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Excerpt from “The Political Economy of Microfinance: Financializing Poverty”, Chapter 3, The Financialization of Poverty.
Reinforcement for the microfinance narratives of empowerment through finance, and of poverty being a problem of finance [see the last posted excerpt], comes from a vision of poor people as being inherently (or even exceptionally) financially minded subjects. Portfolios of the Poor, written by a team of practitioners and academics who tracked borrowers’ financial lives via financial diaries, has emerged as the key text of the ascendant “financial inclusion” paradigm. Engagingly written but not addressed to very broad audiences, it chiefly provides legitimation among development practitioners, bankers and microfinance experts for their visions of helping poor people to master their lives via financial services. The poor are depicted as Third-World “portfolio managers” (Collins et al. 2009: 238), as savvy and skilful as their Wall Street counterparts, and equally in need of finance. Portfolios effectively portrays the denizens of megacity slums and remote villages, to follow John Steinbeck, as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” who have merely lost their bank accounts.¹
Underlying the claims made by Portfolios’ authors is the assumption that low-income individuals in the global South are guided by the cognitive framework of the purest specimen of Homo oeconomicus – the free investor. The authors interpreted nearly every financial decision inscribed in their subjects’ financial diaries as rational and optimal, and thereby ultimately deduced that MFIs should feed poor people’s ubiquitous credit needs for everything, not just microentrepreneurship.
Using a loan at 36 per cent interest to buy gold jewellery, as one diarist did, for instance was a sensible choice because “The fact that the loan could be repaid in a series of small weekly payments made it manageable … Price was only one aspect of the loan, less important than the repayment schedule that matched instalments to the household’s cash flow” (Collins et al. 2009: 23). That this diarist had to pay a 36 per cent surcharge for her “investment”, relative to what others would have had to pay, was a non-issue. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week at the International Studies Association Conference in Toronto, Marie Langevin (Ottawa) and I hosted a panel bringing together Northern and Southern perspectives on what may be termed poverty finance*. These perspectives surprisingly only rarely speak to each other, and our panel demonstrated how important and fruitful such a conversation is. Phil Cerny chaired the panel “Fringe Finance and Financial Inclusion”, and Rob Aitken (Alberta) – one of the few exceptional researchers whose work spans both the worlds of Northern and Southern poverty finance – acted as discussant of the papers.
Next week sees a high-profile head-to-head between two of the leading voices on microfinance. In a debate hosted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washinton D.C. on Monday, 30 January at 9:00 a.m./14:00 GMT/15:00 CET, David Roodman (Center for Global Development, USA) and Milford Bateman (University of Pula, Croatia) will have alot to discuss.
(P.S. See also below for information about a debate at Harvard University on 2nd February with Guy Stuart.)
The past few years have been particularly turbulent, with a succession of microfinance crises, growing overindebtedness, borrower suicides, disappointing impact findings, and a prize-winning Norwegian documentary contributing to Muhammad Yunus being removed from office as head of Grameen Bank.
The two debaters have met in the past. Bateman first brought a critique of microfinance into the mainstream with his 2010 book, which Roodman heavily criticised. Roodman has made a name for himself as a prolific and insightful blogger with the open book blog he kept while writing the book he recently published.
Whether Roodman’s book (endorsed by Muhammad Yunus) is anything as “impertinent” as it claims to be; what to think of Bateman’s musings about the “end of microfinance?”; and why the best evidence of microfinance’s impact on poverty still is “zero”, will be questions likely affecting the debate as much as the official debate question (which USAID succeeded in making so overwhelmingly dull I fear it may even scare off Washington development brass):