The Feminist Critique of Microfinance

Dear V, It was a pleasure presenting with you on Saturday night.

My research experience with microfinance comes mostly from a feminist perspective, in particular, feminist academic work that critically considers how “empowerment” rhetoric shapes global development.

The crux of the argument is that global governance now operates primarily according to “inclusion,” “participation,” and “empowerment.” However, it is not “no strings attached” inclusion, participation, and empowerment, but actually has a tight set of rules, all set up to extend the current global imbalances. For instance, look at how international debt relief under the Millennium Development Goals regime is just another way to expand Structural Adjustment Programs, while allowing nations like the US to look like saints. [AC: “Neoliberal Corn Laws“, if you will]

The most succinct statement of this principle, though in a domestic context, was published in Barbara Cruikshank in The Will to Empower: Democratic Citizens and Other Subjects (Cornell UP: 1999). Or, in an even more condensed summary, one could look to the second edition of Mitchell Dean’s bookGovernmentality, pages 82-88. If you would like copies of either of those texts, I would be more than willing to procure copies.

More recent work has extended this feminist argument into development studies. One short read, something I suggest for any NGO workers (such as I was for years, both as a community organizer and policy analyst), is Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock’s “Beyond Buzzwords: ‘Poverty Reduction,’ ‘Participation,’ and ‘Empowerment’ in Development Policy”, which was turned into a United Nations Research Institute for Social Development paper available at$file/cornwall.pdf.

I am also familiar with two recent academic papers that address the feminist concern over “empowerment” specifically in regards to microfinance. I highly suggest Josephine Lairap-Fonderson’s “The Disciplinary Power of Micro-credit: Examples from Kenya and Cameroon,” which comes from an excellent 2002 collection entitled Rethinking Empowerment: Gender and Development in a Global/Local World, but have misplaced my version so I am unable to attach a copy.

And more recently, University of Minnesota Press has published an excellent feminist critique of microfinance in Bangladesh:

On a more positive note, while further economizing the lives of poor people is a dangerous path an unlikely to end poverty, there is hope in microfinance if it were to produce commonly-held resources that could slowly eclipse the currently existing pillars of privatized economic power. There are numerous examples of this sort of thing happening in the United States, most of them religious communities like the more fundamentalist variants of Mormonism, who hold their assets in common trust. [AC: A critical appraisal of the lasting political dimensions of American religious socialism is long overdue]

If you would like to chat about this, or any else, let me know.


[There was bit a pushback after I called microfinance “greedy” “selfish” and “narcissistic” in my talk, a bit polemical I admit.. V asked me to provide her with my perspective on microfinance, because as a poverty activist she as so-far seen microfinance as one of the leading paths to poverty alleviation.]


6 thoughts on “The Feminist Critique of Microfinance

  1. A comrade responds:

    Ojo, for those of us who have worked with migrant workers and articulated peasant-workers, micro-lending has been at the forefront of the movement to make wealth accessible to a larger group of people than the capitalist development projects of the Rostovian Progress model for development. Unfortunately, when banks catch on to what is happening, even that can be hijacked. Below is an analysis of some of the negative effects of microfinancing for your consideration. Thx AC [link to this article]

    /// I respond:

    To followup the my panel comments I read the findings from a few “economic studies” on microfinance. One interesting finding was that microfinance in concept is meant to direct development projects, though 90% of the funds are used for immediate consumption needs. Would you agree, given your experience in the field? And, if so, do you think microfinance should be retooled to be an alternative to predatory lending like ‘payday loans’ and pawn shops?


    From what I’ve seen, microfinancing only works when it is administered in the hands of the people. Like I said in my post above, banks are quick to hijack any type of strategy that is profitable, micro-lending is one of those ideas that came from the people themselves in cultural practices known as the communal administration of wealth, tandas (where workers put a percentage of their wages into a pool as a type of communal savings based on future wages) that people used to survive. NGO’s saw that there was a lot of abuse when it came to remissions, and they sought to provide a kind of alternative to Western Union and other companies that were accumulating a tremendous amount of capital based on the fees they charged people sending money to peasant homelands. Unlad Kabayan in the Philippines is one NGO that began to do this well, and because they did that well and were innovative they have had a difficult time remaining autonomous because of financial interests that keep trying to buy them off for their expertise in mirco-financing. This is something that appears to have been done in Bengladesh as the essay that is referenced in the above article demonstrates, I believe that the model used in India, the guy who took credit for it was given a Nobel prize, so it makes sense that they were among the first to be hijacked by banks and venture capitalists.

    In regards to your question, yes, this type of micro-lending was designed by the people to be about autobasto, or self-sustainability (in your words “immediate needs”) in non-capitalist economies this is what creates stability so that peasant households can sustain themselves. It is a different logic than capitalist accumulation (development projects) and one of the biggest areas of investment and growth for that reason when it comes to micro-financing has been entrepreneurship, because this is a sort of middle ground. The idea is that some of the money that had been accumulated to private interests can instead be used as start-up funds for new businesses in local migrant-sending communities in order to attempt to stabilize the local economy. This is not the ideal solution, but it is a compromise, better than the type of industrial development that the first world would rather see in peasant homelands.

  2. Hello,
    at the moment I follow a course on Microcredit and you mentioned in your blogpost that you have some copies of the summary by Mitchell Dean’s book govermentalities, pages 82-88. Would you mind sending these to me.
    Best regards,


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