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Excerpt from “The Political Economy of Microfinance: Financializing Poverty”, Chapter 6, At the Crossroads of Development and Finance. (see other excerpts here)

Re-evaluating microfinance

Although definitive policy prescriptions go beyond the scope and intent of this book – as a political economy of microfinance, not a policy appraisal – I hope that it may contribute to a reconsideration of microfinance… Putting the current state of impact evidence together with my analysis of microfinance as financializing poverty begs the question: If we have no proof that microfinance reduces poverty, but we do know that it extracts labour power from the poor, why should we continue with microfinance? And since the research presented here draws into question the hopes placed in, and the policy attention devoted to, microfinance as a developmental tool, what practical lessons can be drawn?

Enthusiasts believe that, in the case of the microfinancial industry, the interests of capital owners, financial intermediaries and the global poor can be aligned. That the poor see a share of their labour power extracted by a new financial industry might well be justifiable (in terms of social policy), if measurable, demonstrable benefits to the poor were to systematically arise.[1] But the fact that, on the one hand, systematic benefits for the poor are difficult if not impossible to demonstrate after more than three decades (in studies whose designs aimed to find these benefits, and whose frame of comparison was that of doing nothing at all), while on the other hand, microfinance does demonstrably impose systematic costs on the poor, makes the arguments put forward in its defence look increasingly questionable.

Furthermore, instead of purging them, the microfinancial industry has come with many of the trappings of “normal” finance: excesses, crises, bailouts, overindebtedness, fraud, sale on false premises, collusion, predatory lending, abusive practices, irrationality, speculation and greed. These aspects of the credit relation constructed by microfinance should also be considered in any overall appraisal.

One perfectly logical option for policy-makers would be to discontinue their direct and indirect support (including financial support, logistical support and conducive policy changes) for microfinance systems, until the day their beneficence can be proven. Another logical possibility would be to regulate the sector in such a way as to ensure that the interests of investors and MFIs cannot supersede those of their clients. Yet the sector remains deeply averse to such regulation with teeth – such as interest rate caps or loan usage restrictions – and will likely strongly resist it by employing arguments that emphasize poor people’s right to choose between different credit sources and modalities which would be curtailed by regulation.

Read the rest of this entry »

This blog is provided by our guest blogger Kristen Hopewell. Kristen Hopewell is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada and has been a visitor of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in 2013.

After protracted and contentious negotiations among trade ministers in Bali last month, the WTO announced agreement on a new global trade deal.  The so-called “Bali package” is being touted as an historic achievement and a victory for the WTO.

However, such claims should be met with considerable skepticism.  In reality, the deal stuck at Bali is of limited consequence and the hype surrounding it is intended to mask the deeper failure of the Doha Round. Read the rest of this entry »

How can we organize for alternative social, economic, and ecological balance?” is the overriding question of the 2014 LAEMOS Meeting on “Constructing Alternatives”. The organisers of the conference are particularly soliciting papers with an interdisciplinary perspective on dynamics of change, innovation, power and resistance, as well as theoretical and empirical papers looking at alternative forms of social, economic, and ecological development from an organizational perspective.

LAEMOS, the Latin American and European Meeting on Organization Studies, organises a conference every two years, acting as a bridge from the European Group for Organisational Studies (EGOS) to Latin America. The 2014 conference will be held in Havana, Cuba – an interesting venue for discussing alternatives, given Cuba’s turbulent history and present challenges of political and economic change.

  • Type: Conference call for papers.
  • Deadline: 15 November 2013.
  • Event date: 2-5 April 2014.
  • Location: La Habana, Cuba.

(phil)

 

Thirteen years ago the largest-ever gathering of world leaders took place on 8 September 2000 at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York, where the UN Millennium Declaration was made. The Declaration was the most supported, ambitious and specific list of global development goals agreed upon to date, and established a list of commitments to reduce extreme poverty by 2015 which became known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The Millennium Development Goals set in 2000

Source: United Nations

The MDGs were significant for global development cooperation due to their ability to stimulate global support, specifically financial resources. Many aid agencies and donors used them to direct their funding projects, and several governments also largely founded their health strategies upon them to receive external funding, which could comprise over 50 per cent of the state’s health budget. The MDGs thereby created a specific global development agenda, which some critics however now argue was not entirely in tune with the real needs of development of low- and middle-income countries. For example, proponents of a greater focus on non-communicable diseases (NCD) criticise that despite NCDs are now the leading cause of death worldwide, they did not receive a single mention in the 2000 MDGs.

