Tuesday, February 27, 2007

An Atheist Conservatives Can Embrace

In today's Washington Post, conservative columnist Anne Applebaum bravely rides to the defense of Hirsi Ali, the controversial critic of Islam who is now at the American Enterprise Institute here in the US. Using a familiar move from the conservative playbook, Applebaum tries to paint Hirsi Ali as an unfairly maligned victim of liberal political correctness:
Clearly, there is something about Ayaan Hirsi Ali that annoys, rankles, irritates. I am speaking as one who does not know Hirsi Ali--the outspoken Dutch-Somali critic of Islam--but as one who, while living in Europe, cannot seem to avoid meeting her detractors. Most recently I met a Dutch diplomat who positively glowered when her name was mentioned. As a member of the Dutch parliament, Hirsi Ali had, he complained, switched parties, talked out of turn and refused to toe whatever was the proper political line. Above all, it irritated him that she did not share his Dutch faith in political consensus.
As a First Amendment near-absolutist, I totally support Hirsi Ali's freedom of speech. Of course she is right to condemn the oppression of women fostered by right-wing interpretations of the Koran in many Islamic nations--and from which she personally suffered during her girlhood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. And of course she is and must be free to publicly espouse her current views on religion, culture, and politics. She contributes something unique and valuable to the world of public discourse.

But let's not paint her as an innocent martyr who deserves an unquestioning embrace by everyone in the West merely because she ticks off the Islamists. The nervousness Hirsi Ali creates among many people is not due simply to her failure to toe some political line. This is a woman who admitted lying about her name, birthdate, and personal circumstances on her application for asylum in Holland, facts which normally would require that she be stripped of her Dutch citizenship. She has also zig-zagged all over the political and cultural maps, converting from an Islamist who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie into an atheist famed for her denunciations of Muhammad (she has called him a "pervert" and a "tyrant"), and publicly defecting from the Dutch Labor Party to the competing WD.

Imagine a former conservative Roman Catholic--a nun, let's say--who not only left the faith but became an outspoken atheist, issuing statements harshly criticizing the personality and morality of Jesus. Let's also imagine that this apostate enters US politics (as an immigrant from abroad, no less) and in mid-career switches from the Democratic Party to the Republicans. Would such a person be considered a tad controversial? I should say.

Nonetheless, Hirsi Ali was granted a special dispensation that allowed to retain her Dutch citizenship, served in the Dutch parliament for three and a half years, and has received a slew of honors and awards: the Prize of Liberty from Nova Civitas, a liberal Flemish think tank; the Freedom Prize from Denmark's Liberal Party; the annual European Bellwether Prize by the Norwegian think tank Human Rights Service; the annual Democracy Prize of the Swedish Liberal People's Party; the Moral Courage Award from the American Jewish Committee, etc. etc. She was named European of the Year by the editors of Reader's Digest and one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential Persons in the World. She has written two widely-praised best-selling books (Infidel and The Caged Virgin) and is working on her next book while ensconced at the AEI.

This doesn't look like the resume of someone who has been shunned for daring to speak her mind.

Hey, don't get me wrong--we liberals like it when conservatives like Anne Applebaum suddenly decide to support freedom of expression, even for controversial views. But I'd appreciate it even more if they would also defend writers and artists who dare to offend Christian sensibilities, not just Islamic ones.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, George

George Harrison would have been 64 today. I miss him. As the years pass, he feels more and more like the most substantial Beatle, with his serious interest in Hindu spirituality, his study of Indian music, his career as a movie producer, and his charitable work. And his easy and successful collaboration with other stars, ranging from the comic artists of Monty Python to his fellow Traveling Wilburys, suggest a personality comfortable with his own talent and neither ego-ridden nor self-aggrandizing nor defensive (in this respect, unlike either John Lennon or Paul McCartney). Had he lived, George would probably have been the most interesting among the foursome in his old age, and he certainly would have been my choice as the one I'd most want to spend an evening or a weekend with. I hope he is at peace, and I suspect he is.

