Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic
Hugh Sinclair tells all in his new book Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microfinance Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poor. One part gossip column and thus character assassination and one part brave detective novel, the book, lengthening an already long queue of microfinance critiques, stands alone in its gripping detail, personal reflections and hilarious stories.
However readable Confessions may be, it is a good book struggling to be a wonderful book. A skilled editor could have fixed so much. For example, why all the naming and shaming? Identifying CEOs steering funds and MFIs away from their missions furthers the author’s cause. But, identifying a young woman who dashes too quickly through her due diligence is plain old mean. A good editor might have shaken some sense into the author as to which personalities should and should not take the lash of his pen.
I will digress here. Mr. Sinclair has made it clear that any criticism of the book reveals the reader’s “shoot-the-messenger” position. If you don’t get Confessions, goes the subtext, you are one of Them, a loser and part of the pro-microfinance establishment. Still, I will forge ahead and point out two more problems, both fixable through editing.
Sticking with the theme of naming or shaming, how is it that the author is meticulous in his rooting out of so many financial foes, yet is lax in specifying the MFI on whose board he serves, the very MFI that is so earnest, so ethical, and so profitable (but not too profitable)? Is this because, as is the case with many MFIs, cracks are deepening beneath the hard gloss of success, and the vaunted MFI cannot endure a curious reader’s scrutiny? Or is it that he has found the one decent MFI on earth and doesn’t want to let the rest of us in on the fun? Hard to know.
Onto the next problem. The author teeters between self-effacement (funny) and self-congratulations (not so funny). As the pages turn, the reader grows weary of an unbroken hum of righteousness - one that detracts from the author’s bold, fresh surveillance. Editor, where are you?
But, these complaints seem minor when contrasted with the book’s virtues, both explicit and unintentional. His depictions of a sinister, greedy welter of MFIs and their intermediaries entertain and enlighten. I learned for the first time about the trials of LAPO and its throng of misguided supporters. And the redaction from varied sources of the No Pago Movimiento helped confirm my own hunches. It did seem odd that a popular overthrow of rapacious MFIs in Nicaragua was viewed by the industry as a bad thing, when as the author points out, it was actually a good thing. If one clings to the idea that microfinance might ignite people power, then No Pago is one instance where the industry could claim success.
For me a big lesson of the book is an implicit warning to all of us who have latched onto the savings dimension of microfinance. Will we in ten years’ time be reading our own exposés? I fear, yes. Maybe we have gone overboard trying to persuade unassuming folks to stash their hard earned pennies into anything but the mattress, when those savings might vaporize into the fog of poor credit union management, unpracticed savings groups, fee-drunk banks, or loosely supervised pipes of digital money. Maybe we need to take a hard look now into what we so ardently advocate, else we will see our own names pop up in Mr. Sinclair’s next book.
There is another implicit warning in Confessions: it has to do with women. Females don’t come across well, though the author makes various attempts to give examples of helpful women, but frankly, we don’t look very helpful or very strong, or much like leaders. We look like wimps, gutless. And maybe that is because we have been gutless. We did not strike at the lies of the Microcredit Summit when we knew they were lies, or at the small fibs perpetuated by MFIs. We did not chip away at the menacing accretions that slowly layered in around the cause (remember all those ratios?) which in fact diverted us from the cause, one purportedly about women. Nor did we unite when we heard first hand from female borrowers who had been humiliated by loan collectors, their cows taken, their roofs ripped off, their children lent to the landlord. For decades we have girated dumbly inside the spin machine.
There are some very powerful females in microfinance. They are at places like SEWA, ADOPEM, and Fonkoze. They are in savings groups, credit unions, and banks. They are in regulatory bodies, foundations and networks. But, honestly, while each woman in each place might be doing her bit to affect change in front of her, each is isolated and allowing a microfinance machismo to dictate the trajectory of services to women. It is happening today, now. We can just just stand by, ask meekly that we have social performance indicators, or we really can do something about it. Thank you, Mr. Sinclair.