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One of the things that make blogs particularly interesting are series. The “series” series recommends series at related blogs.

When Daniel Rozas warns, I listen. Rozas forecasted the crisis of microfinance which broke out in India in late 2010, warning as early as November 2009 that Andhra Pradesh was the most saturated microfinance market in the world alongside Bangladesh, and mass defaults could begin any time.

2009:

I can’t predict whether the microfinance bubble I believe exists and continues to grow in Andhra Pradesh and other south Indian states will deflate quietly or burst spectacularly. […] In their pursuit of growth, many MFIs have continued to add large numbers of new customers in Andhra Pradesh and other highly saturated regions – I believe that is irresponsible. […] The spark that sets off a large-scale delinquency crisis can be anything and could come at any time – a rapid drop in economic growth, a populist political movement, a religious decree, or a collections effort gone bad.  One can’t control the spark, but one can control how much fuel that spark can ignite.

Since this February, Rozas has been outlining the scenario of a possible further repayment crisis in a series of posts (links to parts 2 & 3) on the Financial Access Initiative Blog. He says self-regulatory efforts over the past years have been important, but perhaps not enough to stem lending excesses in certain countries (I would agree). Looking at indebtedness and lending at the sub-national level, Rozas reveals a fairly alarming picture in the Mexican state Chiapas, which shows similar patterns to Andhra Pradesh in 2009.

But it is Rozas’ attunement to the political economy of microlending which sets him apart from most sector consultants. Read the rest of this entry »

Suddenly, out of the blue, a debate about microfinance and child labour has erupted. Why?

Underage work caused by microloans is an uncomfortable topic for the microfinance sector, given the moral panic easily associated with child labour. It’s nearly impossible for the industry to publicly make dismissive or nuanced statements on the issue. David Roodman (self-styled “impertinent inquirer“) has now stepped up to the plate, publishing a thought-provoking short essay on his blog which critiques recent moves towards – or rather: rumours of some consideration being given to the idea of – enshrining policies against child labour in the microfinance sector’s transnational self-certification schemes.

Yes indeed, what are we going to do about it?

Photo: Children’s Bureau Centennial, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Roodman assumes Hugh Sinclair (self-styled “microfinance heretic“) to be a driving force behind this. While I have my doubts about it being that simple, I do think that, while not a driving force, Sinclair could be a contributing factor.

Which, incidentally, brings me to my hypothesis about the actual issue of child labour. Is microfinance a driving force? Hell no. Could it be a countributing factor? Logically yes. Consider these two very simplified causal chains:

Read the rest of this entry »

Today GovernanceXBorders co-editor Phil Mader contributes a guest post on microfinance and European austerity politics over at TheCurrentMoment.

 

This post is provided by guest blogger Domen Bajde of the University of Southern Denmark.

As evidenced by inventive movements and campaigns (for a future example see Half the Sky Movement: The Game), the field of charity is undergoing considerable dynamics. As a skeptically-optimistic observer, I am happy to see research that explores such developments against the backdrop of broader material and social change, appreciating their innovativeness and critically questioning the suppositions, mechanics and stakes at play.

I recently stumbled upon a book sharing my skeptical optimism. Surveying historical change in Amnesty International and Oxfam advertising, Chouliaraki argues that poverty is increasingly instrumentalized, setting the focus on the “self” (of the Western donor), turning charity into an ironic spectacle largely shaped by “compassion fatigue” (a.k.a. avoiding stuff that is unpleasant). Rather than amplifying the voice of those in need, many charities end up prioritizing the interests/pleasures of donors.

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Hugh Sinclair is a (self-described) whistleblower who recently published a book coming clean with the microfinance industry. Paul Lagneau-Ymonet and Phil Mader had the privilege to ask him how microfinance went astray and “betrayed” the poor, and why the public and donors are being deceived. His book “Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost its Way and Betrayed the Poor” has been widely noted by international media and his blog follows the day-to-day antics of the microfinance industry.

Hugh, you worked in microfinance for 10 years, so you must have at least for some time believed in this as a tool for reducing poverty. When did you become disillusioned, and why?

I can’t say there was one moment of revelation. The first concerns started on my very first project. I was working in Mexico with a Grameen replica institution, and right from the beginning I noticed many of these people aren’t using the money for a productive use, and many of them aren’t actually very poor at all. But I told myself maybe I’m just in a bad institution.

