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Microcredit: Solution to Poverty or False “Compassionate Capitalism?”

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While everyone praises Muhammad Yunus and his original intent of helping poor women in Bangladesh, some critics say microcredit is being misconstrued as a way of ending poverty. We host a debate with Susan Davis, founder and chair of the Grameen Foundation, and world-renowned environmental leader and thinker, Vandana Shiva. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue with the issue of microcredit, poverty and globalization, we’re talking to Susan Davis, and also Dr. Vandana Shiva, world-renowned environmental leader, physicist and ecologist, joins us, founded Navdanya, “nine seeds,” a movement promoting diversity and use of native seeds. Dr. Shiva was the 1993 recipient of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize, the Right Livelihood Award. And she is author of many books. Her latest is called Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace. And we welcome you, as well, to Democracy Now!, Vandana.

VANDANA SHIVA: Good to be back.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to hear that Mohammed Yunus and the whole Grameen Bank had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

VANDANA SHIVA: I’m very happy that the Grameen Bank and Yunus got the Nobel Peace Prize. I would only say, let us not think this is a solution to every situation that creates poverty. It’s a solution in a particular context. But it cannot be the solution when land is being grabbed from the peasants and leaving them in poverty. For example, in this whole land grab under the special economic zones that’s taking place in India right now, and foreign direct investment in real estate is part of the driving force for this. That cannot be solved by microcredit. It needs a solution in terms of respecting the land rights of the peasants and not treating land of the poor as something that can be grabbed by the rich.

The recent report of Helsinki actually gives worse figures than Muhammad Yunus gave: 1 percent of the world’s wealthy are owning 80 percent of the world’s wealth. And I would say, they are then turning that wealth into owning 80 percent of the world’s resources, real material natural resources, the land, the water, the biodiversity, the forests, the minerals.

I think there’s a second context in which microcredit could actually create a problem. And it’s the kind of context in which we have been forced to work. As credit for unaffordable seeds moves nonrenewable seeds, genetically engineered seeds, hybrid seeds into rural areas in India, we are seeing a new kind of debt trap created.

Farmer suicides, of which there have been 150,000 in the last decade of market opening made possible because of credit, micro and macro. 150,000 is a large number of peasants being wiped out. I have called this a genocide. And it’s being made possible by putting money available, credit available, so that they could get seeds of Monsanto. In fact, it’s a debate, old debate, I’ve had with Yunus, because there was a time he was going to use microcredit to move GM seeds and Monsanto seeds to the Bangladeshi women. And we had to have a debate, and thank goodness he backed out of that agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember this letter that you wrote many years ago. It was going to be called, what, Monsanto Grameen…?

VANDANA SHIVA: Partnership. And it was announced at the big microcredit summit. So the point is, credit is a vector. Where does that vector lead you to? Does it lead you to participation in a debt cycle that you can never get out of? I think one of the key issues about credit has to be, is it a debt trap sucking people in to permanent dependence on more and more and more borrowing? And the case of nonrenewable seeds replacing farmers’ open-pollinated varieties, farm-saved seeds is an example where credit could actually create a new crisis. And I think we just have to see what is the credit for? What is it bringing?

The second thing, I think, that’s very critical is, at least in India, we have witnessed how microcredit is being used to turn autonomous producers, sovereign producers into consumers. Levers has hijacked the entire microcredit system in Madhya Pradesh, this big giant agribusiness. And today, women who were producing their soaps and their potato chips are today sellers of Levers detergents. And they are called Shakti Ammas, when actually what microcredit has done is disempowered the women, in terms of robbing them of their productive capacity.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Davis of the Grameen Foundation, your response?

SUSAN DAVIS: It’s not microcredit that’s robbing them of their livelihoods here. It’s the — microcredit is an instrument, it’s a strategy, and it can be — it’s just like Bishop Tutu said about a knife. It can be both harmful and benign. You can use a knife to slice bread or you can use it to stab someone in the heart. Microcredit, in the hands of an institution that is trying to promote development and women’s self-empowerment, is a very powerful and robust instrument. What it does, as Yunus talked about at the Nobel ceremony, is it creates a platform for wider development. He himself said that microcredit is not a panacea and was not trying to argue — and it’s always a false divide when people go down that road.

What he’s talking about is the active construction of an alternative. He’s talking about being able to have assets and being owned by these people themselves, that we’re talking about always as being the victims of whatever injustice. It’s a very unjust world, but he says ingenuity, intelligence, opportunity is not unevenly distributed, and all people need is a chance. And that’s why credit should be a basic human right, because through that they can access many other of their other rights.

