Sunday 18 March 2012

Microloans - Benefits and Doubts

Sam Storr

A female microcredit collective. Jaimoen Kuriakose/ENAM Microfinance.
Microcredit is the development issue that has most inflamed passions in the last decade, touted by its many advocates as a near-universal ‘weapon’ against poverty and hunger. 2005 was declared the International Year of Microcredit, and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to microloan pioneer Mohammad Yunus for the successes of his Bangladeshi Grameen Bank. Recently though, the hype has met with widespread criticism, and microloans risk being torn from the development handbook.

The Grameen model is to spread risk by having small groups borrow at high interest, assuming that others will compensate if one individual struggles to pay. Their programs are also accompanied by financial awareness-raising. Another approach taken by charities such as Kiva is to introduce citizen lenders to profiles of those in need of cash around the globe, usually boasting high repayment rates, support to female entrepreneurs and again pushing financial advice. The future looks to be in the hands of African initiatives such as M-Pesa, which use the ubiquity of mobile phones to allow transfers. 

The idea that microloans were generally good at reducing poverty, in particular by targeting the women who control household budgets, was initially spread by a few prominent analyses of individual families in Bangladesh. These are now mired in disputes over the construction and interpretation of experimental surveys, or to what extent women do really take control of the money. 

Microcredit charities give names, faces and stories to their entrepreneurs. John Briggs/Kiva.
The growing consensus is that microloans do create positive stories, offering a much-needed financial flexibility for those at the tipping-point of a loss or a transformation of livelihood, but not offering the grand grass-roots led economic development that was first imagined. Those who despair that microloans have failed should first question the underlying assumption that there ever an easy fix to be found.

Overall, it seems microloans are most likely to be used to supplement household budgets. Even when invested, James Surowiecki of New Yorker argues that microloans, being so small, only encourage the one-man enterprises already common to poorer economies, rather than the widespread wage-employment needed for real change. However, the ability to maintain spending through the rough, keeping a child in school or accessing healthcare, has important benefits that should not be overlooked.

It is too easily assumed that, with a little training, microloans will be used rationally to exploit economic opportunities in all contexts. One recent paper by Jamie Olsen and Wendy Morgan argues that, although cow ownership may be pushed by NGOs as an alternative income, cow husbandry is time-intensive and costly. They believe that there are incentives in rural India for lower castes to avoid the stigmatism of manual labour and own livestock like the higher castes, despite their prospects or the high-interest debt involved. In Bangladesh, there are also reports that microloans have greatly inflated dowry prices. 

As with any loan, debt dependency is a real possibility. This was driven home by the spate of defaults and related suicides that led to the demise of the microcredit industry in Andhra Pradesh. The mission of microfinance is also seen as being partially corrupted by commercial exploitation.

The sudden enthusiasm for microloans is partly a response to the failed macro- lending of the 1970s and 1980s. Whilst charity is tainted by the idea that it disempowers people and creates dependency, microloans invoke images of the buzzing, responsible small capitalist that resonate with many policymakers today, and especially with key organisations such as the World Bank. Morgan and Olson see microloans as part of a neoliberal approach that imagines growth as a mere business of connecting different forms of capital, overlooking the complexities of finance at the micro-level. The research suggesting that microcredit specifically targets women also lends the policy great power.

Aid agencies themselves have been criticised for being too powerful and unaccountable, masking inefficiency or even exploitation. As with microloans, the idea of ‘participatory development’ –involving recipients in their own aid – achieved dominance as an imagined panacea. Its popularity continues unabated despite the acknowledgement that participatory approaches could sometimes be no more than a bureaucratic farce, only masking exploitative relationships. Lending money directly to those who need it, at high interest, appears to be a step beyond participation. This image of economic agency overlooks the fact that microcredit organisations are still heavily encouraging prescribed patterns of behaviour, and in some cases creating debt dependency. Accountable reporting on the social impact of microloans remains in its infancy.

Microloans therefore offer a simple, profitable solution that satisfies the preoccupations of both neoliberals and development professionals. The rocky history of microcredit suggests that the search for the new has overshadowed the fear of repeating past mistakes.

A third reason for the rampant popularity of microloans is what they offer donor publics. As Espen Berg, formerly of the United Youth Development Organization, points out, peer-to-peer lending bridges the gap between those who give and those who receive. Charity is partly a self-gratifying act, and most private charities strive hard to create this sense of direct connection. While there are serious problems with the commoditisation of aid, the general public is jaded by an overload of harrowing images; it would be a positive and very modern development if the story-telling process was taken from the hands of aid agencies. However, Kiva appears to disburse loans before people have even donated, and the homogeneous profiles farmed by sites such as World Vision Microloans suggest that this is partly a marketing illusion. 

