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This is the second half of my search for the causes of the microfinance crisis and suicide tragedy in Andhra Pradesh. In my last posting, I outlined the macro causes as I saw them. I found evidence that MFIs were charging borrowers interest rates over and above what they actually could have charged them. I also found that the government failed to regulate despite an evident lack of self-regulation; that is, until Andhra Pradesh clamped down two weeks ago. In this posting I search for micro-level causes.

Since my last post, SKS on Saturday posted profits up by 116 percent y-o-y (read: more than doubled), and also apparently held a secret board meeting over the weekend. You don’t need to be a Marxist to find a steep rise in profits disturbing for a bank which lost at least 17 of its clients to debt-driven suicide in the same quarter. Yet the crisis in AP is far bigger than SKS, and the five biggest MFIs’ have realised this and collectively announced last Friday to restructure distressed loans. Finally. It took nearly two months of suicides, a heavy-handed regulatory clampdown and a media backlash to drive enough sense into the MFIs. The women’s Self-Help-Group movement is also pushing for better regulation. How did we get here in the first place?

The poor are prone to debt traps

The media have caught onto some of the macro issues, but here I will identifiy drivers for the heavy debt burdens and suicides which operate at the micro level. We must be aware that suicide in India is already shockingly common among farmers. But many, if not most victims in AP were small traders, not subsistence farmers, so we’re dealing with a new phenomenon here.

It is no surprise that highly-indebted microfinance borrowers can be driven into debt spirals towards MFIs under conditions of heavy marketing, misinformation, social pressure to join self-help groups, and the vagaries of economic life at the bottom of the social order. If one thing goes wrong (an illness, a crop loss), an apparently sensibly invested loan suddenly turns into an insurmountable debt burden (see these media reports for illustrations of microfinance-funded debt traps). In reality, “India Shining” is home to some of the poorest people in the world. As we saw last week, some microfinanciers are apparently out of touch with this reality. Atul Takle of SKS went on the record telling the Associated Press, “I personally don’t think a person would take her life for 225 rupees ($5.08) a week.” But four out of five people in India live on less than 20 Rupees a day (2007; latest figure I could find).

This (self-drafted, non-exhaustive) list outlines individual causes for the poor taking on unsustainable debt. It shows that there are mulitple reasons for the poor falling into microfinance debt traps, and that most are outside of their control. Read the rest of this entry »

Maybe it’s too early to seek real explanations for the microfinance tragedy in AP. The dust hasn’t settled yet, but I’m struggling to come to grips with the big “why?”. (For a summary of events until Tuesday, see here.) My usual blog sources of all colours for all things development are silent, so far. But the Indian media are buzzing with coverage and an occasional piece of analysis. From what I can tell from these reports, the crisis was caused by a failure to regulate and a set of ultra-perverse incentives for microfinanciers and their employees.

What happened? In the past 6 weeks or so, some 30 to 60 microcredit borrowers in Andhra Pradesh (according to different sources) committed suicide over their loans. Individual stories had surfaced increasingly throughout early and mid-October about borrowers suffering under heavy debt burdens and massive pressure from agents; with measures apparently even including child abduction as punishment for loan default and agents urging borrowers to take their lives to reap credit life insurance. Protests ensued, and last week, the AP government issued an ordinance imposing rules of conduct and compulsory registration on MFIs (microfinance institutions). A consortium of MFIs (MFIN) claimed this had halted their business completely, and this week the MFIs submitted a petition at the AP High Court asking to quash the government’s ordinance.

This Indian news video concisely tells the horrific story.

The High Court today officially permitted MFIs to continue their business activities, while upholding the terms of the ordinance that MFIs may not engage in coercive practices and must proceed with registration. Meanwhile, employees of SKS Microfinance and Spandana have been arrested for harassing borrowers. SKS shares have dropped by over one fifth, indicating that investors are worried about profitability (rightly so). An Indian apex organisation has proposed for all its members to cut interest rates – more about that below. Read the rest of this entry »

This is more shocking news from Andhra Pradesh. Obligatory life insurance sold with microfinance loans may be incentivising overindebted borrowers to commit suicide. Worse yet, it appears that loan officers have been pushing debtors to commit suicide as a way out of debt.

