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.”

I have no idea how optimistic microfinance practitioners and advocates really are about reducing poverty through their work. I also don’t know how worried they really are by recent critiques and studies failing to show impact. Maybe many secret harbour doubts, but the facade is still up, as the public script about microfinance shows. When the father figure of microfinance re-tells the story of his Grameen Bank under the title “Creating a World Without Poverty”, I see unchecked optimism – see also “Poverty Museum”. When Kiva’s in-house blog opines that “Microfinance will not end poverty, microfinance institutions will”, I hear reckless optimism, even while I wonder what on Earth the statement is supposed to mean (apparently it made sense to some 19 commentators) – but the point is, for the in-group, it doesn’t have to be logical, as long as microfinance is the answer.

Symptom 2: Rationalization “Along with the collective ignoring of warning signals there is a collective construction of rationalizations that allow any negative feedback to be discounted, so that assumptions never need to be reconsidered each time decisions are recommitted to.”

Aside from the usual “more research is needed”, the main reaction from the microfinance community to recent unsatisfactory major statistical studies was to question the use of statistics, full-stop, in assessing microfinance’s value. To counter the evidence, exemplary client stories were offered. Their point in a nutshell: Your numbers, what do they mean? You should talk to our clients. They know it works. And we work with them. So we the practitioners know that it works… Client stories (always positive!) seem an easy means of rationalisation; but anti-scientism is no sign of open-mindedness or acceptance of feedback.

Symptom 3: Morality “Ingroup members ‘believe unquestioningly in the inherent morality of their ingroup’, inclining members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.”

See Symptom 2 for ignoring potential consequences – if systematic evidence that microfinance may be harmful is discounted, the consequences for the poor are brushed aside. But, see also for instance Tufts University’s investment rationale for microfinance: “Billions of people worldwide are trapped in a cycle of poverty, because they lack access to the financial services that would allow them to secure a loan and invest in their future.” Billions poor, and only because they can’t get a loan?! This monocausal explanation of poverty – only one example of the typical microfinance discourse – constructs microfinance as a moral imperative (see also Yunus’ appeal for a “human right to credit”).

Symptom 4: Stereotypes Group members hold stereotypical views about ‘enemy groups’, which lead to the assumption that they must be eliminated rather than compromised with. Such stereotypes often focus on the inherent badness or evil nature of ‘the enemy‘.

What originally got me started on my defense of Bateman was the fact that many opinions pieces about his book attacked the author rather than his arguments. From extremist to conspiracy nut and even revolutionary socialist, Bateman as the most prominent critic of microfinance was labelled all sorts of things – the upshot being that such a person’s arguments shouldn’t count. The evidence here is that tolerance for dissenters is pretty low.

Symptom 5: Pressure This is directly applied to anyone who momentarily expresses doubts about the group’s shared illusions. Such pressure is often masked as amiability, in an attempt to ‘domesticate’ the dissenter, so long as doubts are not expressed outside the ingroup, and fundamental assumptions are not challenged.

Here I get to some more difficult symptoms to test for. Are “critics from within” silenced by the group? I think not, in fact. Many microfinance advocates critique certain models or elements of microfinance. For example, Malcolm Harper, chairman of M-CRIL and former chairman of BASIX, remains a well-respected figure in the microfinance world despite co-editing “What’s Wrong With Microfinance?”. That said, his (and others’) criticism never was fundamental, and therefore remains tolerable.

Symptom 6: Self-censorship Individuals keep silent about their misgivings, and even minimize to themselves the importance of their doubts’.

This one I can’t test, for lack of mind-reading abilitity.

Symptom 7: Unanimity An illusion of unanimity exists within the group, with silence assumed as concurrence with the majority view.

Same here. When I finally learn to mind-read, I’ll fill 6 and 7 in.

Symptom 8: Mindguards ‘Individuals sometimes appoint themselves as mindguards to protect the leader and fellow members from adverse information’ that might confront complacency about the effectiveness and morality of decisions, to the extent of taking it upon themselves to exclude dissenters from the group.

Pointing fingers at any individuals or organisations would be beside the point here, but the microfinance community does have specialised media outlets and communication channels which strongly favour “good” news: success stories, interviews about challenges overcome, optimistic reports from conferences… news of failures is rare. Still, I see no evidence that negative news is intentionally or consciously discounted.

Diagnosis: There is some strong but not conclusive evidence for groupthink within the microfinance community.The community shows symptoms of groupthink, in that it apparently feels invulnerable towards critique, ignores warning signals and rationalises its one-sided views, believes its actions to be inherently moral, and occasionally lashes out and brands critics as evil or deluded. On the other hand, a fair measure of criticism is accepted and welcomed, and there is no evidence for self-censorship, deliberate information control or imagined unanimity.

So, while my allegation needs to be qualified, it wasn’t wholly unfounded.

The intention here isn’t to stereotype, and yes, I know I’m hand-picking evidence. I’m fully aware that the microfinance “community” is heterogeneous (and shifting). I’m aware that brilliant minds are questioning assumptions from within, but it’s unclear whether they’re reaching the mass of practitioners, proponents and policy-makers. But: my point about microfinance as ‘not the work of a conspiracy, but rather of a transnational epistemic community which shows strong signs of groupthink’ remains valid.

The upshot of this would be to be aware of the risk of groupthink, which according to Janis is that “members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” The microfinance community should never forget to situate its activities in a framework of alternative courses of action. Because the money and effort invested carries an opportunity cost in terms of other, potentially more effective, ways of fighting poverty. And because microfinance still is anything but a proven solution.