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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)

Ramesh S. Arunachalam, 2011: The Journey of Indian Micro-Finance: Lessons for the Future. Chennai: Aapti Publications.

The microfinance crisis in India which broke out in fall 2010, first imperiling numerous borrowers and then an entire industry, is the most fundamental event in the world of microfinance since the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. In hindsight, it may even turn out to be the defining moment of microfinance history – never before has the dark side of microfinance, and the vulnerability of the industry, been so brutally exposed to a global audience.

Naturally, these events have attracted a host of opinions and analyses ranging from simply blaming the Andhra government for bringing down a healthy microfinance industry, to accusing microfinance of having become worse than loan sharks. And yet, so far, we understand very little of why India’s vast microfinance sector went so far astray. Thankfully, people like Ramesh S. Arunachalam are out to change this.

Arunachalam has earned the respect of many a reader (me too) with his candid and incredibly well-researched blogging on the Indian microfinance sector. He posts prolifically, but despite (or perhaps because of) his over 20 years of work experience in development and rural finance, he has otherwise kept a low profile. He is not an outspoken critic.

Now Ramesh Arunachalam has applied his sharp analytical approach and evident knack for writing to publishing the first book about the Indian microfinance crisis. The result is a meticulous, evidence-based piece of research which brings clarity into what so far has mostly been an interest-driven and polemical battle of explanations.

In some ways what Arunachalam has produced is, in fact, more than a book; it is a dossier of evidence and analysis of how the Indian microfinance sector functions at the deepest levels, and where its errors lie. It is a biography of an industry in identity crisis, and also a handbook on how Indian microfinance might (perhaps) still be saved. Above all, as the book’s (wonderfully illustrative) cover implies, it is a search for the Faustian, troubled soul of Indian microfinance. 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)

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
September 2019
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