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251 Chapter Fourteen Microfinance and the “Woman” Question Kate Maclean Introduction In this chapter I recontextualize the gendered, feminist appraisals of microfinance that have for decades been very critical of the intervention. The general picture painted of microfinance, particularly since the financial crisis of 2008, is of an industry that is financializing and turning toward mainstream banking practices (Aitken 2010; Mader 2012). However, a number of institutions have resisted pressures to prioritize financial sustainability or to refocus their interventions away from beneficiaries and toward shareholders. Some microfinance interventions, despite having to appeal to an international funding agenda that assumes that theextension of financial services alone can tackle poverty, are able to provide spaces of negotiation that can be used by their beneficiaries to their own ends (Townsend, Porter, and Mawdsley 2004). Nevertheless, the criticism of microfinance is overwhelming, and I do not wish to argue with those who emphasize the pernicious effects of microfinance in economic terms. I do wish to illustrate how different the feminist critique of the intervention is and stress the importance of taking this critique into account when formulating alternatives . Since the 1980s feminist and gendered critiques of development have focused on the gender blindness of neoliberal, market-­ led economic strategies, but the political left pre­ sents its own challenges to gender-­ inclusive development . In formulating and assessing various alternatives to microfinance, and the neoliberal approach to development that it exemplifies, we need to cast a gendered eye on the conceptual, political, and historical construction of alternatives , including state-­led development, unions, cooperatives, and credit unions. The websites and promotional literature of various microfinance organizations , be they nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), quasi-­ commercial 252 Kate Maclean organizations, or international aid agencies, reveal that the microfinance beneficiary has a female face. While Grameen Bank claims that “women are the best poverty fighters,”1 it is also received wisdom across the microfinance industry that women have better repayment rates (World Bank 2007), which has been recently affirmed in a comprehensive, worldwide review of the issue (D’Espalier , Guérin, and Mersland 2011). MFIs have also emphasized the empowering effects of the credit and associated financial independence within the household that a loan can provide, including decision-­ making power (Goetz 1996; Kabeer 1997, 2001b). Feminist work on microfinance and women has sought to bring out the complexities of these claims, while also highlighting the change from a male-­ centered economic approach to development that microfinance can represent (Banthia et al. 2012; Johnson 2005, 2009; Mayoux 2002a). Targeting women, as opposed to presumed male “household heads,” and targeting the female-­ dominated informal economy, as opposed to assuming that informality will gradually disappear with increased modernization, are both, potentially, steps in the right direction from the point of view of the feminist economist (Donath 2000). However, the gendered premises upon which microfinance has been promoted as a women-­ centric intervention have also been roundly critiqued (Karim 2011b; Maclean 2010, 2013). The celebration of, rather than challenge to, women’s reproductive role, implicit in the idea that they are the “best poverty fighters” and reflected in the assumption that their social collateral is actually “free,” is a case in point. There has been, in the first decade of the twenty-­ first century, quite a turnaround in microfinance’s reputation. In terms of scholarship and policy, what appears to have tipped the balance is the growing recognition that microfinance has failed to deliver on its own economic terms. For example, Maren Duvendack ’s (Duvendack and Palmer Jones 2012; Duvendack et al. 2011b) extraordinarily rigorous work in assessing and attempting to replicate the econometric data that has underpinned the promotion of microfinance by international development agencies has provoked pointed debates in journals of development economics (Pitt 2012). Work on the corrosive effects of microfinance on local economies has also radically changed the balance of debate (Ahmad 2007; Bateman 2010; Dichter and Harper 2007). Looking back to studies of microfinance from the 1990s and early 2000s, however, it is striking that the weight of evidence against the intervention did not tip the scales back then. This body of scholarship includes the highly cited article by Ben Rogaly (1996) entitled “Micro-­ finance Evangelism, ‘Destitute Microfinance and the “Woman” Question 253 Women,’ and the Hard Selling of a New Anti-­poverty Formula”; Linda Mayoux’s (2002b) work for One World Action entitled “Women’s Empowerment or the Feminisation of Debt? Towards a New Agenda in Microfinance”; and Katharine Rankin’s (2001) “Governing Development: Neoliberalism, Microcredit, and Rational Economic...


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