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Friday, 17 August 2018
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When poverty-producers propose poverty-alleviation PDF Print E-mail

By Malinda Seneviratne

In Sri Lanka, the household culture is replete with many clearly identified thrift-measures which are still practiced in all parts of the country and find considerable reference in folk literature. Formal micro financing institutions have a history that goes back to the year 1906

This is the month dedicated to ‘saving’. This is the month when all banks run ad campaigns urging people to save money. Banks need savings because banks need to sell all kinds of loan products. A nation needs savings because a nation has to invest money in various spheres in order to create jobs, generate income etc. People need to save money because people are fragile and frequently find themselves in cash-strapped situations. We are told that it is good to save for a rainy day, but no one tells us that we are in a year-long monsoon when it comes to financial needs.

Financial institutions will tell you that saving is good for you and they are not incorrect. On the other hand this ‘it-is-for-your-own-good’ business is just that: business! For examples, banks that have ‘discovered’ just the other day a thing called ‘microfinance’ are going around telling the poor that they are in this business purely out of altruistic reasons and specifically to help them out of poverty are basically tapping a huge reservoir of customers they had hitherto neglected. So, ironically, even as the banking sector indulges in activities that generate poverty, we also see a concerted effort to do business with the poor. Not for love. For profit.

There is a lot of irony when institutions that are dedicated to profit-making and promoting profit-making in ways that necessarily impoverish people and perpetuate cycles of poverty suddenly want to ‘alleviate poverty’ through microfinance. It would be understandable if Banks, like most other corporate entities, think of ‘microfinance’ as just another CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) project, nothing more than a little feel-good, guilt-alleviating exercise. What we are seeing today is however not something of that kind, not an add-on, a frill, a for-a-prize, image-building operation. This is business ladies and gentlemen.

Microfinance is, as long-time practitioners would tell you, not coterminous with development. Resolving credit problems (i.e. access to sufficient amounts with minimal hassle, at the right time and at terms that are reasonable) is most certainly an important element in any initiative that seeks to enhance capacities of those sections of a population that truly require ‘development’. Necessary, then, but certainly not sufficient.

The problem with the dominant articulation of the microfinance discourse is that the above it the underlying logic. The problem is articulated in purely financial terms. This is convenient. Microfinance advocates from the corporate sector would not dare touch other related issues because it is not in their immediate interest and because delving into these would show them up for who they really are: business entities, doing business, seeking-profit and articulating the entire exercise as a humanitarian operation born in the depths of their bleeding hearts.
If banks were really serious about poverty alleviation they would put a full stop to financing enterprises that create poverty. Banks cannot be expected to be charitable outfits and we should not fool ourselves into believing that they would abandon their core operational thrust out of some professed love for all of humanity.

Microfinance is not ‘new’ to most parts of the world. The world has known about thrift and credit for centuries. A close reading of the Buddha’s thoughts on social engagement and his advocacy for the lay person and the household would show that thrift was a core element of his doctrine. He advocated that a portion of one’s income should be saved and an equal portion invested. He recommended that a third part should be used for consumption and the fourth gifted.

In Sri Lanka, the household culture is replete with many clearly identified thrift-measures which are still practiced in all parts of the country and find considerable reference in folk literature. Formal micro financing institutions have a history that goes back to the year 1906.

Like most terms in the development dictionary, microfinance was appropriated, re-defined and re-marketed to the practitioners. The watershed event was the first Microcredit Summit in February 1997 in Washington DC, where there were some some 3,000 people from 137 countries in attendance. Thirteen years later, the ‘blueprint’ for all initiatives is downloadable from the CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor) website. CGAP is ‘addressed’ at the World Bank and focuses on financial services. No prizes for guessing the agenda of the lords of poverty (generation). Yes, the within-brackets part of it is erased in the literature.
Today, ‘microfinance’ as it is used has been extracted from the social, cultural and political soil in which it was born. Today, shed of frill and conference-glitter, microfinance is essentially a matter of exploring the exploitation potential of hitherto neglected sections of the market. Today, corporate entities have suddenly realised that they could make a killing by extracting little amounts from a large population. This is why the microfinance literature and the best-practices archives are thin on sustainability and largely silent on the parallel processes of exploitation and impoverishment. The moment such things are brought into the discourse, the legitimacy of the vast majority of corporate entities engaged in microfinance is brought into question. This they cannot risk.

Impoverishment is an inevitable product of profit-seeking enterprises. Microfinance is a win-win situation for microfinance corporate players. It is like a factory spewing pollutants in a canal and then volunteering to clean up the particular waterway. For a price!
The next time someone utters that word it would be good, I believe, to ask about what other business that person engages in and talk about the consequences of such activities, including poverty generation.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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