Friday, August 19, 2005

Islamic terrorists targeting Grameen Bank in Bangladesh?

As someone who works in development finance as well as international law, I was both curious and highly concerned at this report that recent bombings in Bangladesh have targeted offices of the Grameen Bank and BRAC. Both are microcredit development agencies - Grameen, of course, being the most famous example of the microcredit development model (my general views on microfinance are found here, an academic article in the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Vol. 5, 2002).

Why Grameen and BRAC? First, it must be pointed out that many different institutional targets have been bombed, so there may not be any very important answer to that question as a matter of terrorist ideology. Still, one seemingly plausible answer is that these NGOs specifically aim to assist women, aim to assist them to become economically self-sufficient. (There has gradually developed sound criticism of that strategy, on the grounds that while it might make Western feminists feel good, in fact it makes far better sense to seek to increase household wealth, rather than focusing on women as though they were not typically part of larger family units including men, women, and children. On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelming that men in these circumstances have a much higher predilection for missending microloans and defaulting than women in the same socio-economic strata - drinking away the loan money.)

Although one has to be very cautious in attributing complicated motives to terrorists without a lot of evidence - e.g., a manifesto saying women should be barefoot and pregnant - and although Grameen could be seen as a generic example of an international aid agency, despite the fact that it is the homegrown product of a brilliant and dedicated Bangladeshi economist, there is something to consider in the targeting of an agency so widely identified with women's development issues.

I don't have a lot of information, although, as I indicated, I am curious and very concerned. I picked up this account via Austin Bay (and Instapundit), here.


Anonymous said...

From what I can tell, reviewing the English-language Bangladesh press, the attacks on Grameen and BRAC were back in February. Caritas and another NGO were hit a few days later. It was at that time that the extremist group which is suspected in the recent bombing wave was banned.

The recent wave of bombs was targeted primarily at public buildings, so it underlined the political message in the pamphlets - join us to change Bangladesh to an Islamic republic. But the pamphlets included references to NGOs as targets of their disapproval.

As you point out, it is not surprising that the extremists would attack institutions that have been so successful in giving women economic opportunities and some personal autonomy. The penetration of financial services, even in rural areas, via the microfinance institutions in Bangladesh is remarkable and is studied by proponents of microfinance around the world. In Bangladesh, they've become far more than simple microcredit agencies. There's a lot of experimentation in delivering other complementary services for their clients -- e.g., some provide health information or basic care, but others get into some pretty innovative stuff like access to cell phones.

Bangladesh's social structure is being profoundly affected by those sorts of initiatives combined with urbanization and economic development more broadly. A key indicator is that the drop in number of births per woman in the last couple of decades has been dramatic.

All told, these changes -- especially those affecting gender roles -- are seen as enormously threatening to the fundamentalist worldview, and hence are likely to continue to be favorite targets of hostility.

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