Oscar Abello

Playing Politics: Women (Truly) Empowering Women in Bangladesh

Nowadays, when I get an email or come across an article trumpeting a new report with new data or new reasons why women should be empowered, I cringe.

It’s not because I don’t support women’s empowerment. I certainly agree the world will be much better off when all women have the freedom as well as the mandate to choose how to live their lives. I’ve come across plenty of economic statistics in support of women having greater freedom and mandate. And statistics aside, empowering women is just the right ethical or moral thing to do. Right?

I cringe when I see reports and articles about women’s empowerment because after a few years working in global development I have a sense of the time and effort that good-hearted people put into them, but as with so many other causes where ethics, morals and economics seem to lineup, in the end these forces can always be trumped by politics.

But there is hope.

In 2001, 24 women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh came together to change those politics. At the helm was Selima Ahmad, who took on the president’s role in the new Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI).

Thanks to BRAC and Muhammad Yunus/Grameen, as a group women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh and in general are no strangers to the BoP/development world. In many ways, however, they remain strangers to policymakers and bureaucrats in their own governments.

I’m talking about the same policymakers and bureaucrats that are supposedly part of the target audience for the World Bank’s Doing Business reports and the United Nations’ Role of Women in Development surveys. They may have found inspiration in these reports to push through some women-friendly economic reforms. Maybe they even know a few prominent business women who lobbied behind closed doors for such reforms.

For Ahmad and her peers, such ephemeral channels were simply not enough. They wanted to change the politics behind such reforms. They wanted to make sure the spirit of the law matches up with the letter of the law. They wanted to build a constituency that would hold every level of government accountable for such reforms.

How big of a constituency? By 2010, BWCCI counted 2,500 women-owned businesses from all over Bangladesh among its members, served by the main office in Dhaka and several regional offices with plans to have an office in all 35 Bangladesh departments by 2015.

What are they doing with that constituency? In 2006, for example, as a result of a BWCCI advocacy campaign the Central Bank of Bangladesh issued a directive to all its branches that allocated $30 million in collateral-free commercial loans for women-owned small- and medium- sized enterprises, and directed each branch to establish a dedicated desk for lending to women-owned businesses.

Since then, Central Bank of Bangladesh branches have disbursed nearly $23 million in collateral-free commercial loans to more than 3,000 women entrepreneurs, leading to 20,000 new jobs, according to BWCCI.

Most of those loans and jobs are located in Dhaka, but BWCCI has a plan for that too-besides business development services and networking opportunities for women-owned businesses, BWCCI regional offices will also be training bank staff in gender sensitivity and monitoring the activity of the women’s dedicated lending desk in each Central Bank branch office.

“All politics is local,” former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is credited with saying. While multilateral organizations, bilateral aid agencies and other international voices can certainly say and do a lot for women entrepreneurs, politics can always trump ideas and programs initiated from somewhere else. BWCCI is just one of many women’s business associations around the world that are shifting the political calculus in favor of women entrepreneurs.

If you’re in Washington D.C. on June 20-21, come to the Reagan Building to learn more about how women entrepreneurs organize themselves as a political constituency, at Democracy that Delivers for Women, a conference about the links between women’s economic and political empowerment. You can even take the opportunity to meet Selima Ahmad yourself.

Nextbillionreaders: enter discount code ’NextBillion’ for $20 off the registration fee for Democracy that Delivers for Women.

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Base of the Pyramid, business development