Micro-lending is a longstanding reality, and it is generally positive that access to this valuable resource is being spread by largely well-intended organisations.  Yet it seems clear that they cannot supplant the broader range of development policies. At their worst, microloans can sometimes appear no more than a newly-dressed version of old practices, or even uniquely dangerous. As always, donor nations and the public must be more mindful of imposing their own agendas, seeking magic bullets in lieu of more difficult and complex solutions to global inequality. Rather than dismiss microloans as myth, it would be better to examine the mythology itself.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Transparency in Extractive Industry

Rachael McCallum

Transparency in extractive industry is crucial to poverty reduction. EU Observer.
The international development agenda is largely all encompassing, but perhaps one area it still needs to more directly address is the largely untapped potential of extractive industry profits being used as a means to reduce poverty. Indeed, revenues from natural resources such as oil should and could spur economic and social development in many developing countries. 

However, in many resource-rich countries, the lack of accountability and transparency in the management of the revenues from extractive industry exacerbates socio-economic problems, corruption and conflict. The term "resource curse" is used to describe continents such as Africa, where natural resource rich countries appear to have experienced set-backs in development and governance. In some countries, it has also fuelled human rights abuses and increased political, social and economics insecurity. 

Some countries rich in oil, gas and minerals have under-performed relative to other countries without natural wealth. This close correlation between countries rich in natural resources and countries with high poverty highlights the need for a greater degree of transparency in natural resources payments. It is estimated that Africa´s natural resource were worth 246 billion US dollars in exports in 2009, six times greater than the money it received from overseas aid, however, little of this value remained in Africa. This figure is undoubtedly set to multiply in the coming decade as we look to Africa's oil reserves as an alternative to Middle Eastern oil, making transparency in extractive industries more important than ever.

The money from commodity resources often stays in the hands of corrupt politicians, or a select few individuals rather than being spent on a country’s development. Having greater transparency in resource revenues could mean that whilst corruption will not be completely eradicated, it could be drastically reduced. Increasing transparency and knowledge of revenues will empower citizens and institutions to hold governments accountable. It also meant that the mismanagement or diversion of revenues from sustainable development purposes will become much more difficult, which will no doubt benefit developing and transition economies, particularly in term of attracting foreign direct investment. 

Whilst, the argument has been made that in increasing transparency in extractive industries could harm developing countries by reducing the incentive for companies, this does not have to be the case. Responsible companies stand to benefit from a more level playing field, a more predictable business environment and hopefully better prospects for energy security. 

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) was announced by then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, September 2002. Its aim is to increase transparency over payments by companies to governments and government-linked entities, as well as transparency over revenues by those host country governments. It has been almost a decade since this announcement, and whilst it has been a long time coming, step towards legally binding legislation has happened.

The Cardin-Lugar Transparency Provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires oil, gas, and mining companies registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to publish how much they each pay to foreign countries and the U.S. government.

The EU has also made strides in transparency in extractive industries, with the European Commission publishing proposals for a new EU-wide law that will oblige European oil, gas, mining, and forestry companies to publish what they pay to governments around the world. By proposing to oblige extractive and forestry companies listed in the EU, and even large unlisted companies, to publish information on their payments to foreign governments, the European Commission would have taken a couple of steps further than the US, and its Dodd-Frank Wall Street legislation.

For transparency in extractive industries to be successful, it needs to be a multi-stakeholder initiative; it needs to involve the countries hosting extractive industries as well as the countries where the companies are based such as the US, the EU and China. State-owned companies and small, private companies, as well as the multinationals, will all need to be involved to ensure a level playing field. 

This new legislation being introduced will allow for closer examination as to whether or not developing countries are receiving a fair deal for the exploitation of its resources, and the fact that it calls for transparency on a country by country and project by project basis is very encouraging. The secrecy surrounding payments to governments has often led to large scale corruption, violence and civil war in resource rich countries.  Country by country reporting can help empower citizens to hold their government to account. The transparent initiative needs to be universally applied in the hopes that it can have a positive impact on corruption in extractive industries, reducing natural resources exploitation and the resulting set backs in economic and political development, good governance and human rights. These consequences of murky natural resources extractive worldwide can be considered as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, and is one which can be helped.