“[T]he promoters of micro-credits promise to deliver us from poverty and emancipate women. In fact, it is the opposite that happens: we find ourselves trapped in a spiral of over indebtedness, launching infeasible micro-projects that, instead of keeping our heads above water, push us deeper into poverty, stress, humiliation and violence. We are at the end of our tether!

This is part of a declaration recently issued by women from fourteen countries, gathered in a meeting of African activists in Bamako, Mali, in November.

The gathering was organised by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM), better known for its efforts against odious sovereign debt, and taking aim at Washington institutions for the socio-economic harms of adjustment lending.

But in an interesting development, precipitated by the crisis of the Moroccan microfinance sector, the CADTM has also increasingly targeted personal indebtedness as a problem interconnected with sovereign debt. After a microlending bubble in Morocco burst in 2008, a complete meltdown of the sector there was averted thanks to rapid government intervention, including the setting-up a publicly-backed lender of last resort; a bailout in all but name, through which the microfinance institutions were aided, but not the borrowers, whose indebtedness has remained high.

A women’s protest movement emerged in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, against abusive microlenders. When two leaders of the “Association de Protection Populaire pour le Développement Social”, Amina Morad and Benasser Ismaïni, were threatened with legal action, CADTM and ATTAC orchestrated a solidarity campaign; nonetheless, the two activists were sentenced to prison terms and severe fines in 2014.

These and similar experiences have evidently prompted the Bamako women in their recent statement to

demand that both the micro-credit institutions and the public debt be audited in order that illegitimate debts be abolished.

We insist that all women – as well as all the men – who are the victims of the micro-credit institutions be compensated for the wrong they have suffered. We call for the renewed development of free, high quality, public services and increases in the funds available for social spending.

The women behind the declaration thus not only draw connections between the development industry’s obsession with financial inclusion and the dearth of public services, but also have made themselves spokespeople for the broader discontent with microfinance seething in countries as diverse as India, Mexico, Madagascar, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Senegal, and Nicaragua (which two books have chronicled). The grassroots activism points to structural problems stemming from how the microfinance industry, with its top-down investor-driven governance, struggles to give uts majority-women clients ant meaningful participation or voice in the processes which (at least in theory) are supposed to reshape their lives and empower them.

As I have sought to show in a recent paper, microfinance as a governance system suffers from restricted recursivity. A lack of adequate feedback mechanisms leads to pent-up borrower frustration, which manifests itself in occasional outbursts of collective discontent and fundamental opposition. Instead of being able to voice their discontent or give positive input, in most circumstances clients of microfinance institutions have only “exit” at their disposal: they can refuse to take loans at given terms (assuming the terms are even transparent), or can to cease to repay loans which they already have (and face the potentially devastating social and economic consequences of defaulting). But they have no chance to shape what is on offer. Despite the fanfare in recent years around social performance management and “responsible microfinance”, the microfinance industry remains a very closed space’, and these initiatives have led to technocratic and managerialist (if not sometimes purely cosmetic) fixes which may, at best, work to contain borrower discontent.

While the message from Bamako may still have a long way to travel to boardrooms in New York and Geneva, the women’s recent declaration could serve as a wake-up call for a microfinance industry in which many parts is still complacent, although some signs of change are also afoot. Perhaps a few vanguard microlenders will engage with the activists’ demand for an “audit” of “illegitimate” debts? Poignantly, the declaration is also a strong call for solidarity with women debtors around the world, and to take much more seriously their experiences of a deeply flawed global financial system.


  • Read the full declaration of the Bamako “Women, debt and Microcredit” seminar here.
  • Read the full paper How Much Voice for Borrowers? Restricted Feedback and Recursivity in Microfinance here.