(WOMENSENEWS)–News this week that India’s largest microlender, SKS Microfinance, reported heavy losses brought two names zinging to mind: Barbara Crossette and Susan Feiner.
Both are part of Women’s eNews’ loose-knit editorial team. Both took issue with the generally bullish outlook on microfinance as a means of ending–or even curbing–female poverty that prevailed for many years.
Around now both writers, in the wake of all the troubles surrounding microfinance, could and should be saying "I told you so." Since they’re not, I’d like to do that for them.
Crossette is an author with extensive experience covering the United Nations, including a long career for The New York Times. She has written for Women’s eNews and serves us with occasional editorial guidance. Eight or so years ago she gave us a tip about covering microfinance or microcredit that became our ironclad rule: "Ask about the interest rates."
That information was not at the top of microfinanciers’ press kits. When Women’s eNews’ reporters asked the question the answer they got was startling: a common range of between 20 percent and 50 percent. Wow.
When I told people about those rates their eyes often widened in horror. They’d picked up on the "women’s empowerment" virtues of microfinance and had a hard time believing it was true. Why so much higher than the 6 percent or 8 percent paid by middle-class U.S. borrowers?
The story line–which you can see running through our coverage, some of which is in the related stories provided below–was that even though micro-borrowers’ collective repayment rate was a stellar 98 percent, they were a high credit risk because they had no wealth whatsoever to seize in the event of a default.
Portrayed as Expensive and Risky
And the loans were not "off the rack." They were customized and detailed and required agents riding around on scooters to collect payments and check on things such as whether recipients were keeping up with matching savings accounts that were sometimes required. Microlending was portrayed as expensive and risky, which justified the high interest rates.
From that answer we derived our editorial stance: Microcredit was a lot better than no credit and it was better than loan sharks.
That was pretty sober compared to the glowing coverage that microcredit often enjoyed elsewhere in the press.
Microcredit deserves its due. It helps many female "micro-entrepreneurs" buy sewing machines, wheel barrows and hand carts. And after the Asian tsunami of 2004, microcredit loans–along with small direct grants from aid groups–rushed in to help many people start over. Barbara Crossett herself called for microcredit in that situation.
But while there may be a place for microcredit and microfinance, it shouldn’t be taken as a market-based, profit-motivated panacea for ending women’s poverty.
In 2007, Susan Feiner–our self-described resident feminist economist–wrote an opinion piece for Women’s eNews about why Muhammad Yunus, the widely recognized father of microfinance who has been kicked off the board of the Grameen Bank he founded, didn’t deserved a Nobel Prize. She thought a more deserving candidate was the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India.
That column, " Microcredit? Spare Us the Praise for a Panacea," offers a searching critique of remedies to female poverty. It may now be a good time to revisit Feiner’s piece, because, after all, she did tell us so.
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Corinna Barnard is editor of Women’s eNews.