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Capitalism as a system transcends borders, and so does the latest capitalist crisis. Sometimes pictures tell a story better than words. A brilliant animated cartoon appeared this summer on youtube, illustrating a lecture by CUNY-based British social theorist David Harvey in which he outlines his explanation of the 2008-20xx economic crisis.

Harvey’s analysis of the structural politico-economic origins and mechanisms of the crisis is poignant. The witty animation brought to life by the RSA is a true delight, regardless of what one may think of his arguments. A certain part of Harvey’s narrative caught my eye in relation to microfinance (more below). But first, let me briefly recap his story (in an unduly simplified manner). Harvey says:

There are five common explanations of the crisis, all of which are somewhat true:

[1] It stems from human nature – predatory instincts, greed, etc.

[2] The regulators failed, therefore institutions need to be reconfigured.

[3] Everyone believed in a false theory – forget Hayek, return to Keynes!

[4] It has cultural origins – homeowning-obsessed Americans and lazy Greeks, your fault!

[5] It’s a failure of policy – too much regulation of the wrong sort.

Read the rest of this entry »

Book review:

Milford Bateman, 2010: Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? The destructive rise of local neoliberalism. London: Zed Books.

Since the inception of this blog, one issue which has been critically explored again and again is the dominant position of microfinance in the field of international development. For instance, a series of blog posts in early 2009 was aimed at unmasking the popular myths spun by microcredit’s advocates, from presumed gender empowerment to the purported win-win situation in which profits would go hand-in-hand with social impacts. More recently, we followed how, in the wake of two high-profile randomised studies which failed to show increases in poor people’s income, even some mainstream media have begun taking a more critical view of microfinance.

Indeed, 2009 and 2010 may have brought some disillusionment to many who believed that small loans would create “a world without poverty”. But still the microfinance industry and its epistemic community remain fiercely defensive of the reputation as a solution to poverty; still the international donor community unquestioningly pours money into a concept with much promise but little proof; and still Muhammad Yunus’ award shelf continues to fill up with precious metal as the hype around microfinance continues to enthrall the socially-concerned masses.

A few full-fledged books critiquing present microfinance practices may have been published to date, but these have addressed themselves mainly to microfinance insiders and development experts. Milford Bateman’s brand-new book (released this summer) however is the first critical book capable of crossing the border between academia and the lay world; it reaches out to convince a wider audience of questioning those accepted wisdoms which underlie the first big development hype of the 21st century. Read the rest of this entry »

This post is provided by our “guest blogger” Bernhard Brand. Bernhard Brand works as research assistant at the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne. This contribution is the first of a series of critical reviews of transnational economic governance arrangements, based on an analysis of policy reports undertaken by graduate students of Sigrid Quack’s seminar on Transnational Economic Governance during the summer term 2010.

The Siemens corruption scandal of the year 2007 was one of the largest bribery cases in the economic history of Germany. It ended with a number of (suspended) jail sentences for high-ranking executives and a painful €2.5 billion penalty to be paid by Siemens for running an extensive worldwide bribery system which helped the Munich-based company to win business contracts in many foreign countries, as for example in Russia, Nigeria or Greece. Interestingly, if the bribery case just had happened a few years before, there wouldn’t have been any sentence at all for Siemens: Until 1999, the practice of bribing officials and decision makers in foreign countries was not considered a crime in Germany. And even worse: The German law allowed companies to deduct bribes from their tax declarations – under a tax law provision ironically termed “useful payments” (in German: “nützliche Aufwendungen”). This incentive for the German industry to perform corruption in the international business became abolished under the pressure of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. The convention criminalizes the so-called ‘foreign bribery’, the act where a company from one country bribes officials of a ‘foreign’ country.  Germany, as well as the other OECD members had to align their legislation to the new OECD standards, enabling their courts to punish the person or entity who offers the bribe – even if the bribing action originally took place somewhere else in the world. Read the rest of this entry »

One of the things that make blogs particularly interesting are series. The “series” series recommends series at related blogs. This time, Phil takes up the initiative and introduces a series he has particularly enjoyed: the book chapter releases on David Roodman’s Microfinance Open Book Blog.

Okay, maybe technically this isn’t really a series. But since February 2009, when David Roodman (who is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development CGDEV and also the father of the fascinating “Committment to Development Index”, CDI) began sharing the progress he was making on his new book, his blog has become one of the most prolific and insightful blogs about microfinance. And on that blog, the central recurring theme has been the book chapters which David has incrementally released.

David’s book (which, it seems, is now finished to a draft level) was presented via occasional single-chapter releases. These frequently produced interesting discussions among the blog’s growing readership, which notably includes an array of high-profile development intelligentsia members like Harvard Professor Lant Pritchett, senior cooperative banking expert Hans-Dieter Seibel, and development über-academic Bill Easterly.

Perhaps it is less the book and more the wide range of controversial issues covered – from double-borrowing and microfinance bubbles to the heavy-hitting disappointing RCT impact studies (and the industry’s disappointing reaction to them) – processed through Roodman’s brilliant analysis, which have led his readership to read his take again and again.

Most laudably, this blog also gives outspoken microfinance critics like Milford Bateman an open forum to engage in cultured discussion with microfinance’s supporter community away from the less tolerant industry-operated “discussion” forums. I too don’t see eye-to-eye with David on many issues concerning microfinance, and would often consider a more critical tone to be justified. But his blog and the upcoming book definitely provide some of the sharpest and most thoughtful discussions of those questions which currently shake and shape the microfinance industry (against its will), and make microfinance the controversial subject which it is. Big props.


