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Ramesh S. Arunachalam, 2011: The Journey of Indian Micro-Finance: Lessons for the Future. Chennai: Aapti Publications.

The microfinance crisis in India which broke out in fall 2010, first imperiling numerous borrowers and then an entire industry, is the most fundamental event in the world of microfinance since the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. In hindsight, it may even turn out to be the defining moment of microfinance history – never before has the dark side of microfinance, and the vulnerability of the industry, been so brutally exposed to a global audience.

Naturally, these events have attracted a host of opinions and analyses ranging from simply blaming the Andhra government for bringing down a healthy microfinance industry, to accusing microfinance of having become worse than loan sharks. And yet, so far, we understand very little of why India’s vast microfinance sector went so far astray. Thankfully, people like Ramesh S. Arunachalam are out to change this.

Arunachalam has earned the respect of many a reader (me too) with his candid and incredibly well-researched blogging on the Indian microfinance sector. He posts prolifically, but despite (or perhaps because of) his over 20 years of work experience in development and rural finance, he has otherwise kept a low profile. He is not an outspoken critic.

Now Ramesh Arunachalam has applied his sharp analytical approach and evident knack for writing to publishing the first book about the Indian microfinance crisis. The result is a meticulous, evidence-based piece of research which brings clarity into what so far has mostly been an interest-driven and polemical battle of explanations.

In some ways what Arunachalam has produced is, in fact, more than a book; it is a dossier of evidence and analysis of how the Indian microfinance sector functions at the deepest levels, and where its errors lie. It is a biography of an industry in identity crisis, and also a handbook on how Indian microfinance might (perhaps) still be saved. Above all, as the book’s (wonderfully illustrative) cover implies, it is a search for the Faustian, troubled soul of Indian microfinance. Read the rest of this entry »

Few documentaries in the past years can claim to have had as much impact on transnational development as The Micro Debt. Tom Heinemann‘s documentary film, produced for Norwegian public broadcasting, has contributed to a wave of critical reasoning about microfinance, but also to the axing of Grameen Bank’s founder, Muhammad Yunus. While Heinemann wasn’t out to harm Yunus, the documentary’s fallout (as well as the Indian microfinance crisis) was an opportunity for politicians in Bangladesh to remove a weakened Yunus from office.

All in all, The Micro Debt doesn’t shed a good light onto microfinance, and in return has come under fire from the microfinance community, an epistemic community which doesn’t take criticism well. Grameen Foundation in particular has mounted an organised attack on Heinemann and his film, engaging PR firm Burson-Marsteller to disseminate counter-claims and draw into question the film’s integrity. But The Micro Debt is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore or deny. It won in the “Television” category at the Avanca Film Festival in Portugal earlier this year, and may win more awards at the various other festivals internationally where it has been nominated. And it’s going on tour in the USA and Canada this month (see below).

Tom Heinemann: “The Micro Debt- a critical investigation into the dark side of Microcredit” (2010)

The real message of the film is that, after three decades, there is still no concrete evidence that microcredit actually does anything for the poor. Heinemann’s main point is that Western donors have been naive in their enthusiasm about microfinance, and his poverty-stricken interviewees testify that this might even worsen their precarious situation.

A misrepresented film

The film’s director Heinemann visited Bangladesh, the Mecca of microfinance, to check up on the successes claimed by Grameen Bank and other microfinance organisations regarding poverty alleviation. He investigated Grameen’s funding from the Norwegian government (where he uncovered financial irregularities amounting to $100 million) and spoke to numerous academic and practitioner experts. The film also shows him being denied interviews with Muhammad Yunus on several occasions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Actor Matt Damon makes it sound like a great idea to give small loans to poor families so they can get access to improved water and sanitation. After all, he is the co-founder of the NGO water.org, promoters of the WaterCredit loan:

“Gary, my partner, pioneered this idea of, you give people loans. So, for instance, in a place like India in a slum, the municipality will be pumping water right through the street … If you could give them a loan to connect directly to the municipality, so you pipe the water directly into their house, a 75 Dollar loan, they use that time that they were wasting waiting in line for water – working, they pay off the loan at rates of like 98 percent, 99 percent. And they’re using that time in a more productive way.”

He makes it sound easy and appealing. And it is appealing. I’m sure Matt Damon, who is known for ardently supporting social causes, sees this as a real solution. The trouble is, his model doesn’t tackle the fundamental problems – like piped water actually being in the slum in the first place, which it normally isn’t. Damon also doesn’t contemplate the fairness of asking the poor to pay for this human right with a loan. Will the poor want to pay? Will they even be able to pay? This idea of microfinance for water and sanitation may make an already unfair state of affairs even unfairer.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure to present a paper at the University of Pula, which was later picked up by Microfinance Focus in a nice article. Since then, the ideas presented in that paper have mushroomed and matured into a more thorough, comprehensive and analytical (and 158.1% larger) piece, which has now appeared as a Discussion Paper in the MPIfG’s series. 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 2011
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