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Episcopalians Ponder the Price of Unity

We've entered a new phase in the ongoing tug-of-war over the future of America's small but influential Episcopal Church. Here is a link to an article that sums up the current situation rather clearly. And here are a few key grafs that capture the gist:

The global Anglican Communion, represented in the United States by the Episcopal Church, has spent years debating how its 77 million members should interpret Scripture on salvation, truth and sexuality.

But for theological conservatives, the time for talk ended in 2003 when the U.S. denomination consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. To them, the confirmation was beyond the bounds of true Christianity.

Ever since, Episcopalians have had a tough lesson in what it means to be Anglican in the 21st century. The communion was once dominated by its North American and European provinces. But these days, its biggest and fastest-growing churches--by far--are in parts of the developing world where traditional Bible beliefs are not questioned.

As a result, Episcopalians have found themselves on the defensive.

It is no coincidence that Archbishop Peter Akinola, head of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, is leading the charge against consecrating gays. With its 17.5 million members, the Nigerian church is more than seven times bigger than the U.S. denomination.

Episcopalians who share these conservative views of Scripture are in the minority in their own church. But by putting their time, energy and resources behind overseas traditionalists, they have helped move the communion toward the kind of demands they made this week.

Anglican leaders ended their meeting Monday in Tanzania by giving the Episcopal Church until Sept. 30 to pledge unequivocally not to consecrate another gay bishop or approve an official prayer service for blessing same-sex couples. If that promise is not given, the Episcopal Church could face a much reduced role in the Anglican world.
It's unclear how the American bishops will respond to the latest demands from the worldwide Anglican communion. Our new presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, seems to be seeking grounds for some kind of compromise. She speaks of accepting the communion's demands "for a time" while hoping that a more inclusive attitude toward sexuality will gradually emerge.

On the other side are bishops like Mark Sisk of New York, who responded with a statement that included these words:

Over the years I have been prepared to make certain accommodations to meet the concerns of those whose view of the Gospel promise differs somewhat from my own. I am fully aware that those accommodations have not been uncontroversial. Now, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not in the least prepared to make any concession that strikes at the heart of my conviction that gay and lesbian people are God's beloved children. They are we. Our witness to the Gospel would be unthinkably deformed if by some tragic misjudgment we willingly submitted ourselves to vivisection.

We are one body in Christ. Each and all of us rely upon the love of God, as revealed in Jesus, to attain to the life that is ours in Him. We have all been called by God to offer ourselves for the transfiguration of our lives in order that we "may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory." This vision of a God who embraces all in the arms of Divine self-offering love is the vision that is at the heart of the Gospel as I know it.
If the liberal, inclusive majority of the Episcopal Church is split on this issue, then I am a true reflection of the church. I find myself deeply torn. I think that acceptance of gays and lesbians reflects the fundamentals of Christ's own teaching. But like Jefferts Schori, my instinct in this time of conflict is to look for some path of reconciliation with the Anglican communion--perhaps a temporary acceptance of the conservatives' restrictions in hope that time and change will ultimately work in our favor.

After all, as Theodore Parker said (in the line often quoted by Martin Luther King), "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Or, to put it in brutally pragmatic terms, the conservative bishops will ultimately grow old and die. Maybe if we can hang on in the communion until then, the tide will turn in our favor.

I also find myself searching for wiggle room within the conservatives' restrictions. For example, the conservatives want a crack down on officially sanctioned blessings of gay unions. Can we get away with holding such ceremonies in local parishes without the official approval or even knowledge of bishops? (It would be the Episcopal version of "Don't ask, don't tell.") I'm not suggesting that this would be an acceptable long-term solution, just a stopgap while we try to marshal broader opinion on the side of inclusiveness.

The problem is that the conservatives seem hellbent on eliminating wiggle room and forcing a showdown. They want a split within Episcopalianism, which they believe will end with them taking control of a sizeable fraction of US churches, aligning themselves with the conservative majority in developing-nation dioceses, and marginalizing (at least in global terms) the American liberals.

Those of us who by nature lean toward moderation, compromise, and fudging of differences may not have that option much longer.

