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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 »

One of the things that make blogs particularly interesting are series. The “series” series recommends series at related blogs. This time, I introduce the “State of the Sectorseries on the blog of the enigmatic Indian rural finance practitioner Ramesh S. Arunachalam.

Okay, it took me quite some time to appreciate this blog.

First there was the turn-off boring title “Microfinance in India”. And the strange header “Candid Unheard Voice of Indian Microfinance” – think disgruntled ex-microfinance industry dissident, ranting away in Internet obscurity. Also, the site looks like it was designed in the mid-90’s, even though blogs didn’t exist then.

For this reason, the props Ramesh S Arunachalam deserves for having won me over are even bigger. He did so with his high-quality, insightful blogging about – well – microfinance in India. The transnational field of microfinance mostly generates a dull, glossy, PR-esque discourse. Ramesh is one of the bloggers who have proven their mettle not only by being incisive and dealing with messy issues, but also truly familiar with the situation on the ground.

What got me hooked was Ramesh’s exhaustive coverage (an incredible 44 posts since October) of the Andhra crisis, by now a somewhat all-Indian microfinance crisis. The development of the crisis, its causes and consequences, could be followed in a nutshell via Ramesh’s series of posts on the “State of the Sector“, in which he takes a sweeping view of the MFI sector and its environment.

Ramesh publishes with incredible regularity and energy. Each post appears immaculately researched; often he draws on extensive personal experience. In an in Internet full of babbling voices on microfinance – funders, promoters, academics, advertisers … but rarely real practitioners, and of course never clients – Ramesh’s contributions strike me as some of the most insightful analyses of what’s really going on in Indian microfinance.

His most recent original contribution has been to expose the role of unofficial microfinance intermediaries – “ring leaders” or “agents” who create ghost loans and excessive debt at the expense of naive MFI employees and borrowers.

Strangely enough, it is pretty hard to find information on this prolific blogger. He has authored book chapters on microfinance and gender; was recently named a “top pick of the microfinance blogosphere”; and is found throughout the web as a lively commentator. And yet, apart from “rural finance practitioner” with “over two decades of experience”, the all-seeing Google turns up little info on this enigma. His personal website is undergoing maintenance.

So, without knowing much about the subject of my praise, I must highly recommend listening to this “Candid Unheard Voice of Microfinance” … If, last but not least, just for the delightful way most posts end, no matter how serious the subject, with a cheerful message like

“Have a great day!”

(phil)

I’ve recently been reading through the thought-provoking  (albeit somewhat attention-grabbingly titled) book Participation: The New Tyranny?. The authors from a broad range of disciplinary backgrounds take on the paradigm of participatory development from various angles, from failing to account for local power asymmetries and élite capture, to the technicalist perfunctory nature of many participation processes.

Part of Bill Cooke’s chapter entitled “The Social Psychological Limits of Participation?” caught my eye because of his consise elucidation of groupthink and its relation to development policy-making and practice, both at the transnational and the local level.

In a debate I had last month on this blog with David Roodman of CGD about Milford Bateman’s book, I levied what I thought was a rather strong charge against the (so-called, self-proclaimed) microfinance community: that its world-view is skewed and closed-off by mechanisms of groupthink. That was because I was trying to defend Milford Bateman’s argument against a misconception of  his critics, that he held a conspiracy theory of microfinance and neoliberalism. I begged to differ by explaining Bateman’s analysis of the microfinance community as a transnational epistemic community plagued by group-typical groupthink.

So I thought I’d put my allegation to a brief test here against Irving Janis‘ eight symptoms of groupthink as summed up by Bill Cooke:

Sypmptom 1: The illusion of invulnerability “An over-optimism about the power of the group and the lack of any real threat to the status quo.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Milford Bateman’s book Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? has generated heated discussion, with blows not always struck very far above the belt. Recently, I got involved by recapping and analysing several book reviews published on the web. I was critical of the tone and substance of David Roodman’s review (published on his blog, of which I remain a fan, notwithstanding), because I felt it attacked the person more than the argument, and it didn’t engage with Bateman’s overall point that microfinance is politically useful while economically questionnable.

David Roodman has responded to this challenge in a more elegant and eloquent piece than his original review. Some allegations against Bateman’s writing have been clarified, new ones have appeared. I think Roodman is still off with his accusations of “sloppy thinking” and “extremism”. I would still like to see Roodman engage with Bateman’s overall argument.

Most of the criticisms launched against the book (by diverse authors) have validity; however, I would urge those who dislike the work to beware the trap of accusing Bateman of what they see him as accusing others of, namely malignance. In plainer English: try to measure the book and your reaction by the same standard.

Here are my (less brief than intended) responses to what I see as David Roodman’s main points:

Read the rest of this entry »

Prior to a seminar I hosted at the MPIfG in July with Milford Bateman, I published a review of his book Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? (reproduced by several other sites). When the book was released this summer, it sold out its first print run within four weeks. It was the basis for an article (with a great cartoon) in the Dutch daily De Pers. It introduced a wider audience to the fundamental doubts surrounding microfinance. It also seems to have made Milford Bateman a fair share of enemies.