Now, it’s also true that what he argues for is people organizing together, banding together, giving voice so that they exercise both their social and political rights. And that’s why you’ve seen more women voting in the elections, more women and men now be elected to the local government councils.

He also spoke out about globalization at the Nobel Prize. I don’t know if you heard that. Many Norwegians thought it was a very radical speech, because he talked about social business entrepreneurship and globalization that needs to be a fair globalization, so that you have room in this multi-lane highway not just for the big trucks, but also the rickshaws. So he’s talking about fair rules of the game and ways for people to be able to participate unleashing the capacity that each person has inherent within them.

AMY GOODMAN: Vandana Shiva, your response?

VANDANA SHIVA: I agree that it’s an instrument. And it’s an instrument in certain context. We need other instruments, too. In Earth Democracy, that’s what I’ve talked about—the instruments necessary to defend the rights to water as a common resource. Credit, loans, money circulation cannot solve the problems of alienation of participating in earth democracy. Privatization of water leading to a high cost of water could be financed by flows of credit, but the solution to access to water is rights to water. Rights cannot be substituted by credit. Rights need to be recognized as rights and collective rights to the common wealth of this planet — the atmosphere, the water, the seeds, the biodiversity. That needs a rights solution. Credit can come after that rights solution has been offered.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Davis?

SUSAN DAVIS: I think in this world, it’s not rights deigned from on high. I think rights are only real when, in fact, people can exercise their rights. And so, what you see here is a very practical solution about people being able to organize for power and being able to also give voice to the various needs.

Right now, Muslim women actually have title to land and own their homestead because of a simple formula, in being able to say, “We’re not going to give you a housing loan unless the land is in the name of that woman.” So, households had to get together and decide they were going to do that.

In order to respond to the horrible water problem that existed with arsenic in the water, you actually don’t have the capacity if everybody is acting in an atomized, fragmented way. And I think you would agree that organizing people so that they can promote their own collective interest is the way to actually realize the rights that may be on the books, de jure, but are never going to be enforced, de facto, unless people have some means of power.

So first, they have to stabilize their own household. They have to be able to eat every day. They have to be able to imagine that they have a future. And then they are able to actually take action in a social and political and economic spheres, so that we’re talking about full citizenship for every person.

We’re not arguing that microcredit is the only solution, or that all credit, all forms of credit by any institution is inherently empowering. But, if you look at what Ela Bhatt has done in India, creating SEWA Bank, that’s actually owned and governed by those women, or Grameen Bank, owned and governed by those women, themselves, you’re talking about the ability to create assets. Now, with Grameen Phone it’s the largest taxpaying company in Bangladesh. That company was a joint venture between Telenor and Grameen Telecom, which is actually holding the ownership of that company for the time when it goes public and those women, those villagers can actually own that company.

That’s a new way to think about ownership and assets. And, you know, we’re all playing in a global arena, where capitalism is the dominant form. It’s like capital is oil to the engine, right? So that’s why we’re saying if poverty is a disease, then microfinance is a good vaccine.

VANDANA SHIVA: I think the assumption that the deepening capitalist order entering every sphere of our life, determining how water will flow on this planet, whether it will flow according to the law of gravity or against the law of gravity walking upwards to money, or biodiversity and seeds, whether they’ll be seen as gifts of nature and a commonwealth to be shared and protected or treated as the property of giant corporations under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the WTO, I think each of these issues needs something beyond capitalism. I think — and it’s not an issue of creating another future, it’s an issue of defending the future that is in people’s hands right now.

People in Rajasthan have made rivers come alive by working together to conserve water. And I think we need to recognize that there are those other means of organizing. I think we need to recognize that there are systems beyond capital and at least for maintaining the ecological processes of this planet and defending the commons on this planet. It is not capitalism, but countering the logic of capitalism that will make sure we have an atmosphere, that’s now getting so degraded that climate change is wiping us all out, that the seeds being sold to peasants are renewable and not with terminator genes. I think accepting the logic of capital in these vital areas of life is something that makes life impossible. And we’ve seen that with climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan, 10 seconds before break.

SUSAN DAVIS: There’s always a role for activism. I think the community organizing is one of the most empowered ways. And I think if people have access to a decent livelihood for work, then they’re able to participate much more fully in all the kinds of campaigns that we need to save ourselves and save the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Davis, I want to thank you for joining us. She is with the Grameen Foundation, helped to found the Grameen Foundation, and chairwoman of Ashoka Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship. Thank you. And Vandana Shiva will continue with us after break.

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