When push comes to shove and a choice has to be made, I will of course stand with Bishop Sisk. It's a shame that the conservatives have decided to force a split on this issue. I am very sympathetic to the spirit of ecumenism--the notion that all Christians ought to be one. But if, as I wrote in this post, some of my fellow Christians have decided that they simply can't stand being the same room with people like me, then so be it.

If the Episcopal Church of the USA breaks into two denominations--just as Jimmy Carter's Baptist church split over racial integration many years ago--we'll have to live with that. It's not as if it would represent an unprecedented breach in Christian unity. Christians are already split six ways from Sunday, among the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Protestants, and dozens of variations thereon. As I said to Mary-Jo the other day, we're not talking about "one church" suddenly being broken into two--more like 70 churches becoming 71.

At some point, we have to decide how high a price we're willing to pay for unity. It seems that point is coming soon.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hey Friedrich, Serf's Up!

Since Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, about how economic planning inevitably leads to tyranny, is one of the many titles on my list of books-that-sound-somewhat-interesting-but-that-frankly-I-am-never-going-to-get-around-to-actually-reading, I was pleased to see that Andrew Sullivan has provided this link to a cartoon version of the book that takes no more than five minutes to read.

If, like me, you are interested in industrial-era propaganda (the cartoons were originally printed back in the forties in Look magazine, then distributed in a booklet published by General Motors), you'll find the link worth a look. I have two observations:

1. Despite the fact that libertarians to this day cite The Road to Serfdom as an uncannily accurate prophecy of modern political developments, it's interesting to note that (assuming the cartoon version is accurate) virtually nothing predicted in the book has ever come to pass. (Did American liberals, despairing over the failure of their economic planning, ever try to hand over political power to a dictator? Did the New Deal give rise to a country ruled by secret police who execute people for incompetence at work? Somehow I missed those episodes.)

2. On the other hand, the creators of the cartoon booklet were remarkably prescient in one respect. Check out panel 16 from the 18-panel story, and in particular focus on the slogan posted on the wall at left:

The accuracy of this prediction about the propaganda of the future is all the more amazing when you consider that Thomas Friedman wasn't even born at the time!

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Faith in Politics Is a Sword That Cuts Many Ways

On yesterday's Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio, Brian interviewed historian Julian Zelizer about the current political scene. They spent a fair amount of time discussing Mitt Romney's presidential bid, which as you've heard is having some trouble gaining traction among the Republican right because many evangelical Christians are suspicious of Mormons, no matter how socially conservative they may be.

At some point in the conversation, Zelizer remarked that it was "ironic" that the Republicans, a political party that has been trying hard for the past two decades to impose a religious test for candidates to high public office, should now be showing signs of internal fracture over religious differences.

Actually, it isn't ironic at all. When you drag religion into politics, a steadily deepening set of rifts along sectarian lines is exactly what you should expect. It's no accident that, in a country like Iraq, where political, cultural, and religious identities are increasingly merged, voting is neatly divided by religion, with Kurds voting for Kurds, Sunnis for Sunnis, and Shiites for Shiites. (And when the voting is over, the groups start shooting at one another along the same sectarian lines.)

If the Republicans thought they could unleash the sectarian genii just enough to benefit them at the polls, they may have another think coming. Encourage people to believe that only "a person of faith" is fit to serve in government, and the next logical step is for them to evaluate exactly what kind of faith each candidate professes--because after all, everyone knows that one person's faith is another person's heresy.

If (God forbid) we follow this path for another generation or so, we may find ourselves in a country where people routinely and openly vote for "the Baptist candidate," "the Catholic candidate," "the Jewish candidate," etc., and where parties or party caucuses affiliate themselves with particular religious denominations.

I am "a person of faith," but I don't find this a very appetizing vision for America. The last thing our political scene needs is an additional infusion of pious zealotry and theological dogmatism.

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Yunus Takes the Plunge

Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has formally announced that he will be leaving Grameen Bank within the next month in order to form his own political party. The party will be called Nagarik Shakti, which means Citizens' Power, and it is supposed to represent a "clean" alternative to the two dominant political coalitions in Bangladesh, which are almost universally seen as corrupt.

