Why do we love the concept of microfinance? For the same reasons we embraced Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s “how-to” corporate guidebook sold under the auspices of feminism, with open hearts. In a capitalist society, money equates power. And, with recent increases in awareness of the patriarchal capitalist structures that disproportionately disadvantage and harm women, there has been a resulting push for economic solutions, quick fixes meant to help women lift themselves out of poverty. This desire for straightforward solutions, coupled with an individualist view of poverty-eradication, has led to an embrace of microfinance for women in developing countries around the world.
At first glance, microfinance seems like a quick, clever solution. The rush of donating $25 to microfinance donor websites like Kiva.org provides the illusion that you are doing good works, without the strain of a larger donation of money, time, organizing power, etc. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work as the founder of Grameen Bank, the first major microfinance institution, is a compelling figure, one providing solutions that seem entirely doable and possible, to solve a problem that seems unconquerable.
But how could microfinance be the solution when, just like Sheryl Sandberg’s trickle down feminism, it embraces a capitalist structure and places the onus on the individual? Microfinance has been presented as the method through which we can “solve” poverty; in Sandberg’s vision of feminism, telling women to lean in and close the ambition gap in order to better their work and financial lives can be seen as the Western, middle- and upper class equivalent to microfinance. In Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh, Lamia Karim explains the ills of microfinance:
“By giving loans to people who could not invest the money properly, and by telling them that they would materially improve their condition, the NGOs induced poor people into risk taking that often had…unforeseen consequences on their lives. The problems faced by [a microfinance loan recipient] reflected the unregulated and rapid growth of the microfinance programs in Bangladesh that emphasized an increase in member enrollments, loan disbursements, and installment collections over training and social investment in the lives of the borrowers”.
The capitalist market is considered more important to those in power than ending the problems microfinance claims to be solving. Lifting women out of poverty, helping them build a steady career, and guaranteeing a woman’s own agency are cast aside in favor of a return on investments.
Academia and the media have lauded both microfinance and Sandberg’s trickledown feminism, respectively, but when you dig into them, whom are they helping? Microfinance and Lean In are simply buying into the individual view of success for women in a capitalist society, and as such, both benefit the capitalist market.
In Lean Out, Dawn Foster responds to Sandberg’s consumer/capitalist/individualized feminism and calls instead for direct political and protest action that challenge oppressive systems, rather than individual focus on ambition or profiting from the use of feminist rhetoric or identity.
Foster urges us to lean out of the corporate capitalist model that systematically exploits women: “‘Leaning out’ of the capitalist model is far more effective at securing attention, provoking change, and ensuring demands are met than ‘leaning in’. Few people ever get anything radical accomplished by continuing to play the game”. Microfinance continues to ‘play the game’. Microfinance will never challenge the oppressive structures of power that perpetrate and maintain women’s oppression, nor will Sandberg’s brand-name feminism. Lean out!
(Image Credit: Repeater Books) (Video Credit: Heinemann Media / YouTube)