Monday, October 16, 2006

Using the poor ...

I had been thinking about the irony of a Muslim from a Muslim country being awarded the peace prize for a scheme to give loans to the poor at high rates of interest.

As a socio-economist, I am entirely in favour of the Islamic stricture against interest. I see this as socially revolutionary. In essence, this means that the lender of capital becomes a risk-taking entrepreneur, earning profits. In practice, in a poverty context, it would mean genuinely socialising the economy, through bringing capital flow into pro-poor concerns.

But something like this is yet to happen.

I know there are associations, journals, and institutes devoted to Islamic banking. Recently I learnt about such an institute in Malaysia. I would be glad to read critiques of the "microcredit revolution" from such quarters.

Regarding microcredit, I am disturbed that this has become a high interest-profit earning means for banks, and there's a rush of companies to enter this fray. This has also become a means for middle-class individuals to gain well-paying jobs in NGOs. So if there's any benefit to the poor, that has to be weighed in absolute and relative terms against the real benefits to the non-poor.

Even within the microcredit framework, the potential that exists to empower and enrich the poor, through making them the real stakeholders in the profits of the operation - is never pursued. Rather they are purely instrumental, in enabling the benefits for the non-poor. At root, there needs to be a commitment to allying unequivocally with the poor, and empowering and enriching them. When that is lacking, then a means like the microcredit scheme initiated by Grameen Bank to reach credit to the poor gets taken over for other non-poor goals.

Banks and NGOs are the ones most blessed by this award.

Nevertheless, for what its worth, despite the reality behind the media hype, this Nobel peace award in the name of poverty, the attention on Bangladesh (and consequently, I hope, on its real human development achievements relative to India, and especially the state of West Bengal, Bangladesh's neighbour) - are of some positive worth.

1 comment:

Abdul Muneer said...

You have rightly identified the charisma of islamic economy. The interest just takes the life out of money.