Yunus's decision is no surprise. He has been hinting at the possibility of such a move for the past month, ever since the interim caretaker government (headed by an economist friend of Yunus) postponed elections and began cracking down on corruption by arresting political leaders. The photo at the top of this post shows Yunus at a luncheon I attended on February 9th, debating the idea of his becoming actively involved in politics with a group of Grameen Bank employees.

My sense is that most of the people who are closest to Yunus have mixed feelings about his decision. In a country where politics is generally viewed as dirty--much more so than in the United States--those who admire Yunus worry that his reputation, and that of Grameen Bank, may be tarnished by his plunge into the electoral morass. A few have expressed concern for his personal safety: Politics in Bangladesh has been known to turn violent at times.

But I think that most of Yunus's friends and colleagues also understand his motivation. Bangladesh is at a turning point in its history. Over the past three decades, significant progress has been made in alleviating poverty. The country's middle class is growing. Hundreds of thousands of young people are in universities. The birth rate is down. Construction is booming in Dhaka, and millions of businesses are springing up.

The biggest missing piece is a working democracy. If anyone can give the political structure the big shove it needs in the right direction, it is probably Yunus, the most universally-respected person in the country.

Nonetheless, Yunus's announcement is stirring controversy. Most people in Bangaldesh appear to be delighted by the news. But leaders of the established parties are warning about the "dangers" posed by "newcomers" to the political scene. As for me, I think this op-ed column from The Brunei Times has it about right:
Dr Yunus is no magician, neither he has a magic bullet to right the wrongs overnight. He is aware of his ability as well as limitations. But one has to acknowledge that first and foremost he is a visionary and a doer. He dares to dream and then dares to take steps to implement his dreams. Grameen Bank was not built in a day. He had to work hard for over twenty years.

How many of us have that tenacity? Most of us even do not dare to dream! We remain happy with the crumbs offered by the corrupt governments of the day and retreat to our bedrooms to live happily ever after. That's why we are afraid to see any disruption in the system where crumbs are found in abundance. We prefer the status quo situation.

. . . . .

No one expects [Yunus] and his newly formed party to enjoy a landslide victory in the upcoming election or maybe in the one to be held five years after.

What will happen then? Will he be obliterated from the realm of politics? No. His political party having the full support of a large chunk of the saner section in society will act as a very powerful pressure group. This pressure group will keep the government of the day on its toes and take it on a roller coaster ride if it does something unconstitutional or something against the will of the people.
In any event, it's clear that the next twelve months will be a very interesting time for the people of Bangladesh. Let's hope the country's political class is ready to work with a man like Yunus rather than chewing him up alive.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

A New Book Review? Sign Me Up

It has been quite a while since I've found myself moved to agreement or even interest by anything at The New Republic. So I am pleasantly surprised to be endorsing this call for the creation of a new US book review publication, perhaps modeled on the UK's Times Literary Supplement. Here's the rationale:
The American Association of University Presses estimates that the 95 university presses in this country publish about 10,000 books a year. The New York Times Book Review, not to mention the book reviews at The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal devote a tiny fraction of their reviews to these works of scholarship. The Times reviews ten or less non-fiction books a week and those are overwhelmingly published by the New York trade publishers who advertise in the book review and who publish books aimed at a mass public.

The New York Review of Books is published 20 times a year. At a rate of about 25 reviews in each issue, it offers about 500 reviews annually. They are a mix of works from the major trade presses and scholarly presses. The New York Review for many years has been known for its leftish and left-liberal politics as much as for its serious book reviewing. Hence it encourages its featured writers to write essays that are often longer on political opinion than on elaboration of books under review. While some of the book reviewing in the New York Review is excellent, it does not see its primary mission as that of informing a non-specialist audience about developments in the world of scholarship. The book review section of The New Republic, to which many of us have contributed and admire greatly, is in my perhaps biased opinion, the best in American letters. But space allows our finest editor, Leon Wieseltier to commission only two or three books for review each issue or about 150 to 170 a year.
This leaves about 9,300 scholarly books every year that no one outside the scholarly disciplines hears about. A good many of these works are not intended for a non-specialist audience. Indeed, some would be incomprehensible to anyone outside the respective academic discipline. Others, while comprehensible may be about narrow topics that are crucial for the advance of knowledge but are not of interest to anyone outside a relatively small circle of experts. Still others are poorly written or penned in impenetrable prose that may be a parody of critics view of political correctness. Some, we can acknowledge, are poorly or inadequately edited as well.

