Fellow Since 1990
This profile was prepared when Humaira Islam was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Bangladesh was until recently so overwhelmingly rural that little thought was given to the needs of its cities. However, with over 15 million city dwellers, Bangladesh, in Humeira's view, can't postpone any longer developing serious policies and then finding practical ways of implementing them.Consequently, in November of 1989, she sent a letter inviting the major private voluntary groups working with the urban poor to join her in forming a coalition. The five groups who came to the first meeting have since grown to 14 in the coalition's steady core, enriched by a growing number of others who come periodically, depending on the issue.The coalition serves several purposes. First, it is increasingly turning jealousies and misunderstandings among the members into working collaborations. When the government announced a plan to bulldoze homes in Agargaon, the coalition met the challenge: member groups jointly organized the residents, spoke to the press, persuaded the government, and then articulated new policies to ensure against similar errors in the future.The coalition also helps the member groups talk through their programs to ensure maximum coordination and, more important in the long term, to think through more effective approaches. For example, most of the groups, including those that are not gender-focused, are now giving special emphasis to women. Finally, the coalition is working to develop a national urban policy and will follow up with a public consideration and advocacy campaign. To lay the groundwork for this and subsequent policy changes, the coalition is also launching a long-term program to help the public understand not only the problems of the slums but also their benefits. Stereotypes of slums as parasitic havens of crime do not help the formation of sensible policies.Humeira's own organization has been adapting successful rural lending programs for the poor to the urban environment. For example, her lending policies are quite comfortable with women borrowing funds to finance rickshaws that will be operated by their husbands. This is, in fact, the most common first use of credit the members of her neighborhood women's groups use. Even if the men operate the vehicles, the women control the finances.These local women's groups operate four savings schemes, each with different objectives. One sets aside 5 percent of interest capital to pay for emergencies such as a flat tire; another is a completely open voluntary contribution fund. As the program grows its branches will become financially self-supporting. Each will have a manager, six field workers, and an accountant. Humeira expects 54,000 households to be directly involved within five years.One of the advantages of operating in the urban areas is the range of market opportunities available, and Humeira encourages the women to seek out unconventional opportunities. After the first wave of rickshaw investments, the pattern of subsequent investments becomes increasingly diverse. She estimates that market-oriented investments produce TK 30 per day compared with TK 15 for the traditional home piecework done by women. She's looking forward to the day when her women will collectively have assets large enough to graduate from micro-investments and begin to launch small businesses, e.g., garment production.Building out from this core activity, Humeira's women's groups are also organizing a community service to help young children get a head start with their education. The groups select from among their members someone with enough elementary-level education to do the job, and hire her to organize classes that are designed to feed into each area's formal schools.Humeira's organization is now also responding to the lack of health facilities in the slums by organizing its own local dispensaries and pharmacies. Responding to another of the members' needs, this health network provides family planning information as one of its important functions.