Canadian Journal of Development Studies April 2012
Earlier success stories of microfinance coming out of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank were widely received with unbridled enthusiasm. However, more recently, randomised control trials investigating its effectiveness in reducing poverty (e.g. Banerjee et al. 2010 Dupas and Robinson 2009). have produced mixed results.
Last year’s microfinance crisis in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where the government effectively cancelled the debt of many microfinance borrowers as a result of stories of over-indebted women committing suicide, has served to put microfinance under the microscope.
In Saris on scooters, Sheila McLeod Arnopoulos explores the effects of microfinance on women in some of India’s more remote villages.
The book, a result of investigative journalism, provides a welcome alternative approach to examining the field. An acclaimed journalist and former professor of journalism at Concordia University, Montreal, McLeod Arnopoulos spent some 21 months in India (between 2001 and 2008) investigating the impacts of microfinance on the economic circumstances of women in rural areas, as well as on their social and political lives.
The book is alive with carefully researched examples. A typical case involves a landless Dalit woman who was married at a very young age into a life of bondage as a labourer. Finding the courage to join a local women’s microfinance self-help group, she was able obtain the seed capital necessary to set up a small livestock business and escape her life of bondage. The increased economic security enriched her life in a number of ways.
She was consistently able to feed her family and send her children to school, and her self-confidence increased, as did her status inside and outside the home. This case, and several others like it in the book, underscore McLeod Arnopoulos’s belief that microfinance is helping to unlock the vast potential of Indian villages.
However, what is unclear is the degree to which the cases that the author elected to include in the book are biased towards success stories.
The strength of the book is that it bears witness to the agency gained by women in self-help groups.
Studies narrowly employing quantitative methods on the impacts of microfinance tend to gloss over the less tangible benefits of access to microfinance, such as increased self-confidence among borrowers.
Most of the 26 chapters in Saris on scooters provide first-hand accounts that can only emerge from time-consuming field interviews, and are devoted to telling the stories of the women involved in microfinance initiatives and their evolving roles in their respective communities. It emerges that, together, these remarkable groups of women can fight to improve the lives of people in their villages by increasing economic activity, enrolling more children in school, promoting sustainable organic farming techniques, gaining a political voice and challenging India’s rigid caste system.
This book is useful for those unfamiliar with the microfinance literature, as well as those who are familiar with it but may have become cynical as a result of the general characterisation of the sector as presenting ‘nice stories, lying data’.
McLeod Arnopoulos’s detailed accounts suggest that access to microfinance may empower women in rural India.
Her work reminds us of the social dimensions that were central to the earlier days of microfinance, but got lost sight of as more emphasis became placed on narrower and conventional commercial banking aspects.
Going forward, further research should take a variety of perspectives in order to gain a broader view of the impact and effectiveness of microfinance.
Banerjee, A. 2010. ###em