Hillary Clinton, Microfinance, and an Actually Democratic Alternative

Thomas Frank has an article in the latest Harper’s (April 2016) that I found to be really good work. The piece is, overall, a complaint about Hillary Clinton, but it registers some very specific, and, I think, important criticisms. The most compelling for me was Frank’s dismantling the idea, championed by all the Clintons, that microcredit is the way to help people in the global South out of poverty. This way of thinking[1] assumes that the problem poor people have is that they are “unbanked,” and so the whole effort is to “bank” them, i.e. have them enter into debtor relations with global corporate financial institutions. The larger agenda, and Frank breaks out the italics to drive it home, is to “extend Western banking methods to encompass every last individual on earth.” The large banks, unsurprisingly, are all for it. In this light, the criticisms of Clinton for taking huge speaker fees from big banks take on real weight.

Frank points out that microcredit has been a disaster in the short term, in that it has produced little development and lots of debt. But of course, even if revenue trickles were being created in the short term, in the long-term the idea of extending debtor relations across the globe, “banking” a greater and greater percentage of the world’s population, is to the advantage of the banks and the disadvantage of everyone else.

In this context, I want to point to the work of Mahila Milan, a network of poor women in India who come together to pool their savings and manage that money collectively. I am not an expert on their work, but from what I understand the gist is that women who participate in Mahila Milan recognize that 1) they do not have access to financial resources, and that is a problem, but 2) they do not think streaming themselves into the formal banking system is the best solution to that problem, and so 3) they organize their own pool of money, and they also organize their own system for managing that money. The results are not perfect, I am sure, but the network does offer participants more access to money when they need it, without causing chronic indebtedness among members. Moreover — and I think this may be even more important — through their participation in the network, members grow stronger in their ability to both manage complex financial systems and collectively govern their community.


[1] Frank notes that this way of thinking is enthusiastically shared by the Gates Foundation.

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