Here’s the gist of a Times of India article by Jinka Nagaraju published earler today:

A government study has found that some MFI agents themselves are encouraging the debtors to commit suicide so that their loans are repaid. This happens because the borrowers are covered by insurance.

Till now, there have been at least 45 suicides reported in the state in the last one-and-a-half months allegedly due to the coercive practices employed by the MFIs in recovering the loans. …

Read the rest of this entry »

Just right now, a severe microfinance crisis appears to be brewing in Southern India. A large number of suicides has led to a legal clampdown and a corporate backlash. With a complaint launched by microfinance institutions (MFIs) at the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Hyderabad against the Andhra government, the recent conflict over MFI practices and borrowers’ debt levels – debt which may be responsible for the deaths of over thirty people – has come to a head. How this case develops is bound to shed light onto what actually matters in microfinance in India today. Bluntly: is it power, profits or people?

Flashback: In August and September, nineteen microfinance borrowers in Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) took their lives because of overindebtedness blamed on microfinance – some reports say more than 30 (or even 57; see updates below). Then, in early October, the debt-driven suicide of a fruit-seller named Prabhakar in Kurnool, southern A.P., triggered public outcry and attacks on several MFI offices.

On October 14th, the A.P. state government “brought an ordinance making it compulsory for MFIs to register themselves, declare the effective rate of interest they charge, ensure that no security is sought for loans and no coercion is used for recovery. Non-compliance will be punished with a three-year prison term and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.” In response, yesterday a consortium of MFIs operating in A.P., MFIN, filed a petition at the Andhra Pradesh High Court seeking an order to squash the ordinance issued by the government (NDTV, AP). Meanwhile, another overindebted microborrower, K. Narayana, who was harassed by the agents of four MFIs, took his life by drinking poison.


Video: “The microfinance institutions hit back,” questioning A.P. government’s power of jurisdiction.

Read the rest of this entry »

This post is provided by our guest blogger Thomas Gegenhuber, who studies Business Administration at Johannes Kepler University in Linz and is a regular contributor to wikinomics.com. He participated as a live-blogger at the Free Culture Research Conference 2010 in Berlin.

The Facebook-Movie is hitting the movie theatres. The catchy ad for the movie says: You don´t get to 500 Million friends without making a few enemies“.  From an economic perspective, the social networking market has an oligopolistic structure, with facebook as a market leader. Facebook is under fierce criticism for its privacy policy. Yet, events like the  “quitting facebook day” resulted only in 34.000 drop outs. Critique might lead to some minor changes in the privacy settings, but the switching costs for facebook users to another social network are very high. To use following analogy: Moving from one social network to the next is like moving into another city. You lose a lot of your friends.

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Geert Lovink, who held the keynote at the Free Culture Conference in Berlin, believes the facebook problem is rooted in its business model. At the end of the day, facebook needs to monetize people’s social graph. He highlighted that some services address this problem. “Sepukoo and the web2.0suicidemachine allow you to remove your data; other services enable you to download your data.” Evolving alternatives like Appleseed and the more famous Diaspora are still in the early stages. Read the rest of this entry »

License proliferation – the development and use of different and incompatible licenses – has always been an issue in the field of open content licensing. As in any process of standardization, the utility of a certain standard depends on its diffusion. Open content licensing regimes thus become a viable alternative to the prevalent all-rights-reserved copyright regime only insofar as a critical mass of works is licensed under compatible licensing standards.

In the field of free/open source software the GNU General Public Licens (GPL) has more and more become the de-facto standard. The Black Duck Open Source Resource Center reports that about 65 percent of all software packages released under free software/open source licenses use the GPL or one of its deratives.

