Milford Bateman’s book Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? has generated heated discussion, with blows not always struck very far above the belt. Recently, I got involved by recapping and analysing several book reviews published on the web. I was critical of the tone and substance of David Roodman’s review (published on his blog, of which I remain a fan, notwithstanding), because I felt it attacked the person more than the argument, and it didn’t engage with Bateman’s overall point that microfinance is politically useful while economically questionnable.

David Roodman has responded to this challenge in a more elegant and eloquent piece than his original review. Some allegations against Bateman’s writing have been clarified, new ones have appeared. I think Roodman is still off with his accusations of “sloppy thinking” and “extremism”. I would still like to see Roodman engage with Bateman’s overall argument.

Most of the criticisms launched against the book (by diverse authors) have validity; however, I would urge those who dislike the work to beware the trap of accusing Bateman of what they see him as accusing others of, namely malignance. In plainer English: try to measure the book and your reaction by the same standard.

Here are my (less brief than intended) responses to what I see as David Roodman’s main points:

  • “Sloppy thinking” or “careless use of evidence”, as I understand it, is when the conclusions don’t follow from the evidence. Bateman’s do; I would like to hear if anyone disagrees with this. Rather, what Roodman seems to dispute is how the evidence is presented. His “marginalia” lament the omission of, for instance, the precise arguments of the Ohio School, the reasons for calling Jonathan Morduch’s as a proponent of microfinance,  or anecdotes and client stories (what else is the point about Rich Rosenberg?). But, when an author interprets available evidence in one logically consistent way instead of another, thereby assembling and interpreting facts into a coherent picture – which seems to me what Bateman is accused of – isn’t that how argument works? The elements of any argumentation may be challenged with rebuttals and rearranged or overturned. True: it isn’t balanced, but to leave aside certain strands of discussion while following others seems to me essential for concise writing and good style … and especially for making a point. I would also add that certain issues are probably simplified because the book is aimed at a wider audience of practitioners and lay people, not just technocrats and economists.
  • I can’t cross-check every point of evidence made by Milford Bateman and challenged by David Roodman. I definitely won’t back his every point. Surely the book contains factual errors. I’ll trust Roodman’s seniority more than my junior knowledge of microfinance. Still, I think sharing margin notes is a poor substitute for head-on engagement with an argument. Are the examples significant enough to collapse Bateman’s line of reasoning?
  • On the use of passive voice I agree, in that it denies the reader certain information. The passive voice does relieve Bateman of the need to identify what was done by whom, which would certainly have been informative and could have strengthened his argument. Grammatically, the passive usually is used (by whom? you may ask) when the object is more important than the subject; or when the precise subject is unknown or difficult to define – as is often the case with institutional theories. Would ‘the microfinance community’, for instance, have been a better choice of wording? Seems similarly vague to me. Otherwise, should Bateman have attempted to somehow disentangle the individual rationales of all 755,135 Kiva users in issuing their small loans, as well as those of several dozen governments? Even if possible, such an analysis would be irrelevant to his argument. It is not an argument about individual or even necessarily collective choices (whodunnit?); rather, ideas and ideologies have a life of their own through their entrenchment in institutionalised practices. Microfinance as an ideology may bring harm for the poor without any harm intended, by anyone. Bateman fundamentally is analysing mechanisms, not individual strategies. This may be a different epistemology from a rational-choice individualistic one, but it is absoultely common and often necessary for political economy analysis. (Bateman does sometimes in his book accuse specific organisations of pursuing the economic interests of rich countries. Thst is a separate point which he usually makes explicit.)
  • The allegation of “verbal violence” dumbfounds me. I really struggle with the reasoning here. How are Bateman’s charges against ‘the microfinance community’, ‘the international donor community’, ‘supporters of microfinance’ – take your pick – supposed to constitute “verbal violence”? The book, as I read it, alleges that these collectives are misled (not by anyone, but in their assumptions); that they adhere to an orthodoxy and defend it; and as a result they inadvertently may harm (or at least not help) the poor. Some also may have less pure motives, but that isn’t Bateman’s main point as far as I can tell. What I really don’t see is how these allegations could be construed as “dehumanizing” anyone. How are they supposed to pave the way to “real violence”? I think that is upping the ante too far. I fail to see the connection; it looks to me like a red herring.
  • Roodman says, “those who analyze complex issues have a responsibility to try to learn from those with whom they disagree, rather than dismissing them as beneath consideration”. I have nothing to add except that it goes both ways.
  • The post ends with David Roodman confronting his own use of the word “conspiracy”: “Bateman is not claiming that the coordinated, malign, underhanded microfinance movement is secretly organized. To that extent, I should not have used the word “conspiracy” and I apologize.” (my emphasis) I think the words malign and underhanded are misplaced, too. Or else, evidence should be provided to the contrary. Does Bateman actually in his book accuse microfinance advocates of malignance – intent to harm the poor – or co-ordinated secrecy (What else might “underhanded” mean? It is as close a synonym for ‘secret’ as they get).

To me it seems that a very easy way of discrediting critics is to portray them as paranoid, as not seeing things straight. I think it does neither the accuser, nor the acusee, nor either’s argument any justice; it definitely prevents fair debate. “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – Orwell. If Milford Bateman currently looks like a “minority of one”, that’s because he’s doing something unpopular, and only an Orwellian society would declare him crazy/dangerous for that.

With that, I’ve tried to make my point.