England's Times Literary Supplement reviews between 1,000 and 1,500 books a year. If you consider that this figure includes books published in England as well as the United States, this is also a very small fraction of works published in a year. But the TLS does regularly select what its editors regard as important works in the various academic disciplines. A reader of the TLS will have some idea of what some of the important works of philosophy, history, political and social theory, literary criticism and economics have been in a given year. Non-specialist readers in the United States do not have a publication which offers them comparable depth and breadth of coverage.
As a book writer, editor, and reviewer (for Publishers Weekly), I have long been mildly depressed by the lack of coverage of the breadth, depth, and diversity of American publishing. Many interesting, useful, important books frankly sink without a trace. (I am not thinking primarily of the books I work on.) Those that do get coverage, especially in the mainstream popular media (like the New York Times Book Review) often do so because of cronyism, log-rolling, nepotism, or just the herd mentality that somehow designates particular books or topics as "the" subjects of the week.

As a result, the image most of us get of the US publishing industry is a shallow one--and this encourages the publishers themselves to make increasingly shallow choices. I've certainly witnessed plenty of pressure on authors and editors to tart up serious books in the hopes that sensationalist headline stories will somehow enable them to break through into media consciousness. It's quite possible that considerations like this influenced, for example, the use of the word "apartheid" in the title of Jimmy Carter's recent book about Israel and Palestine. If an author has no "revelations" with which to grab attention, it's tempting to court controversy--even ginned-up controversy--rather than accept the almost-immediate oblivion that is the fate of 95 percent of new books.

I remain a fan of The New York Review of Books. I find it a good way to keep tabs on subjects that are outside of my areas of expertise but in which I am interested--topics like painting, non-Western history, music, biology, physics, etc. etc. But I agree that the tone of NYROB has become predictable. And as Linda Hirshman points out later in The New Republic's collection of articles on the topic, the neglect of female scholars and authors by all the existing outlets, including NYROB, is a serious problem.

If anyone with a little time and money steps forward to launch a new book review, whether in print or online, I'll be among the first in line to offer my services as a reviewer. Let's do it.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

His Jawline May Be His Best Presidential Credential

It's looking like a long year for Mitt Romney. His flip-flopping on gay rights and abortion is already dominating many news stories about his presidential candidacy, and polls are showing large numbers of Republicans expressing doubts about whether they can vote for a Mormon. And now, one day after he chooses to formally toss his hat into the ring in Dearborn, Michigan, posing in front of a display of American cars so as to associate his campaign with the dynamism and innovation of the US auto industry, massive carmaker layoffs turn out to be the lead story in the national business news.

Between the hapless Romney, the thin-skinned gay divorcee Giuliani, the increasingly desperate McCain, and the practically unknown Huckabee and Brownback, the Republican field for 2008 appears remarkably weak. Dear, dear, what a shame.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Turning Tide?

I'm not going to comment directly on the news that Harvard appears to have chosen a woman as its next president following the turbulent tenure of Lawrence Summers, except to say woo hoo!

However, I did come across this quote in a New York Times aticle about Harvard's presidential search: "Dr. Chait, who studies university management, noted that in several recent changes of leadership of major American corporations, tough, even bullying leaders were replaced by more mild-mannered consensus builders."

Hmmmm.....sounds like a capital idea! Where, oh where, could we put this idea into practice?
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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Another Traveler's Notes on Bangladesh

On Wednesday we moved from the Pacific Inn guest house to the new and modern Radisson, where we planned to stay for our last three nights. I am so glad. It is clean, comfortable, the air conditioning works great, and there are no mosquitoes (which carry malaria here).