I worked in Mexico for a couple of years, then I moved to Mozambique. There I discovered an even worse situation. Not only was microfinance not having much impact, but the institution that I was working at was misappropriating the savings of the clients. They were forcing the clients to make a savings deposit, and then they were using that deposit to subsidise their own operating costs, which generally involved paying high salaries to ineffective expat senior managers to fly business class and drive around in fancy 4x4s, which to me didn’t seem like a particularly good use of the client savings. It’s theft – I mean, you can’t just take people’s savings and spend them on your salary.So I thought: wow, this is a terrible institution. But maybe I’ve just been unlucky that I’ve stumbled into a few bad ones. Why don’t I go over to Europe and work at a microfinance fund, and my knowledge about the difference between a good and a bad microfinance institution will be useful to direct their money towards good microfinance.

“The problem is that [microfinance funds] have a weird set of incentives that aren’t aligned with their own investors, and also aren’t aligned with the interests of the poor.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Over on his blog and on Indian financial news site Moneylife, microfinance expert Ramesh Arunachalam has started an interesting series of posts. They investigate the charges levied by Hugh Sinclair against microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs; or microfinance investment funds) in his recently published book, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic. Arunachalam is approaching the questions raised by the book with his characteristic meticulous diligence; very data-driven. As usual, he raises poignant questions rather than easy answers, and I strongly suspect his detective work will remain a delight to follow.

Incidentally, some of the points raised by Sinclair’s book are very close to Arunachalam’s fascinating causal reconstruction of the Indian microfinance crisis. The two most obvious ones are: (1) lack of transparency and meaningful regulation in the microfinance industry, in Indian microfinance as well as in the global microfinance investment sphere. (2) The pressures of capital, in that agents bestowed with large amounts of easy money under these circumstances are unlikely to make wise decisions (let alone decisions truly benefitting their stakeholders). These are Indian MFIs who lend as if throwing money from helicopters, or global MIVs investing in low-quality-high-profitability MFIs because they need an easy outlet for their money.

Particularly interesting is that Arunachalam asked investors for statements or rebuttals to Sinclair’s allegations, apparently to no avail or evasive answers. Also, reports promised by the microfinance transpareny/labeling initiative LuxFLAG were not available. So it will be interesting to see if Arunachalam finds out what some investors’ explanations are for having continually invested in the evidently non-law-abiding Nigerian MFI LAPO.

Also, David Roodman at the Centre for Global Development has reviewed the book, his main contribution being to “add nuance”.  He too sees the key message of “Confessions…” in its exposition of the uniquely problematic role played by MIVs in the microfinance money chain, even though he criticises it for its critical tone. No comment on Roodman’s discussion of different people’s character traits (at bottom).

Last-minue addition: Sam Mendelson, co-author of the Microfinance Banana Skins reports, concludes “Ultimately, Confessions is frustrating and fascinating in equal measure” in a similarly even-handed but more personal review on microfinance focus.

(phil)

This is a book review I wrote for the microfinance news site microDINERO about Hugh Sinclair’s controversial new insider/whistleblower account of the microfinance industry.

Hugh Sinclair, 2012: Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Outside of the mainstream and microfinance’s promotional campaigns, many academics, NGOs, critical journalists and also former microfinanciers have quietly criticised microfinance for years – only to be ignored or dismissed as lunatics or ideologues. The problems in microfinance, however, are very real, and Hugh Sinclair’s controversial new book “Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic” makes them impossible to ignore.

For the few independent researchers, fortunately able to study microfinance without reporting to microfinance-supporting bodies or the major research groups (which happen to be mostly funded by the same organisations which fund microfinance), the problems of microfinance are not news. They include that microfinance, by its very nature, supports only the simplest, least-productive and lowest growth-potential activities, as Milford Bateman argues. They also include the fact that most loans are simply used for consumption, which even CGAP recognises in its attempts to redefine microfinance in terms of “financial inclusion”, ignoring the problem of these loans’ unsustainability. This is linked to the risk of overindebtedness and debt traps researched bravely by Jessica Schicks, and evidenced most gruesomely in the Indian microfinance crisis. There is also the problem of microfinance building on and employing immense power asymmetries, particularly between men and women, as Lamia Karim has shown, rather than removing these asymmetries through actual processes of empowerment. These are just a few issues.