The microfinance industry, which once set out to protect the poor from extortionate moneylenders, may depend on those same moneylenders for its business success; and these moneylenders in turn may be profiting from microfinance. So reports the Wall Street Journal today.

Ketaki Gokhale is a Stanford University graduate student currently working for the WSJ as this year’s Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Intern. Earlier this year Gokhale reported on credit bubble tendencies brewing in the microfinance sector in India, an article which provoked controversy and some indignation among the microfinance industry and its advocates.

One of Gokhale’s interviewees reported being overwhelmed by the sudden and forceful supply of credit in her neighbourhood. “Suddenly, in the shantytown where she lives, lots of people wanted to loan her money. She borrowed $125 to invest in her husband’s vegetable cart. Then she borrowed more.” The lady descended into a borrowing binge, at the end of which she even bought a television. She was forced to sell virtually all of her assets and still remained in debt worth around a quarter of her annual income.

Refinancing microfinance loans through the grey market

Gokhale has now followed up her earlier investigation into the dark side of microfinance and uncovered structural complementarities and interdependencies between the microfinance business and local moneylenders. The irony and sadness of the story is that microfinance originally set out to put these same moneylenders and their practices of extortion out of business by offering the poor loans which they could afford. Moneylenders in India are reported to charge interest rates even beyond 1000 per cent annually, leading to debt bondage and other existential problems for the poor.

The entry of microfinance banks into the market may have pushed down the interest rates of some moneylenders, but paradoxically the moneylending business appears to be growing. As Gokhale reports, more than 80% of registered moneylenders in Mahabubnagar started their businesses after the year 2000, which coincides with the phenomenal bout of growth in microfinance in India in the past decade.

It appears that many microdebtors cannot afford to comply with the extremely rigid repayment schedules of microfinance banks, so they must turn to moneylenders, thereby re-financing their loans through the grey market – the market which microfinance sought to protect them from. Read the rest of this entry »

“It never got weird enough for me.”

     – Hunter S. Thompson

Development and finance are increasingly intertwined, and both fields have over time produced their share of strange but successful, but also many odd and failed ideas. Here are a few recent bits of news from the weird world of finance and development.

#    Since February, East African villagers can buy themselves carbon-efficient stoves to replace their tradtional fireplaces, financed via microcredit. This contribution to reducing global warming then pays off for them via carbon-offsetting credits which they can claim via mobile phone SMS.

The father of this brainchild, Carbon Manna Unlimited, estimates that in this way, an African family can save around 3 tonnes of CO2 per year, earning them between 20 and 30 US Dollars worth of carbon credits on European markets…

Carbon efficiency, mobile banking and emissions trading applied to African cooking – it sounds adventurous, to say the least. But I was also wondering whether, sociologically speaking, is this an immense act of pragmatic creativity or rather simply one mimetic behaviour? After all, emissions trading, mobile technology and carbon footprint reduction are recieved wisdom at the moment in the north.

On another sociological note, the project’s name, Carbon Manna (TM) Xchange, has a both distinctly religious and capitalistic ring to it – what would Weber say? Read the rest of this entry »

I hate to say “I said so”, and I know it’s horrible style. But sorry, this issue is too important to be ignored. My fears about the credit crunch and microfinance are being confirmed. 

The current economic crisis threatens to set back development and poverty reduction by years. Who coul really be surprised? In a globalised world, when Wall Street sneezes, everyone else catches the Flu. Read the rest of this entry »

Since the beginning, proponents of microcredit have argued that they have found a self-sustaining, profitable route to reducing poverty: borrowers repay loans with enough interest to cover the costs plus an increase in the bank’s capital base, plus a payout for its owners. Sceptics of this story point to the fact that most microcredit programmes are still subsidised by donors. They argue that this is because many borrowers cannot afford to repay so dearly, and that the cost of capital should be lower in order to help more and poorer people.

Welcome to the ‘sustainability versus outreach’ debate. At the core, it is about the question whether incentives or impact matter more. Time to examine the arguments. Read the rest of this entry »

Credit is a useful lever for helping businesses grow. Many poor people in the developing world are self-employed farmers or petty traders, so technically they can be conceived of as businesspeople. But most farmers are actually subsistence farmers, working not for the market but for their own family’s meals, and many traders are simply traders for lack of a better alternative of stable, paid employment. They resiliently eke a meagre living out of their harsh surroundings, and truly deserve admiration by comfortable Westerners. But does that necessarily warrant them being treated as Schumpeterian entrepreneurs, willing and able to “creatively destroy” their traditional economic environments, if only they were lent the necessary finance?

We should keep in mind that people are incredibly diverse, and this must be taken into account and respected when formulating development policies. One-size-fits-all approaches have repeatedly failed in development history, and serve as a warning. Read the rest of this entry »

In the popular literature surrounding microcredit (or microfinance), a number of claims is repeatedly made which deserve a closer look. The mass media are full of heartwarming stories, anecdotes and PR-like representations of MFIs’ work, showing the apparent power of microcredit to improve the lives of the poorer inhabitants of this planet. In fact, many academic productions make similar claims without providing sufficient evidence to back them up.

In this way, the impression is being created that the development industry has found a panacea for poverty; a dangerous insinuation which can only lead to disappointment. Over my next few blog entries I will address and critically illuminate some myths – insufficiently supported claims or untested assumptions – which currently stand in the way of a balanced assessment of the true powers and drawbacks of microcredit as a development tool.


The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
October 2021

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