The location is closer to the airport, but further away from the hubub of the city, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Dhaka is very dirty, smelly, crowded, and noisy, but it is also very interesting. I would not have wanted to spend my whole time in Dhaka in a place where you can forget that you are in Dhaka. In the city you can travel around on a rickshaw for around 50 cents a trip, and watch people cooking and selling all kinds of things on the street, building things, and generally being very busy. Rarely do you see anyone just hanging out.

People stare at Americans, and this made me uncomfortable at first, but I have gotten used to it. There are few Westerners on the streets in the city (and even fewer in the villages) and people are very curious in a good-natured way. Often young people will ask in English "What is your country?" Girls and women seem to like talking to me in the limited way we can. Their lives are still pretty limited by tradition (for most, but not all--and those who do travel independently do so only after a great deal of inner and outer struggle, I think).

If I were coming here again I would probably choose to stay at the Sheraton or the Pan Pacific hotel, which are in the middle of the city. We chose to come here instead because we need to leave for the airport at three a.m. and wanted to be sure to be there on time.

The best days here have been in the villages, and we had a terrific treat when an aquaintance took us on her boat on one of the many rivers. We traveled through emerald-green rice paddies to a village where we took tea (as they say here) at a tea shop. The tea shop man made the tea over a kerosene fire (there is no gas or electricity in this village), and it was delicious. They drink very strong red tea mixed with a lot of boiled or condensed milk and lots of sugar. They call it "cha."

Anyone visiting Bangladesh should include a village trip if it is at all possible. Otherwise, you will not see what everyone agrees is "the real Bangladesh."

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Yunus's Social Business--Something New Under the Sun

One of the highlights of our stay here in Bangladesh has been our trip to Bogra, a town some 225 kilometers northwest of Dhaka, to visit the newest creation of the Grameen family of companies: Grameen Danone, a joint venture between Grameen and the big French company that is best known for its Dannon yogurt and its Evian bottled water. This new company is the first experiment in what Professor Yunus calls "social business," which is the main theme of the new book we are writing.

Grameen Danone is extremely interesting from almost every perspective. In one sense it is a traditional business expansion for Danone: The company is already active in many Asian countries, including India and Indonesia, so it is natural for them to consider operating in Bangladesh.

But unlike virtually every traditional business, the company has been designed deliberately not to maximize profits. Instead, Danone has agreed to take a maximum profit of just two percent on its investment, with all remaining surpluses going to support development and expansion of the company. The driving purpose: To improve the nutritional status of rural Bangladeshis, especially children, who suffer from terrible deficiencies of calories, protein, vitamins--almost every key nutrient that supports growth and development.

To this end, Grameen Danone has unveiled their first product--Shoktidoi, a name that translates loosely as "strong yogurt" or "power yogurt." It's a slightly sweet yogurt, flavored with molasses made from dates (a favorite local fruit) and fortified with vitamin A, iron, protein, and other supplements. It will be packaged in cute 80-gram cups bearing the Shoktidoi mascot, a cartoon lion showing off his muscles, and the new Grameen Danone logo.

The yogurt will be manufactured in a remarkable factory--a tiny plant (just 700 square meters in size) that is equipped with state-of-the-art machinery and totally green (with solar panels, incoming and outgoing water treatment facilities, and a recycling system for used packages). We got a tour from the plant's designer, a Frenchman named Guy Gavelle, who has built factories for Danone in countries ranging from Brazil to China. Guy is very proud of his little baby and is working hard to train the local people who will run the plant after he leaves here in March.

The rest of the Grameen Danone value chain is also highly unusual. Milk will be supplied by local dairy farmers, many of them Grameen Bank members, who will be trained by the Grameen Agricultural Foundation in techniques for improving the quantity and quality of their milk production. The yogurt will be distributed by the local "Grameen ladies"--women borrowers who will sell cups of Shaktidoi either door-to-door, among their neighbors, or over the counter in the small shops many of them run in the villages.

