Uneasy alliance reveals complex social issues 

Bangladesh might be better known for natural disasters and human suffering, but for years this south Asian nation has been a kind of Silicon Valley in the field of social entrepreneurship and anti-poverty programs.

It is the birthplace of BRAC, the world’s largest non-government organization that’s helping survivors of the 2013 Bangladesh factory collapse, and Grameen Bank, better known in the West since winning the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

However, the success of Grameen and BRAC is still dwarfed by the sheer scale the economic and environmental problems faced by this crowded, low-lying nation of 150 million. So the challenge for behemoths and start ups alike is to scale up — not just to have a wider social impact but also to sustain the enterprise so it depends less on charity.

Garment worker
A worker who survived a fire that swept through a small garment factory in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, on Jan. 26, 2013. Photo by Munir uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

That’s a key impetus for JITA, a partnership between CARE, a global blue chip charity, and multinational corporations such as Danone and Unilever, owners of household brands like Danon, Dove and Vaseline.

The symbiosis seems fairly straightforward: The corporations bring pockets far deeper than anything available in the nonprofit world; the charity opens the door to the bottom of the pyramid, the market of people too poor to warrant much attention until now, but at perhaps 4 billion people, a potential green pasture in today’s global economy.

The partnership is an uneasy one, revealing the complex social issues that underlie poverty and compromises anti-poverty activists must make to achieve scale.

“We saw them as an evil to society,” JITA CEO Saif Rashid, a former CARE veteran, recently said of his private sector partners.

Today, some 7,000 CARE-trained women walk or pedal through their villages in “Avon lady” fashion with a basket of Unilever products. CARE is a 51 percent partner in JITA, a tilt deliberately intended to insure that development objectives trump the profit motive and to control the products placed in the basket. Soap and shampoo are no brainers, as are other desirable health and hygiene products, like sanitary pads.

Some things are unacceptable, even though they’d likely sell well, like cigarettes. In between are items dubbed “acceptable” because they sell well and the saleswomen could not make a viable profit without them.

Most controversial — and profitable — in this necessary-evil category is Fair and Lovely, a skin whitening cream that’s a blockbuster seller in Bangladesh and across several parts of Asia.

JITA has pledged to replace Fair and Lovely with a non-whitening skin cream by 2015. It sometime feels like a Jekyll and Hyde undertaking, admits Saif Islam, a board member. The project is creating a class of consumers yet trying to dictate what they should and should not consume, he said.

“Who are we to judge?” Islam asked. At the same time, he said given the level of poverty among this class of consumers, it’s hard to escape the fact that the money spent on skin whiteners would be better put toward other things.

JITA also draws criticism from women’s rights activist Firdous Azim for reinforcing age-old mores in rural Bangladesh that dictate that women not leave their homes unless accompanied by their husbands. One of JITA’s key marketing pitches is that women don’t need to go to town to buy their daily essentials, the products come to them.

As for the modest improvement in the lives of many of the JITA saleswomen, Azim would much rather that women be offered more “transformative” options that improve both their economic and social position. For all its myriad flaws, she said Bangladesh’s garment industry has provided new mobility and options for millions of women. One bright spot from the Rana Plaza building collapse, she said, is that it publicized the hefty contribution women make to the country’s economy.

For their part, JITA officials say the project was never intended to be an alternative to the garment industry. JITA jobs are part time, for example, intended mostly to supplement the saleswomen’s family income. But they say it is helping stem the urbanization tsunami caused in significant part by the burgeoning apparel industry located mostly in and around the capital, Dhaka. The city is now home to more than 15 million. Barely a half of them have access to an improved toilet.

Fred de Sam Lazaro’s report from Bangladesh on JITA aired on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour.