In 2006 the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh won the Nobel Peace Prize for its innovative microfinancing operations. Lamia Karim’s 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, Karim (University of Oregon, Eugene) 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, in Microfinance and its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh 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. The key message in Karim’s work is that microfinance is far from a panacea for gender disparities, and actually builds on women’s vulnerable social position.
Karim’s book is a compelling critique of the relationship between powerful NGOs and the financially strapped women beholden to them for capital. Her research also serves as a stark and timely reminder of the value of ethnography in offering a deeper understanding of how neoliberal motives in specific institutional and local contexts may reproduce or exacerbate structural inequalities.
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