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It’s lingered quite a while in the pipeline. My book The Political Economy of Microfinance: Financializing Poverty is finally due to hit shelves in June – so says the publisher. This book makes the enigmatic microfinance sector more understanable by tracing its evolution and showing what it is today: a leading edge of financialisation where the world of global poverty meets the world of global finance.

The Political Economy of Microfinance Financialising Poverty

The book is the product of several years of research at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. In 2008, I set out to investigate the connection of microfinance with water and sanitation, which brought me to southern India. Then the Andhra Pradesh microfinance crisis happened, and this eye-opener led me to re-examine microfinance more broadly and fundamentally, critically evaluate it as a highly remunerative but crisis-prone financial system (no longer a development intervention), and challenge its most basic premise: that poverty is a problem of finance.

I’m already excited about whatever reactions (critical, or otherwise) may follow when my ideas, analysis and critique finally reach a broader audience. To give some indications of what the book says and does, I’m posting excerpts from The Political Economy of Microfinance here over the next few months.

Here’s the first. 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. “Blue Collar Professor” Shawn Humphrey is the initiator of the student-oriented Month of Microfinance and the Two Dollar Challenge. He teaches a variety of development-related courses in most fascinating ways, among other things having his students sleep in cardboard box shelters and (for better or worse) roping them into the operations of a Honduran microfinance institution. 

Usually narrated in a personal, essayistic style, Humphrey’s blog offers candid and often bravely self-critical insights into the vicissitudes of trying to “do good” and “development” – and of teaching American students how/how not to do it. Even though they’re hardly always up my alley (as with the suggestion that “doing good” is a “market”) and not always palatable, Humphrey’s musings are ever thought-provoking, sometimes philosophical, and overall highly relevant given this blog’s consistent interest in ethical questions over social justice and philanthropy. It is my pleasure therefore (as the ninth instalment in our occasional series about great series on other blogs) to introduce “Do-Goodernomics / Do’s and Don’ts of Doing Good” with this reprinting of parts of some of my favourite posts.

We were just finishing up our conversation with Clementina when another van full of Gringos arrived. A middle-aged man in a ball cap and shades bounded over to us. “What are you all doing here?” he asked with a hint of accusation. I introduced myself and my students. I began a review of our microfinance program. And, somewhere between “no fees” and “no penalties” he lost interest.  “You know” he interrupted me. “Before we got here…,” there was a dramatic pause and a deep draw of breath “they had nothing.” He swept his hand over the small community of 30-plus families in makeshift shelters. “We built that meeting house. We built those two public restrooms. We are building that home.” He turned to place his eyes on my eyes. He removed his shades. He raised his cap. “You know without us I do not know whether or not they would have survived.”

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Last week at the International Studies Association Conference in Toronto, Marie Langevin (Ottawa) and I hosted a panel bringing together Northern and Southern perspectives on what may be termed poverty finance*. These perspectives surprisingly only rarely speak to each other, and our panel demonstrated how important and fruitful such a conversation is. Phil Cerny chaired the panel “Fringe Finance and Financial Inclusion”, and Rob Aitken (Alberta) – one of the few exceptional researchers whose work spans both the worlds of Northern and Southern poverty finance – acted as discussant of the papers.

The papers…

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Two leaders of protests against microfinance institutions in Morocco have been sentenced to one year of prison each. In addition, they are to pay fines amounting to nearly 5,000 US Dollars, a judge ruled in Ouarzazate on 11 February. The defence complained about a number of irregularities during the trial.

Amina Morad and Benacer Ismaïni, activists of the Association for Defending Victims of microcredit in Ouarzazate, were given ten days to submit appeals to the court. The two activists had earlier been found not guilty in a previous trial, but were taken to court again by INMAA, a microfinance association linked to PlaNet Finance.

Read the rest of this entry »

Update (8.1.2014): The court case against the Moroccan anti-microcredit activists is postponed again until 28 January 2014, because a new judge is being sent from the capital, Rabat.

Update (18.12.2013): The verdict was postponed yesterday until 6 January 2014, due to nine prosecution witnesses not showing up. A demonstration was held in front of the courthouse.

A woman and a man who led protests against microfinance institutions in Morocco are on trial. They risk of five years prison sentence without a chance of parole.

Amina Mourad and Benasser Ismaili, this communiqué (via ATTAC Morocco) reports, are leaders of the Association de Protection Populaire pour le Développement Social, an organisation of roughly 4,500 women who have been rallying against the policies, practices and interest rates of MFIs in Morocco since 2011. Four MFIs took Mourad and and Ismaili to court on counts of libel and threats. After the activists were found “not guilty” in the first instance, a new organisation backed by Planet Finance went into appeal, threatening them again with imprisonment. The verdict is expected on 17 December at the courthouse of the desert city Ouarzazate.

Morocco was the site of a microfinance crisis in 2008, caused by ever-larger loans to groups of borrowers, leading to 10 percent of clients not repaying (or not being able to repay) their loans by June 2009. The central bank estimated that 40 percent of borrowers had loans from more than one MFI just as the repayment crisis began (source). Even the always-positive ACCION Centre for Financial Inclusion admits that there is no effective client protection in Morocco: “Measures have been put in place to advance the adherence to the principles of client protection. While much has been achieved to date, there remains much more yet to be accomplished.”

