Capital and kindness
Micro-credit is no miracle
The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which pioneered the concept of micro-credit, has come under attack. Hailed as a development success story, the Grameen Bank allowed the poor to obtain small loans without collateral. About eight million families obtained micro-credit to launch tiny but profitable ventures. Muhammad Yunus, the Bank’s founder, has shown that the poorest of the poor will repay their debts 98 per cent of the time – a rate far superior to the record of commercial banks. The World Bank and corporate gurus from George Soros to Ted Turner have flocked to Yunus’ side. ‘They see him as the proof that a kinder, gentler capitalism can work for the poor,’ says Pat Mooney from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
Then the Grameen Bank began planning a relationship with the exploitative agricultural transnational, Monsanto Corporation. The planned collaboration was cancelled due to public pressure. The arrangement would have given the Bank $250,000 to provide loans to poor farmers to buy Monsanto’s agrochemical and biotechnology products.
The furore rekindled a range of much wider concerns regarding the role of micro-credit in community empowerment. Many people are concerned that the hype stirred by the World Bank, in its call last year to extend micro-credit to more than 100 million poor families by the year 2000, suggests that micro-credit is seen as a panacea for poverty alleviation. ‘Only the World Bank could term the act of placing a hundred million families in debt as “em-powerment”,’ Farhad Mazhar of UBINIG (a prominent Bangladeshi organization) asserts.
One doctoral study, conducted among villagers in Bangladesh, suggests that about two-thirds of the micro-credit loans made to women are ultimately controlled by their husbands, fathers or other male family members. In many cases, the stringent pay-back requirement has forced women to meet their micro-credit obligations by resorting to usurious money-lenders.
Some senior aid officials such as Huguette LaBelle, President of the Canadian International Development Agency, have called for caution in pursuing micro-credit as a solution to poverty. LaBelle insists: ‘We’ve got to be careful that we don’t put everything we have in micro-credit programmes and neglect the fact that children in developing countries need to be immunized as well. And you do need those rural roads – otherwise the poor will increase their agricultural yield, but they won’t be able to take it to market.’
Spouses are sued
A middle-aged Kenyan woman recently sued her husband of 12 years for injuries sustained during an assault. Her court action is one of many breakthroughs in a country where wife-beating or ‘discipline’ is common.
‘Our case load has doubled over the past year, a good sign,’ says Julie Koinage, attorney for the Kenya chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers. ‘Not that there are more cases of women suing their husbands. But more women are coming forward.’
But judges are usually sympathetic towards male offenders and sentences are light. A female High Court judge recently provoked outrage amongst her peers and others by suggesting marital rape should be against the law. Koinage explains: ‘Domestic violence tends to be dismissed as something that happens at home, and which should be dealt with there. But violence is violence.’
Robert O Otani/Third World Network Features
Toxic chemicals used in computers and televisions are accumulating in the bodies of sperm whales in the North Atlantic. Two substances which can damage the nervous and reproductive system, polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and polybrominated dipenyl ethers (PBDs), were excluded from a ban on chemical pollutants agreed by Europe and North America. Now there is evidence these chemicals are found in many links in the food chain from sperm whales to seabirds to fish. Researcher Jacob de Boer from the Dutch Institute for Fisheries Research says PBBs and PBDs may be as harmful as PCBs which have been found in animals such as polar bears which feed a long way from the industrial source of pollutants.
New Scientist Vol 159 No 2141
Women in Chiapas speak their minds
Barefoot, with a baby slung on her back, Calendaria Morales Perez runs up a dusty road and brandishes a stick. ‘Murderers, assassins, sons of the devil,’ she cries in Spanish. ‘Out of our village!’ Her aunt, Aydelina Morales Guillen, lopes ahead echoing the cry: ‘Out devils!’
Nine trucks, carrying almost 200 armed Mexican federal soldiers, leave Morelia in Chiapas with 50 women and children waving sticks and throwing rocks at them.
This is the second time in a week soldiers have tried to enter Morelia and the women have turned them back. On the 22nd December last year a paramilitary group killed 45 people including 4 pregnant women and 18 children. President Ernesto Zedillo ordered soldiers to ‘re-establish law and order’ in the region. Villages believed to be supportive to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (ZNLA), a group of rebels fighting for the right to land and auto-nomy of indigenous people, were targeted.
The tension between the Government and the ZNLA continues despite peace agreements signed in 1996. Zedillo maintains that troops are still necessary to disarm the Zapatistas and bring aid to families affected by the violence. Zedillo’s view is echoed by the commanding officer of the troops attempting to enter Morelia:
‘We’re here to see that everyone is all right.’
‘We’re not pets they need to take care of,’ says Morales Guillen. ‘We’re not animals they have to control with weapons… They say they bring aid, but all they bring are guns.’