Mary-Jo and I attended a workshop for some sixty of these ladies, at which they received a thorough explanation of how Shaktidoi is manufactured (including a tour of the plant), a description by a physician of its nutritional benefits, and a rousing sales pep talk from Imamus Sultan, the managing director of the company (and a longtime Grameen associate). The yogurt will retail for five taka per cup (about seven cents U.S.), with the ladies retaining half a taka as their profit from each sale. They seem excited about the possibility of increasing their family incomes by twenty to forty taka per day through this new business venture.

If the Bogra operation is successful, Grameen Danone will open more community-sized factories in other locations around Bangladesh. They figure it would take fifty such plants to serve the entire country. Eventually, other products may be added to the mix.

We'll soon see whether Shaktidoi has what it takes to win the hearts (and stomachs) of mothers and kids in Bogra, thereby producing the kinds of health benefits Grameen and Danone are hoping to achieve. If so, it could become a model for new kinds of companies in a wide variety of industries, from food to health care to education to communication--social businesses designed to benefit the community while generating sufficient revenues to support self-sustaining growth.

P.S. Here is a recent story about Grameen Danone by Sheri Prasso of Fortune magazine. She calls social business "a Big New Idea"--fairly meaningful validation from the world's most influential business magazine.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

The Entrepreneurial Spirit of Bangladesh

Life in Bangladesh improved dramatically--for me, at least--this past Monday when Mary-Jo arrived. It's great to have a familiar face to look at over the breakfast and dinner table, as well as someone with whom to share the daily adventures in this amazing country. It's also nice to be able to talk idiomatic English--fast!--and have it easily understood.

We spent two days in some of the villages north of Dhaka, observing the work of Grameen Bank. We attended a couple of center meetings--weekly gatherings of the women borrowers from a particular village, at which loan repayments are made, proposals for fresh loans are accepted, and general morale-boosting and problem-solving exercises take place. As you can see, Mary-Jo proved to be very popular among the village women.

Then we went to the homes of some Grameen members. One was a woman who has launched a poultry business with 1,500 baby chicks that she bought with a Grameen loan. In forty days, the chicks will be grown up and ready for sale, and she will use the proceeds to finance the next round of business. Another was a man (rare among Grameen borrowers) who has grown his enterprises through the years from a small banana farm to a large dairy operation, whose 28 cows produce all the milk consumed at a nearby military facility. And we met a "struggling member" (i.e., a beggar)--a widow of seventeen years who uses her Grameen loan to buy small foodstuffs (eggs, candies) to sell door to door and so supplement her income from beggaing.

Finally, we visited a Grameen health clinic and two classes for pre-school children organized by Grameen. Altogether a very fascinating and inspiring visit.

The spirit of entrepreneurship seems to be in the air in Bangladesh. The Grameen members are involved in an amazing array of businesses (often together with their husbands), adding new ventures whenever they see an opportunity. One woman who has been with Grameen for over two decades says she now has three businesses, one of them a store that sells (of all things) fire extinguishers--an idea she had when she observed that a lot of commercial building was going on the area, and that all these new offices and factories would need safety gear.

Another example, this one not Grameen-related: I stopped at a little flower shop near the guest house to buy Mary-Jo a bouquet to welcome her at the airport. As the proprietor selected blossoms for me, I asked her, "Are you Chinese?" (She looked it.)

"Yes. Actually I am a Chinese doctor. I import flowers and vegetables from China." And she opened up some styrofoam containers to show me the plastic packages of snow peas and other items she'd had shipped from her homeland.

After the bouquet was wrapped, she asked me to follow her inside to her office, where she would write up my bill. But on the way she made a quick detour into a consulting room where several padded tables stood. A man was on lying on his back on one of them, and the florist / physician excused herself, went over to her patient, inserted a needle into his ankle, and gave him a quick once-over. Then she came back to me and I paid for my flowers.

Somehow the combination of florist and acupuncturist seems less unlikely here in Bangladesh than it would back home in America.

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"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

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What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

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