This guest post is provided by Milford Bateman who is a Visiting Professor of Economics at Juraj Dobrila University of Pula in Croatia and a development consultant. He recently accepted a two-month position as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Development Studies at St Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada, to be taken up in late 2013.

Four of the most high-profile research teams have in recent months released papers summarising the results of multi-year projects that aimed to assess the impact of microcredit. All of these projects claim to have found some small residual value in the increasingly de-bunked concept of microcredit which, the authors quickly go on to say, suggests to them that it is too early to agree with the growing number of nay-sayers and abandon the microcredit model in favour of other local development models.  The four papers I refer to are:

Dazzling econometrics and pioneering impact methodologies aside, the most important thing these four papers all have in common is actually something else: they all go to great lengths to avoid exploring the most awkward downside issues that lie at the heart of microcredit and, to do so, they choose to deploy some faulty logic along the way. Read the rest of this entry »

The idea of international financial reporting standards as a single global financial reporting language has come to stay. There is no doubt that developing accounting standards can be a difficult and expensive exercise. The substantial cost associated with the development of international accounting standards seems to be borne by only a handful of actors where as other actors (users of the standards) are free riding.

Who pays and who free rides?

The International Accounting Standard Setter i.e the IFRS Foundation thrives as a non-profit private organization who’s business is to commit its rather limited resources solely to the development and promotion of the use of high quality global financial reporting standards. These resources largely come from the generosity of member countries, international organizations, international accountancy firms, accounting regulators, capital market regulators, multinational firms, transnational and national accounting standard setting bodies, international banks and in rare cases governments. Given these rather limited sources of financing and the lack of obligation on the part of these sponsors, it is hard to say how much funding the IASB actually needs to enable it develop credible global accounting standards. However, a quick look through the financial statements of the IFRS Foundation suggests that majority of its funding turns to come from accountancy practicing firms, national accounting regulatory authorities and accountancy bodies that share the dream of a single global accounting standard. These sources of funding got me thinking about the wide usage of the standards as to the number of user countries and the limited funding the IASB currently has.

As many as 120+ countries currently use IFRS globally. However, very few of these countries actually contribute financially to the development of these standards. What is even more surprising is the number of developing countries (especially countries from Africa, Asia and South America) that continue to use the standards without any financial contribution to the development of the standards. Take Africa for a test case. There are 57 countries in the continent and out of this number; about 21 countries currently use IFRS in one form or another either as full scale adopters or users of modified versions of the standards. Nevertheless, only two of these countries have contributed very small amounts to the overall development of the standards. In 2010, South Africa became the only African country to have contributed 45,112 British pounds sterling representing only 0.27% of the income of the IASB.  This example was followed by Nigeria in 2011 who contributed 62,445 British pounds sterling representing 0.30% of the annual income of the IASB. The table below indicates the sources of funding for the development of International Financial Reporting Standards.

Image

The one who pays the piper calls the tune!

I have often wondered how non-paying users of International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) could have influence on the work of the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). As more countries continue to apply IFRS without contributing to its development, their ability to influence the work of the IASB become weak. Neither can they communicate problems with specific standards nor can they determine the direction or pace of international accounting standards.  Accounting standards by their nature are public goods i.e. the consumption of which by one party can not diminish the consumption of another party of the same good.  Nevertheless, what constitutes how a public good is constructed is on the bases that a common contribution is made by consumers or potential consumers of the same good. But this contribution is only made by a cross-section of the consumers while the others only wait to enjoy the benefits. On this basis, economists define public goods to mean any good from whose enjoyment non-contributors cannot be excluded.  Like many other public goods, the problem of free riding exists where some others pay to finance its construction while others do not pay but enjoy its use as much as those who paid for its construction.