Morelia is largely supportive of ZLNA but there are divisions within the community. Morales Perez says two of her uncles are soldiers in the federal military and two of her brothers are insurgents in ZLNA.
The community wants to avoid violence, so the governing committee of Morelia decided to send the main targets – the men – into hiding in the nearby mountains. Women take turns to watch for soldiers near the entrance to the town.
Since the men are scarce, many fields lie idle and local income has dropped. ‘The men can run,’ says Blanca Flor from a group working with indigenous women in Chiapas. ‘But the women with three children can’t run so fast, so they stay and wait for what comes. Even after all that’s happened, there is so much courage. Every day the women get madder. And the madder they get, the stronger they get.’
Robin Flinchum/Third World Network Features
Russia is planning to build its first new nuclear power stations since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. The state-owned nuclear power company, Rosenergoatom, is to start building four nuclear reactors before 2010. Three other reactors which had been started on before 1986 will be completed by the end of 1999. The Government wants to increase the proportion of the country’s electricity generated by nuclear power from the present 13 per cent to over 20 per cent by 2030.
New Scientist Vol 159 No 2146
Road-safety experts give dangerous directions
The West’s ideas about road safety are hazardous for the Third World, says Dinesh Mohan from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. He explains that most Indian roads are built for cars and have a lane system based on the width of a car. This makes sense in countries like Britain where 85 per cent of vehicles are cars, but in India two-thirds are motorbikes, followed by buses, trucks and rickshaws. And that is not counting bicycles which outnumber all other vehicles – one in a hundred Indian families have a car, one in ten a motorbike and one in two a bicycle.
Indian roads are designed for cars that need uninterrupted traffic flow, says Mohan, rather than cyclists and pedestrians who need shady trees, kiosks, bicycle repairs and other services at shorter distances.
But knowledge like Mohan’s is regularly overlooked. An example is the Red Cross’s latest World Disasters Report which predicts that road accidents will become one of the most common causes of death in the next 20 years. The report also bemoans Majority World roads ‘cluttered with pedestrians, bicyclists and animals’ and demands the removal of ‘roadside objects’ that might interfere with the flow of cars.
Cars are not the only problem, remarks Mohan. The big killers are buses and trucks which are involved in two-thirds of fatal accidents. And he says another myth is that drivers in the Majority World are more careless and cause more accidents than those in rich countries. Figures suggest that Majority World countries are ten to a hundred times more dangerous than those in the West. But the standard index of accident risk is the number of deaths per thousand vehicles. The greater proportion of people using roads in the South explains why the figures are higher, Mohan explains. In Delhi car occupants are little more at risk than they are in the US, and it is safer to be a motorcyclist in Delhi than in a city in the US, he points out. For a city teeming with pedestrians, the annual number of Delhi pedestrians killed per million inhabitants is four times less than the US ratio.
‘Westerners think that life is cheap here. Nonsense! Road safety is a big issue,’ says Mohan. In Delhi last month the authorities suspended the licence of a major bus operator because of public anger about speeding vehicles.
Mohan emphasizes that progress towards saving lives begins by Westerners recognizing reality in the Majority World. ‘We don’t need education about the accident problem,’ says Mohan.‘We need solutions.’
New Scientist Vol 159 No 2145
Counting the cost
Years of racism and abuse are taking their toll on young native Canadians, says Hugh Baker, head of the Native Courtworker and Counselling Association of British Columbia. Young native Canadians have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment and criminal activity than other Canadians. Residential schools, which took aboriginal children to be ‘assimilated’ through Government care, are being called to account for problems many native youth face. More than 1,000 lawsuits have been filed against the Government by native Canadians alleging residential school abuse. Braker says: ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that if you yank aboriginal children from their homes... the social consequences are going to be profound and disturbing. We’re seeing the fruits of that today and still the federal and provincial governments refuse to address these problems.’
Dene Moore/Gemini News Service
Women who use skin-bleaching creams are the subject of both admiration and scorn in Sierra Leone. A joke on radio inspired several attacks on ‘bleached women’ says Sally King who has used the creams for seven years. ‘It is our right to use whatever cream or liquid we want, as it is our skin,’ she insists. Sales continue to rise – the Sierra Leone Pharmacuetical Board says more than 26 varieties of skin-lightening cream were imported in 1996 and more than 150 brands may have been smuggled in during nine months of junta rule in 1997. Most creams are made in Nigeria but they also come from South Africa, the Caribbean and Pakistan. Some customers see the creams as an investment, explains a man in Freetown: ‘The fairer women become, the better chance of hooking a wealthier, influential man.’
Rod Mac Johnson/Third World Network Feature
‘I tried to be as funny as I could because it looks too ridiculous to arrest a comedian.’
Wiman Witoelar, Indonesian talk-show host
known for criticism of former-President Suharto.