There is no gainsaying the fact that the government in its various development policy papers considers the issue of women entrepreneurship with due priority. But the reality is often far removed from what is on paper. A case in point is the recent not-so-happy experience of the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in accessing the government's stimulus money from the commercial banks. Notably, many women-led enterprises are included in this business category. In fact, the majority of these micro and small scale female-operated business entities cannot even think of approaching, far less accessing, the banks for loans.
As expected, one of the reasons is that they are mostly from rural background with little schooling. Unsurprisingly, the complicated loan procedure involving endless paperwork is a big barrier to those women entrepreneurs' accessing bank loans. Add to that the bankers' usual bias towards the familiar clients. So, it is plain why much of the financial aid package that the government extended to the MSMEs including female-run units could not make it to its desired targets. Understandably, this is a bottleneck that needs to be got around if women entrepreneurship is to be promoted and mainstreamed. But to address the issue, it would be necessary to have a correct picture of the situation at hand. Does the government, for instance, know the exact number of enterprises in the MSME category operating in the country, let alone those owned by women? Perhaps, not. Had the government been in possession of the required data, it could better deliver cash support directly to the targeted pandemic-hit poor as planned earlier. Evidently, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the government body tasked with the job, could not come up with the required data. As such, to come to the aid of the micro and small scale female-run business entities, the first step would be to create a database on such business entities in the country.
At a recently-held policy dialogue attended by a local policy think tank and some international partners concerned, participants focused on such issues. In particular, experts present there tried to pinpoint the fault lines in the policy regime affecting the delivery of the government-provided stimulus to the small scale enterprises including women-led ones. Mention may be made here of the share of the SME-focused stimulus fund that women-operated enterprises could access to date. As could be gathered, of this stimulus loans so far disbursed (74 per cent of the total worth Tk 20 billion), women recipients' share was only 5.59 per cent. Interestingly, it is not always the institutional bias that barred women entrepreneurs from accessing the government fund.
In many cases, as the experts at the dialogue informed, the women entrepreneurs in question were quite clueless about the stimulus package or about the way to access it. But was it always the targeted beneficiaries' ignorance that lay behind their being thus excluded from the pandemic-time stimulus money? As it came out from a study, of the 564 various stimulus package-related circulars the central bank has issued so far, only 38 dealt with the MSMEs. This clearly points to the lopsidedness of the policies that guide the government's well-meaning efforts to support the desired beneficiaries.
As such, to do justice to the programmes supportive of the MSMEs, especially of the women-led ones, their implementation guidelines have to be first rid of built-in biases. In fact, there is no better way to ensure the government aid reaching the intended beneficiaries.