IFRS has come along with such economic problem. IFRSs on this basis have equally come to represent public goods which only a handful of financial contributors make commitments towards the development of the standards while others only apply the standards without any contribution. As many developing countries look to enhance their financial informational needs, they turn to embrace the idea of IFRS and adopt these standards in some cases without the knowledge of the IASB.

The price for free riding the use of these standards is that, actors that contribute the development of these standards turn to dictate the direction of the standards. Non-paying actors will have no influence on how these standards are designed. With little or no voice on the IASB standard setting process by non-paying members, this group of users of the standards stands the chance of applying standards not designed to meet their needs.

(solomon)

Several contributions in this blog have discussed different forms of transnational labor rights activism, transnational modes of governing working conditions in global supply chains and their local consequences. In all these contributions, the structural reasons for a core concerns of workers – their low income (“poverty wages”) have not been discussed. In a very recent paper (“expanding repertoires of labor: multi-scalar counterstrategies in the Asian garment industry” which will be presented at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin on the 8th of October 2012), Jeroen Merk and Sabrina Zajak discuss the reasons behind poverty wages across Asian countries, reasons which make multi-scalar strategies of labor necessary to counter these problems. A brief summary shall be given next. Read the rest of this entry »

Lamia Karim, 2011: Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Microfinance has built a significant part of its reputation on the assertion that small loans empower women. The assumption that every human being has entrepreneurship potential, but only lacks access to credit, underlies this “social business” intervention. The joint appeal of entrepreneurship and empowerment has cajoled many funders and donors to invest in microfinance. But critical research has been shedding doubt on the assumptions of empowerment through microfinance entrepreneurship for quite some time. Can or cannot a direct transfer of credit rouse the dormant and innate entrepreneur which lies within every woman?

Lamia Karim’s brave new book, “Microfinance and its Discontents- Women in Debt is Bangladesh”, delves deep into the social realities within which microfinance operates, in order to answer that question. As an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oregon, she performed research among the clientele of the four major microfinance NGOs in Bangladesh (Grameen Bank, Proshika, BRAC and ASA) first between 1998 and 1999, and following up in 2007.

Norms and obligations in a rural society are tilted against women, as is demonstrated by a proliferation of ethnographic accounts in Karim’s book. Take, for example, the incident of an elderly widow in Bangladesh, who was caught by her nephew on her way back home after taking a fresh loan from Grameen Bank. He pressured her into handing over the money to him because, he said, as his aunt it was her duty to help him start his business. Read the rest of this entry »

Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos, David Hulme, 2010: Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the Global South. Sterling: Kumarian Press.

If it sounds novel to suggest that if you want the poor to have more money, you could just give them money, these are strange times. What could be more straightforward than giving money to people in need? But cost recovery, self-help, and “financial deepening” are essential tenets of the current development ethos, so someone must go out and make the argument – as Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme do in Just Give Money to the Poor – that simply handing out cash may be easier, and better, than anything else.

Cash transfers are a rising idea in development policy. Even The Economist likes them. Still, they are far from a hype, and little is known to most people about the successful programmes implemented by Brazil, Mexico or Indonesia, for example. This book aims to change that. Perhaps its greatest strength and weakness is its simplicity. But hard science can be discussed elsewhere. Just Give Money to the Poor introduces a broader audience, and gives impetus, to the simple but still-controversial idea: that redistribution works.

The authors recap evidence from two decades of experimental and pragmatic progress on social transfer programmes in the developing world. They argue that no-strings-attached, widespread systems of cash distribution are far more effective and cheaper than other models, such as vouchers, food subsidies (where monitoring creates costs) or microcredit. The key is that the money must be a dependable, substantial and easy source of income for the poor. Assured regular cash transfers – not charity or philanthropy – are the key, even at a relatively small scale, for achieving impressive outcomes:

“In the short term they reduce poverty levels and ameliorate suffering. In the medium term, they enable many poor people to exercise their agency and pursue micro-level plans to increase their productivity and incomes.  In the longer term, they create a generation of healthier and better educated people who can seize economic opportunities and contribute to broad-based economic growth.”

The target groups could be particularly vulnerable demographics – children, the elderly – or simply everyone. Programmes can be gradually expanded as experience grows, since garnering political support by demonstrating impact, fairness and adequacy, is key. Read the rest of this entry »

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.
August 2017
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