One of the two major innovations* brought by Creative Commons to the realm of open content licensing was the modularity of its licenses: probably inspired by libertarian ideals of maximizing individual choice (see Elkin-Koren 2005), Creative Commons allows combining different license modules such as “share-alike” or “non-commercial” (see also “Iconic Standards: Regulating and Signaling“) and thus ends up with actuall 6 different and partially incompatible licenses. Initially, Creative Commons had even allowed five more combinations and developed several special purpose licenses such as the “Sampling licenses” or the short-lived “Developing Nations License”. Recognizing that this increase of license choice led to a fragmentation instead of a maximization of the aspired commons of digital works, Creative Commons now struggles to solve a problem it partially helped to create in the first place. Read the rest of this entry »

Interregionalism  – multi-lateral meetings between different regions – has become an important aspect of governing global economic, financial and political issues. One such interregional exchange is the Asia-Europe Meeting, (ASEM). The 8th meeting just has been taking place in Brussels 5th-6th of October. ASEM is an informal dialogue bringing together Heads of Governments of the 27 EU Member States and 16 Asian countries, the European Commission and the ASEAN Secretariat.

The first ASEM meeting took place in Bangkok in 1996 in order to foster economic development and counterbalance the US influence in the Asian region. While these meetings are informal and non-binding, they are nevertheless aiming at strengthening economic and political relationships between countries. This year’s summit was dominated by the  financial and economic crisis. Under the heading ”More Effective Global Economic Governance” European and Asian officials agreed upon closer economic cooperation as well as financial coordination, and stressed the importance of sustainable growth and climate protection goals.

Such meetings – as international trade politics in general – suffers from the lack of democratic participation and support of citizens. Negotiations take place behind closed doors, the negotiation processes are intransparent and the parliaments are largely shut out of such processes. Consultative bodies and advisory committees are dominated by business interests or business affiliated lobbying groups.

As a response to the lack of transparency and democratic checks and balances, unions and NGOs found counter summit, the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (ASEF) where labor unions and social movements across Asia and Europe expressed their concerns about marketization and demanded  a “social and market regulatory dimension” of trade negotiations.

But in how far does challenging this global economic governance institution contribute to any kind of change?

At first sight it looks like a success story: Labor, environmental and human rights issues play a promomient role in the final ASEM declaration and the ASEM leaders promised a people-to-people approach. But the disappointment about the discrepancies between words and action is huge.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve recently been reading through the thought-provoking  (albeit somewhat attention-grabbingly titled) book Participation: The New Tyranny?. The authors from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds take on the paradigm of participatory development from various angles, from failing to account for local power asymmetries and élite capture, to the technicalist perfunctory nature of many participation processes.

Part of Bill Cooke’s chapter entitled “The Social Psychological Limits of Participation?” caught my eye because of his consise elucidation of groupthink and its relation to development policy-making and practice, both at the transnational and the local level.

In a debate I had last month on this blog with David Roodman of CGD about Milford Bateman’s book, I levied what I thought was a rather strong charge against the (so-called, self-proclaimed) microfinance community: that its world-view is skewed and closed-off by mechanisms of groupthink. That was because I was trying to defend Milford Bateman’s argument against a misconception of  his critics, that he held a conspiracy theory of microfinance and neoliberalism. I begged to differ by explaining Bateman’s analysis of the microfinance community as a transnational epistemic community plagued by group-typical groupthink.

So I thought I’d put my allegation to a brief test here against Irving Janis‘ eight symptoms of groupthink as summed up by Bill Cooke:

Sypmptom 1: The illusion of invulnerability “An over-optimism about the power of the group and the lack of any real threat to the status quo.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Capitalism as a system transcends borders, and so does the latest capitalist crisis. Sometimes pictures tell a story better than words. A brilliant animated cartoon appeared this summer on youtube, illustrating a lecture by CUNY-based British social theorist David Harvey in which he outlines his explanation of the 2008-20xx economic crisis.

Harvey’s analysis of the structural politico-economic origins and mechanisms of the crisis is poignant. The witty animation brought to life by the RSA is a true delight, regardless of what one may think of his arguments. A certain part of Harvey’s narrative caught my eye in relation to microfinance (more below). But first, let me briefly recap his story (in an unduly simplified manner). Harvey says:

There are five common explanations of the crisis, all of which are somewhat true:

[1] It stems from human nature – predatory instincts, greed, etc.

[2] The regulators failed, therefore institutions need to be reconfigured.

[3] Everyone believed in a false theory – forget Hayek, return to Keynes!

[4] It has cultural origins – homeowning-obsessed Americans and lazy Greeks, your fault!

[5] It’s a failure of policy – too much regulation of the wrong sort.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
October 2010
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