In 2000, I traveled to Bangladesh with my daughter Anna Lappé to meet with poor village women who are among the (now) 5.7 million borrowers from the Grameen Bank—the social phenomenon that three decades ago put micro-credit on the global-development marquee. Microcredit, or microfinance, refers the practice of providing tiny loans to groups of people (most often women) whose backing of one another takes the place of property collateral.
For over five years, Anna and I have turned to Grameen, and to the microfinance successes of the even larger Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, to puncture the myth that poor people are without resources and waiting desperately for global corporations to arrive with jobs. Wrong: Half of Grameen borrowers of at least five years have lifted their families from poverty –- that's about twice the number of Bangladeshis who have taken insecure, pennies-an-hour jobs in export garment factories.
Then, at a recent book event for Democracy's Edge in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Malcolm (Mac) Odell, an energetic, open man in his sixties, approached me. My jaw dropped as he recounted his experience with a micro-finance program in Asia and Africa called WORTH:
“It may be one of those marvelous examples of 'Living Democracy,'” Mac began. “It's participatory social action at its best.”
WORTH's approach involves no formal financial institution, like the Grameen Bank with its large staff of (mostly male) outreach workers. Instead, he told me, first in Nepal, and now half a dozen African countries, “the poorest women in the world are coming together in groups of 15 to 25, saving regularly, and teaching each other how to read, write, and keep simple accounts. They're forming their own village banks, calculating interest, and making small loans to each other to start or expand small businesses.”
Starting in 1998, Mac explained, one hundred and twenty-five thousand women in the WORTH pilot project in Nepal launched almost 100,000 businesses and saved $4 million in under three years. They generated $10 million in revenues during the third year.
Mac then grew even more animated: “Fifty six thousand women started businesses and generated $3 million in new revenues during the first 18 months. That was before the micro-enterprise curriculum and training materials had been published or distributed!” he exclaimed. “Of the 125,000 in the original Nepal program, the number of women who can read and write has tripled, their savings have more than doubled, the number of women with businesses has quadrupled, and their total business revenues have increased eightfold.”
Naturally, I followed up, wanting to know how WORTH worked. It confirmed exactly what Democracy's Edge is saying — that regular citizens possess the capability to find answers to their problems, as long as they appreciate their own creativity and are allowed to express their inner power.
“How did they do this? — without us?” Mac asked, seeing the question in my eyes and laughing.
The answer lies in what he calls Appreciative Planning and Action, an approach which focuses on possibilities rather than obstacles. Those who practice Appreciative Planning and Action share their success stories with each other, envision what “even better” might look like, and make plans and commitments to get there. The basics are expanded in Mac's article “Moving Mountains,” from which I've excerpted the sidebar to the left.
The women of WORTH have taken Appreciative Planning and Action and made it work for them, Mac said. “They've taught each other to read and write: Groups of women each find a member or other woman in their village who knows the sounds and letters of the alphabet and, with comic book materials, they teach themselves to read, write, and keep simple accounts. Trained 'Empowerment Workers' visit the groups regularly to help them overcome obstacles, but the Empowerment Workers are not the teachers. The women are their own teachers, seeking knowledge among themselves and from the materials provided.”
“WORTH women in Nepal have now been totally on their own since 2001,” Mac continued. “In spite of a Maoist rebellion and the collapse of national governance – very 'Thin Democracy!' – they carry on.”
While accurate data is hard to obtain due to the situation in Nepal, last year WORTH women in Nepal saved an estimated $10 million and the revenue from the micro-enterprises they've created is thought to approach $20 million. “This is now four years after the donor pulled the plug and went to Afghanistan,” Mac said.
WORTH may be one of those rare programs that is literally and figuratively “bulletproof.”
Under the direction of Mac's wife, Marcia Odell, who managed the first program in Nepal, WORTH is now being replicated in Cambodia, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and (DR) Congo that will soon be reaching another 100,000 women. “This is a living democracy of participatory social action of and by the women themselves,” Mac said. “If Grameen, BRAC, and others have proven women can be good borrowers, WORTH has taken this to the next level, proving that women can be successful bankers as well.”