With Hugh Sinclair along comes someone who has extensive real-life experience, a fascinating story to tell – from his original belief in microfinance to his disillusionment and ultimate heresy against it – and a knack for writing. His book, as devastating as it is entertaining to read, presents a serious challenge to large elements of the microfinance industry. Sinclair adds a new problem to the list of reasons why microfinance cannot keep its promise of poverty reduction, showing that the incentives within the microfinance industry are structured in such a way that positive developmental outcomes can – at best – occur as an accidental by-product; and mostly won’t occur at all. Read the rest of this entry »

Next week sees a high-profile head-to-head between two of the leading voices on microfinance. In a debate hosted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washinton D.C. on Monday, 30 January at 9:00 a.m./14:00 GMT/15:00 CET, David Roodman (Center for Global Development, USA) and Milford Bateman (University of Pula, Croatia) will have alot to discuss.

(P.S. See also below for information about a debate at Harvard University on 2nd February with Guy Stuart.)

Roodman (“Due Diligence”); Bateman (“Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work?”)

The past few years have been particularly turbulent, with a succession of microfinance crises, growing overindebtedness, borrower suicides, disappointing impact findings, and a prize-winning Norwegian documentary contributing to Muhammad Yunus being removed from office as head of Grameen Bank.

The two debaters have met in the past. Bateman first brought a critique of microfinance into the mainstream with his 2010 book, which Roodman heavily criticised. Roodman has made a name for himself as a prolific and insightful blogger with the open book blog he kept while writing the book he recently published.

Whether Roodman’s book (endorsed by Muhammad Yunus) is anything as “impertinent” as it claims to be; what to think of Bateman’s musings about the “end of microfinance?”; and why the best evidence of microfinance’s impact on poverty still is “zero”, will be questions likely affecting the debate as much as the official debate question (which USAID succeeded in making so overwhelmingly dull I fear it may even scare off Washington development brass):

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Tom Heinemann’s film “The Micro Debt” has received a lot of flak from the microfinance community. The documentary, posing a sharp critique of microfinance, features interviews with microfinance borrowers, proponents and critics on three continents. It deals particularly critically with the work of Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. One response to Heinemann’s criticism has been the production of counter-counter-knowledge (against Heinemann’s counter-knowledge), promoted via Youtube, courtesy of the world’s most trustworthy PR company. Another has been to draw into question Heinemann’s integrity as a journalist, referring to the film as “grossly inaccurate”, “false and defamatory”, and “digging for dirt”.

But “The Micro Debt” isn’t going away. It has been shown in over 14 different countries and awarded numerous prizes. Most recently, last Friday it was awarded the Lorenzo Natali Journalism Prize Grand Prize, a prestigious award for journalistic work granted by the European Union in co-operation with Reporters Without Borders. “The Micro Debt” was selected out of a field of 1,300 contenders and commended as “a shining example of world-class investigative journalism, challenging entrenched assumptions”.

Courtesy of the prize, “The Micro Debt” is now also viewable online.

Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4

Tom Heinemann was vilified for not whistling everyone else’s tune; now, the Lorenzo Natali Prize is rehabilitating the film and the filmmaker. It shows that telling an unpopular story and confronting received wisdom is still what investigative and independent journalism is about. Conversely, what (if anything) has the world learned from microfinance promotion films like “To Catch a Dollar“? As for the claims of factual inaccuracy levied by Friends of Grameen against Heinemann, a short follow-up segment, to be aired early next year in Norway, may bring more clarity; watch this space.

(phil)

CGAP is the World Bank’s (not-quite-so-)arm’s-length sub-organisation whose role is to promote microfinance. CGAP (“see-gap“) once stood for “Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest“, now it officially stands for “Consultative Group to Assist the Poor”. Actually, if nomen were to be omen, it should probably stand for “Consultative Group to assist (those who lend to) the Poor (and not-so poor)”.

Giant_Knife_1[1]

So many functions … but can it cut? Image: Slartibartfass (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I don’t expect CGAP to function as an independent evaluator of microfinance. What I do expect is that CGAP publications have minimum standards of research quality and logic.

The most recent CGAP report, entitled “Latest Findings from Randomized Evaluations of Microfinance” (Bauchet et. al.), however, is appalling on both counts. Nearly everything about this report is problematic. It is racked by wishful thinking – to paraphrase: “we may not have evidence that microfinance does what it was supposed to, but we still believe it works” – and it has a disturbing feel about it, which derives from: (1) what the authors have left out, and (2) the heavy tension between concern for the poor and patronising them.

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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