

A compelling critique of the relationship between powerful NGOs and the financially strapped women beholden to them for capital, this book cautions us to be vigilant about the social realities within which women and loans circulate—realities that often have adverse effects on the lives of the very women these operations are meant to help.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. iii-iv


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p. v-v

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pp. vii-x

I am a child of Western development discourses. Growing up, I would often respond to the question “tell me about your country” by saying that “Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries of the world.” Western discourses of poverty defined how I had learned to apprehend myself, the “third world” and its realities, and human possibilities. I grew up and came of ...


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: Neoliberalism, Microfinance, and Women’s Empowerment

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pp. xiii-xxxiii

Neoliberalism rests on the idea that human interest is best served through the withdrawal of the state from welfarist policies.1 It is an economic order based on competition, efficiency, and entrepreneurship. This book is an ethnographic study of neoliberalism, microfinance nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and gender in Bangladesh. It examines the effects ...

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1. The Structural Transformation of the NGO Sphere

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pp. 1-33

This chapter recounts how Bangladesh, labeled as a failed state, became the paradigmatic site for one of the most sophisticated NGO sectors in the world, and the heartland of the microfinance revolution. Here I analyze the processes that were set in place in the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s that aided in the creation of an independent and Western-funded ...

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2. The Research Terrain

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pp. 35-63

This chapter is an overview of the research terrain that informed my ethnographic study of NGOs, microfinance, and women. Through their work in microfinance, the leading NGOs have a dual effect on social lives: they bring economic opportunities to rural people and, simultaneously, introduce them to NGO-sponsored programs. The power of these NGOs ...

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3. The Everyday Mediations of Microfinance

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pp. 65-94

As the NGO sector expanded in the twenty-first century, Bangladeshi NGOs have diversified into financial services and social business enterprises (SBEs) in telecommunications, Internet services, solar energy, and packaged foods. As discussed in chapter 1, the Grameen Bank and the leading NGOs have created a consumer base made up of millions of poor borrowers ...

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4. The Social Life of Debt

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pp. 95-131

This chapter analyzes the relations between microfinance and women by examining eight case studies. Taking governmentality as a formal structure of analysis, I examine how NGO loans with their accompanying norms intersect the lives of women who are also governed by rules and obligations. While debt ties multiple people together in mutually reinforcing ...

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5. NGOs, Clergy, and Contested “Democracy”

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pp. 133-162

In this chapter, I examine a conflict between Proshika and the clergy of a prominent madrassah known as Jamia Yunusia Islamia Madrassah over rural women’s right to participate in a rally. The madrassah (hereafter called Yunusia) is located in Brahmanbaria, which is 150 kilometers northeast of Dhaka. Pirpur Thana is situated far from Brahmanbaria, in ...

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6. Power/Knowledge in Microfinance

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pp. 163-189

In this chapter, I return to an examination of the powers that hold together the discursive forms of knowledge production. In doing so, I examine the actors and institutions that participate in the making of poverty research. Let me begin then with the following observation: How did Bangladesh—a country of 150 million people with its long history of peasant ...

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Conclusion: From Disciplined Subjects to Political Agents?

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pp. 191-206

As the microfinance industry has expanded in the twenty-first century, it has created networks among NGOs, international development organizations, governments, multinational corporations, and rich investors and poor people, bringing them into closer alliances and dependencies. These developments in financial networking between northern and southern ...

Glossary of Bengali Words

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pp. 207-209


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pp. 211-241


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pp. 243-255

E-ISBN-13: 9780816676736
E-ISBN-10: 0816676739
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816670956

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2011