The World Bank is a major backer of microfinance expansion in Morocco, hoping to show that microfinance markets can recover from the repayment crises they generate. The two largest MFIs in Morocco (Al Amana and FBPMC) earned a rate of profit of 45 and 28 percent, respectively, in the second quarter of this year (Mixmarket).

Jailing the protestors will certainly not improve the reputation of MFIs in Morocco, and may lead to violence. ATTAC have called upon the court to release the accused, asking for an international demonstration of solidarity via letters like this: Read the rest of this entry »

(*don’t know your customer)

Truth in advertising has never been very highly valued in the microfinance sector. Know-your-customer (KYC) sadly is also a much-espoused but rarely-heeded principle. The current promotional video for on-line lending platform Kiva shows that Kiva cares about neither.

This most widely known online microlending platform once claimed it facilitated person-to-person (P2P) microending. After the New York Times debunked that as a deceptive illusion in 2009, Kiva had to retract the claim, now fielding the (far clearer?) promise to “connect people through lending to alleviate poverty”. In fact, what Kiva does is merely lend your money for free to microfinance institutions (MFIs), which can then on-lend the money in whichever way they see fit, at interest rates somewhere between 20% and 100% APR. The joyful little cartoon video about “Pedro, a farmer who gets a loan through Kiva.org and transforms his business” doesn’t exactly make this clear.

But the main problem with Kiva’s video How Kiva Works is that the claimed impact of microloans is so absurd, it prompts serious questions about who at Kiva actually knows anything about what microfinance does. Let’s briefly look behind the cutesy imagery.

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Alex Counts is the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation and a biographer of Muhammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank founder. Given his position in the large network of Grameen, he holds sway in the microfinance world and beyond. So when he publishes an attack on independent research on his blog, I take to represent a reasonably broad antiscience sentiment in the microfinance industry.

In his article, the head of Grameen Foundation laments the emergence of “a new generation of researchers” rising to “debunk the myth of microfinance being an effective tool to fight poverty” (I consider myself part of this generation, but I’m sure Counts doesn’t mean me). He writes about a “conflict” between researchers and practitioners, questions whether practitioners are to blame for not having brought researchers into the fold, says researchers have supported sensationalist reporting against microfinance, and claims they have not tried to contribute (enough) to poverty alleviation. Then he delves into an elogy for Tim Ogden, head of the Financial Access Initiative at NYU. The overall message – research results which don’t support microfinance should be disregarded; the title-giving Haiti cue is a bit of a red herring – is akin to a call to sticking one’s head in the sand when threatened.

The ostrich, unlike the microfinance CEO, is falsely believed to stick its head in the sand when it feels threatened.

Image: Bob Jagendorf/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

I’m writing this to respond to Counts’ piece and his core request “that we get beyond debates about “whether microfinance works” to more fruitful and action-oriented dialogues about “how it can work better”.” The following is my small defense of academia. Read the rest of this entry »

On October 2nd thirty years ago, Muhammad Yunus founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, the world’s most famous microfinance institution, by the grace of a special ordinance from dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The German radio station Westdeutscher Rundfunk decided to commemorate this event with a 15-minute piece which included an interview with yours truly and with the incredibly well grassroots-informed Andrea Rahaman of non-microfinance NGO MATI.

Though not every statement of mine was used in context – for instance my explanation of the high costs incurred by lending tiny sums and collecting them in weekly instalments, illustrating the inefficiency of microfinance-based poverty relief – I like how the piece directly contrasts Yunus’ pathos-ridden and impressionistic proclamations with Andrea’s and my own sober descriptions of the reality of microfinance in science and on the ground. Thanks to this technique, Andrea and I perhaps got as close to having a real debate with the Gandhi of finance as any regular mortal can; though others certainly have tried, like Tom Heinemann (view part 4 / 2:40 of the documentary, to see Yunus almost comically avoiding speaking to the journalist). Read the rest of this entry »

It’s good to see microfinance researchers seriously studying alternatives to microloans or other microfinancial services. Very poor people need assets and a helping hand more than a loan, so why not hand out a cow or some other income-generating assets, offer training, and provide basic healthcare? That’s what an 18-month “Ultra-Poor Programme” run by SKS Microfinance in India did. But the randomised impact evaluation performed by Jonathan Morduch of New York University, Shamika Ravi of the Indian School of Business and Jonathan Bauchet of Purdue University on this programme turned up a “null” result, similar to those of randomised studies of microfinance.

Perhaps it is surprising to see SKS Microfinance (India’s largest microlender before 2010, and now perhaps most notorious microlender) giving non-repayable one-off kickstarts to ultra-poor households. But the intention of the programme was not purely altruistic; it was to “graduate” households into microfinance, by giving them assets to start a business.

In the programme in Andhra Pradesh evaluated by Morduch/Ravi/Bauchet, people who got a free asset and training to become microentrepreneurs were found to be no better off later than those who didn’t. They also didn’t manage to reduce their debts or increase their savings any more than others. Why? The authors believe it is

explained in large part by substitution with other economic activities. […] During the study period, wages in agricultural labor were rising steadily in the region, so that households in the control group were able to improve their economic conditions in parallel with households in the treatment group. (35)

The opportunities outside the self-employment programme offered similarly improving incomes as the opportunities offered by the programme itself. To what conclusion should this lead us about the concept of entrepreneurial self-lift out of poverty? Overall, the take-home message from the authors is eminently logical:

Read the rest of this entry »

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 Book

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