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In 2009, many received wisdoms of late capitalism are crumbling. To mention a few disappointments, which it didn’t take a telescope to see from a mile away,

  • No – we haven’t overcome the business cycle.
  • Sorry – China and India aren’t gonna drag us out of the recession.
  • Nope – deregulation doesn’t bring widespread prosperity.
  • Too bad – wealth doesn’t grow on trees or in banks or hedge funds.
  • Please – add your own favourite here: __________________________

A crisis is a moment in which illusions or expectations fall apart. In the Nigerian novel “Things Fall Apart”, the patriarchal protagonist Okonkwo confronts a world of changing values (colonialism, Christianity) in which he finds he has no leading role left to play. Rather than adapt to these circumstances, he takes his life.

This pessimistic example, however, doesn’t seem to apply to some international organisations in the current crisis. Rather, after years of seeming anachronistic, the World Bank, IMF, NATO and OECD are experiencing something of a revival – notable absentee: the UN.

According to classical (or vulgar?) institutional theory, institutions persist rather statically until some kind of “critical juncture” suddenly occurs, at which point they disappear or reinvent themselves (or are reinvented). As far as critical junctures go, they don’t get much bigger than the 2007 to 20xx? global capitalist crisis. Read the rest of this entry »

Even Karl Marx, who saw Capitalism as a production system governed essentially by inescapable laws, acknowledged the key role of special actors who made it their job to advertise the benefits of the market. The market, a political project, needs these people to create the “right” environment. Marx often called them “sycophants”, an ancient Greek word denoting servile persons who would flatter potentates, and even denounce their own peers, in order to garner favour.

Christoph Deutschmann’s fascinating new book, which analyses Capitalism as equivalent to a modern secular religion, also sees these actors performing an important function. He views many economists and business “experts” as performing for the market a role equivalent to that of priests in the Christian church – to interpret the signs given by the deity and to make predictions based on them.

Be they high priests or sycophants, the PR workers of global Capitalism (those who haven’t, at least temporarily, defected to the pro-government side, so long as it subsidises business) are getting in gear again – they literally have a world to lose. However, in this present crisis, neither the numbers, nor the facts, nor people’s everyday experience, really speak strongly for the priests’ side. So some turn to a rather “liberal” treatment of the facts.

Take for instance the statement that luxury goods are cheaper than ever thanks to mass-production. True. But most people in the world haven’t had much from this, while they are getting a taste of the flipside; the massive rise in grain prices over the past years is literally causing riots and civil wars in the South (Haiti, Sudan, Congo…).

Grain Prices

Yesterday’s special business section in the German broadsheet “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) opened with a bleeding-heart appeal for more faith in the market, based on the view that everything isn’t so bad after all. If Capitalism has served us so well for so long, why rebuke it just because of this crisis? Maybe we can bring out the sun simply by wearing sunglasses? 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 »

Could the economic crisis harm microfinance? It seems possible that high expectations paired with a collapse in funding (archetypical elements of bubbles when bursting) may erode confidence in this development tool, which – for right or wrong reasons – is currently a dominant element of international development governance.

Recently, I got my hands on a publication by Deutsche Bank Research from December 2007, predicting a fantastic acceleration of growth in the microfinance industry over the coming decade. That they would publish such a view is unsurprising, given that DB is the issuer of several microfinance investment funds; in fact, according to this paper, for every Dollar currently invested in microfinance there are a full ten Dollars of untapped demand. DB expect this situation to be remedied until 2015 by a ten-fold increase in investments from the private private-sector, bringing the total volume of investments in microfinance to 20 billion Dollars (about six times the equity value of Commerzbank). Private-sector investments already more than trebled between 2004 and 2006.

Does this kind of prognosis sound familiar, in any way? Certainly, predictions of ever faster growth in a niche market in which most firms have not yet earned a single Dollar, based on wild assumptions about unmet demand, were all too common practice during the bubble of the late 90s. 

Would it be too pessimistic (or just too early) to coin the phrase “microfinance bubble”? Well, maybe it just got coined here, and possibly for good reasons. 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.
February 2023

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