In his book, Banker for thePoor, Prof Md Yunus recounts how the idea of Grameen Bank germinated when he was taking a walk through a village adjacent to his university in Chittagong, Bangladesh in 1976. He met a woman, Sufia Begam, who was making beautiful stool with bamboo. She told him that though she sold the stool for five taka and fifty paisa (22 cents) she earned only fifty paisa (2 cents). This was because to buy the bamboo, she had to borrow money from a local trader on the condition that she will sell the stools only to him on a price fixed by him. All she needed was a low interest loan of five taka to escape the clutches of the money lender.
Yunus asked his students to find out how many in the village were similarly borrowing from the traders. They found that there were 42 such people who collectively needed $27 to move out of the cycle of exploitation. He wrote:
“People were not poor because they were stupid or lazy. They worked all day long, doing complex physical tasks. They were poor because the financial structures which could help them to widen their economic base simply did not exist in this country. It was a structural problem, not a personal problem.”
What Yunus was describing was the concepts of “Opportunity Structures” – i.e., the outcomes of a person’s efforts are mediated by the external factors which permit or prohibit one’s access to opportunities.
Even when “equal opportunities” exist, the access to those opportunities is not equal for all due to the different social structures and contexts in which people live. For instance, while the RTE (Right to Education) Act stipulates free and compulsory education for all children in the 6-14yrs bracket, there is considerable difference in the enrollment and drop-out rates between girls and boys. Many girls are unable to avail the opportunity to get education due to cultural and family norms which discourage girls’ education, or due to the physical distance of the school from home. In contrast, boys are subjected to a more conducive “opportunity structure” (e.g., they are encouraged to study, they don’t have to help in household chores or take care of younger siblings, they are not subjected to harassment on the roads, etc.), and so have easier access to education.
Powell, Heller and Bundalli describe three kinds of opportunity structures, which determine the outcomes of efforts by the individual or communities:
1. Physical Opportunity Structure: Physical locations differ in terms of the opportunities they offer to individual and communities. Some places are high opportunity locations and provide easy access to facilities such as educational institutions, healthcare facilities, banks, markets, employment opportunities, etc., while other locations are deprived of these. Farmers living in villages which are well connected to markets, for example, have better chances of improving their lives than farmers living in places which are isolated and distant from markets. As Drier, Mollonkopf, & Swanstrom, observed:
- “Whether we
are highly skilled professionals or minimum-wage workers, place affects our
access to jobs and public services (especially education), our access to
shopping and culture, our level of personal security, the availability of
medical resources, and even the air we breathe. The inequalities across places
reinforce the inequalities among people.”
2. Social Opportunity Structure: One’s social connections, i.e., who one knows, how well one knows them, which group does one belong to, etc., play an important role in one’s chances to access opportunities. Individuals who know the decision makers or potential employers, belong to an influential group (e.g., an alumni network or a particular class, caste or community), or have friends or relatives who are well-placed, influential and/or knowledgeable, etc., have more influence on the outcomes of their efforts. Compared to those who are not so well connected, they would have easier access to employment opportunities, loans and financial help, market information, legal entitlements, services such as education or healthcare, etc.
Like individuals, communities too differ in terms of their social opportunity structures. Some communities, due to their history and heritage, location of their members in the society, or even their language or customs have strong social connections with influential agencies as compared to other communities. For instance, communities/ constituencies of powerful politicians, or with members who are placed in influential positions, are likely to have better access to resources, government schemes, social justice, etc.
3. Cultural Opportunity Structure: The shared norms, values and goals of one’s community and family facilitate or hinder with an individual’s efforts towards certain aims. Communities which have traditionally relied on specific occupation (e.g., trade and commerce, farming, weaving, etc.) would have more resources, technical knowledge and inclination to support similar behaviors and efforts, and would discourage other pursuits. Similarly, differences in the gender norms of different communities may encourage or discourage girls’ education, women to work outside home, or men to pursue up supposedly ‘feminine’ occupation (e.g., dancing, cooking, fine arts, etc.).
In India, in many rural (and even urban) communities, the caste norms within the community also determine the differing access to common resources (e.g., water resources, educational and healthcare facilities, common space, etc.) among the community members.
Differing opportunity structures lie at the heart of social inequalities. Individuals with strong and favourable opportunity structures are able attract and leverage more resources and facilities as compared to those who lack such external support. That is why, despite the availability of resources in the society, the poor and marginalized communities are unable to access them with same ease as people who, due to their external circumstances, are endowed by privileges. As Narayan and Petesch noted:
“…these inequalities are both reflected in and perpetuated by the dominant social structures and values and norms that determine the opportunity structure poor people face. Given these barriers, poor people’s own efforts to move themselves out of poverty are often unsuccessful.”
 The idea of “Opportunity Structures” was proposed by sociologist Robert K Merton in 1938 in his paper “Social Structure and Anomie” to explain why differing structural opportunities make some people successful, while push others towards delinquency.