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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 »

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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