My review was resoundingly positive, since I felt that the book expressed growing concerns about microfinance’s impacts and legitimacy with great clarity and poignancy. What astonishes me is the type of criticism and hostility which has greeted the book. While the book sparked some general neutral publicity, the in-depth reviews ranged from cautious praise for raising important questions to heavy-handed attacks on Bateman’s academic integrity.

Some recent reviews:

negative
David Roodman @ cgdev: “I am allergic to (as I perceive it) sloppy thinking …Bateman’s passion seems to lead him to select and distort evidence. I find it hard to fully engage with a piece of analysis in which the conclusions so seem to drive the evidence … I don’t think you need to read this book.”
Liz Blase @ wokai: “We urge that readers not fall prey to Bateman’s infatuation with short-term profits.” (??)
positive
Duncan Green @ oxfam: “A passionate polemic that takes on a development shibboleth – sometimes it feels as though doubting microfinance is as heretical as criticising Nelson Mandela. But Bateman does so.”
Phil @ this blog: “The first book critical book capable of crossing the border between academia and the lay world … The proverbial ‘book’ on why (this) microfinance is not an adequate response to poverty.”
in between
Malcolm Harper @ microfinance focus: “Few readers will agree with everything in it, and most will be irritated by some of it. All of us, however, should think carefully about what Bateman writes.
H-D Seibel: “There is nothing subtle about Bateman’s arguments… The one thing that concerned me was him framing his argument as a war of ideologies… Despite my reservations, Bateman’s book is a must read.” (published on devfinance)
Fehmeen @ microfinance hub: “While some welcome this opportunity to re-think the basic microfinance model, others deem some of his claims exaggerated… We think this book is a worthy effort.”

To me, the intensity of the reactions to Bateman’s book is a gauge for measuring just how worried many in the development industry have become about their poster child. I get the impression that a systematic critique of microfinance touches highly sensitive nerves with many researchers and industry insiders, whose reaction is to challenge the person rather than the argument. 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 »

“Water, like oil, is finite. There is only so much ocean saltwater, glacier freshwater and water in the air, while global consumption is growing twice as fast as the world’s population.”

It would be hard to believe that anyone could view these facts as a positive thing. But add the story of Warren Buffet, former world’s richest man, buying the water treatment company Nalco for US$ 3.7 billion through his investment firm Berkshire Hathaway, and suddenly you get that “investing in water is an untapped opportunity”. So argues journalist Tatiana Serafin on mint.com in an article entitled “Invest Like a Billionaire: Water Is The New Gold“.

Serafin considers publicly traded water utilities firms a bargain, quoting another author as saying “utilities are cheaper than they have ever been”. Her conclusion is, “invest like Buffet”, even if you’re on a budget.

One could also think that viewing the so-called global water crisis – which I recently wrote about here on World Water Day – as a hot investment opportunity would require the shrewd and narrow-minded perspective of the investment banking profession. Yet even the Netherlands-based IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, an important resource centre in the water and development sphere, and at least not officially posing as a private sector think-tank, apparently agrees that water is “the new gold”. On its water and sanitation financing blog WASH news finance, the article quoted above was merely copied and uncritically reproduced.

This, among other cases from the NGO sector, shows how strategies of privatisation and commodification still heavily dominate development politics where they pertain to water. Though less aggressively and more subtly pursued now than the IFI-driven Structural Adjustment Programs and their successors, PRSPs, the new-millennium logic of privatisation is promoted instead by smaller, ostensibly unconnected agencies and through new, seemingly innovative means such as decentralisation, downscaling or microfinance – essentially a return to the days before the developmentalist state. Through blogs and social networks, the politics of liberalisation have adopted a postmodern aesthetic – as always arguing in the name of the poor – complete with Internet videos in HD.

Read the rest of this entry »

For this year’s Wikimania (26-28 August, Buenos Aires) I submitted an abstract of a paper comparing transnationalization processes and community relations of Creative Commons and Wikimedia. In this series I present some work in progress.

While the now famous online-encyclopedia Wikipedia was founded shortly before Creative Commons in 2001, its organizational carrier – the Wikimedia Foundation – was founded about half a year after Creative Commons had formally launched its first set of alternative copyright licenses in December 2002. Both organizations share the fundamental vision of creating and promoting a global “commons” of freely available digital goods. Wikimedia hosts a framework of hardware (webspace and bandwith), software (the wiki-engine “MediaWiki”) and legal rules (copyleft licenses) for several projects of commons-based peer production such as Wikipedia, Wikibooks or Wiktionary. Creative Commons, in turn, delivers a set of open content licenses to – not only, but also – legally enable and foster such commons-based peer production projects as put forward by Wikimedia.

Interestingly, independent from one another, both organizations very soon after their foundation started to transnationalize by developing a transnational network of locally rooted organizations. In a way, this strategic coordination of legally and financially independent organizations resembles what is called “strategic networks” in the realm of business research (see, for example, Gulati, Nohria and Zaheer 2000). Their strategies of building such an organizational network were however quite distinct. Read the rest of this entry »

“Epistemic Communities and Social Movements: Transnational Dynamics in the Case of Creative Commons” is the title of a new MPIFG Discussion Paper that Leonhard and I released last summer (PDF). The abstract reads as follows: 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 2017
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