By Kanchana N. Ruwanpura, Bhumika Muchhala and Smriti Rao
Countless images of women carers flitted through April-July 2022 on Sri Lankan television screens, social media, and newspapers. Carers with young children, mothers with new-borns leaving them with equally young children while they stood in queue for gas or kerosene, children doing their homework on tuk-tuks while their parents got in line for petrol and diesel. Yet, Sri Lankan policy pronouncements rarely mention working-class women. In a country where women comprise 52% of the population, this is astounding. Especially so when the dominant three foreign exchange earners for the country – garments, tea exports and migrant workers to the Middle East – rest on the efforts of women workers.
In the current response to Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, the voices and needs of working-class women are once again being ignored by policymakers, despite the evidence all-around of women intensifying their unpaid labour even as the conditions under which they perform paid labour deteriorate.
As feminist economists, our argument is straightforward: debt justice is a feminist value and principle. And at the core of our understanding of debt justice is the principle that working class women cannot be made to pay for the ‘odious debt’ generated by the recklessness and corruption of (almost entirely male) Sri Lankan political elites.
How to adapt to a changing climate is one of the foremost questions of our era. In the last decade, microfinance has shot to prominence as a highly-promoted tool of adaptation to climate and environmental change. In an abridged version of a 2009 report commissioned by the Grameen Foundation and Oxfam US, Dowla argues that ‘within the populations that will be most affected by global warming, the plight of many individuals is linked to the ability of microfinance institutions to adapt to the consequences of climate change’.
In contrast to these emerging discourses and practices that frame microfinance as a key tool of climate adaptation, our recent research with rice farmers in rural Cambodia finds that microfinance loans are leading to an over-indebtedness emergency that significantly undermines borrowers’ long-term coping and adaptive capacity in a changing climate. Such loans often push households to borrow more, work more, sacrifice food quality and quantity, quit farming, and erode and sell their assets, including land. The cost of financialised coping strategies can trap rural populaces in financial obligations which they struggle to service and which manifests ultimately as over-indebtedness. Microfinance ends up promoting a particular form of climate adaptation: one that is individualised, incremental, and geared towards the further integration of populations into processes of capital accumulation.
This form of adaptation is highly profitable. Indeed, as Dowla argues in that same paper, each new climate-linked shock ‘opens up opportunities for the microfinance institutions and their clients’. Yet the corollary to this profitability is that the costs of such an adaptation tend to be borne by the poor, who find themselves exposed not only to the rigours of the environment but now the global market too.
Recent trends may well have puzzled critical observers of global development policy. On the one hand, we witness the rise of what Daniela Gabor has aptly termed the ‘Wall Street Consensus,’ an emerging paradigm promoting the mobilisation of private finance as a developmental priority. Southern states are encouraged to re-engineer their domestic financial systems around securities and derivatives markets, create ‘investable’ opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure, water, climate adaptation, health and education, as well as deploy policies that specifically ‘de-risk’ investment for global investors. In this formulation Southern states are subordinated to global financial capital and their policy space is significantly constrained.
On the other hand, however, we observe a tendency towards state capitalism, wherein states are increasingly active within markets, as entrepreneurs and owners of capital as well as regulatory agents in the world economy. Across the income spectrum states have embraced the role of agents of transformation and development. In the global South, one way these trends manifest is in the proliferation of new modalities of spatialised industrial policy underpinned by large-scale development projects. Examples include the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, Indonesia Vision 2045, the Plan Sénégal Émergent, Morocco’s New Development Model, and the developmental aspects of Mexico’s Fourth Transformation such as the Tehuantepec Isthmus Interoceanic Corridor. Some of these plans have benefitted from the rise of China and its multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which traditional development actors now increasingly seek to counter by providing alternative initiatives.
The mortgaging of land, a risky practice usually treated as just an economic and legal contract, hasneeded a broader set of perspectives for a fuller, more humanist understanding. Most of the existing scholarly literature on land and mortgages has been written by economists and legal specialists, reflecting the perspectives of their disciplinary traditions. Lacking are assessments from a wider range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, drawing upon historical experiences, cultural meanings, and locally informed perspectives.
Our recent edited volume, drawing on historical and observational research in different parts of the world, is meant to help fill that gap. It examines mortgaging as a social and cultural phenomenon to show its origins, variation, and effects on human lives and communities. Here anthropologists, historians, and economists explore archival, printed, and ethnographic evidence about mortgage. The book shows how mortgages affect people on the ground, where local forms of mutuality mix with larger bureaucracies. Tracing origins of land titling, pledging, and the mortgage in over millennia and incorporating findings from authors’ original field research, the book explores effects of government, bank, and aid agency attempts and impositions meant to encourage mortgage lending and borrowing. It shows how these mix in practice, in different languages, currencies, and contexts, with locally rooted understandings, and how all parties have sought, and too often failed, to make adjustments. The outcomes of mortgage in Africa, Europe, Asia, and America challenge economic development orthodoxies, calling for a human-centered exploration of this age-old institution. It must take account, we insist, of emotions, vulnerabilities, and histories of unexpected outcomes, as shown in different societies, cultures, and environmental and political conditions.
Informal savings group in Tarime district, Tanzania. Photo: Daivi Rodima-Taylor
Self-help groups can be found in many areas of Africa—including the chama groups of Kenya, isusu of Nigeria, and stokvels of South Africa (Ardener and Burman 1995). Their customary rotating credit arrangement is also popular among African diaspora communities (Hossein 2018; Ardener 2010). A significant rise has occurred in these groups at the wake of the neoliberal restructuring reforms of the 1980s-90s, with a decline in formal sector employment and state-funded producer cooperatives. At present, these mutual support groups are targeted by FinTech platforms as well as conventional banks with various financial products and software apps. My recent research explores of the contentious interplay between the formal and informal finance in these emerging digital interfaces in Africa. It studies the intersection of FinTech with the social economies of African mutual help groups in Kenya and South Africa, situating this dynamic in longer-term colonial legacies and present-day policies of extractive financialization (Rodima-Taylor 2022).
Informal mutual support groups with their saving-credit patterns have long served as an inspiration for the development industry. The initially successful Grameen micro-finance model drew on pre-existing reciprocities and mutually negotiated liability in largely informal contexts. However, as the microfinance formula shifted from socially situated lending towards ‘fast-scaling’ and universalizing group lending in an expanding range of localities, the industry was faced with repayment crisis (see Haldar and Stiglitz 2016). The recent conceptual shift from microfinance to digital financial inclusion foregrounds mobile payments and fee-based service delivery, with payment industry also experimenting with new sources of value such as customer data (Maurer 2015). Microloans have remained an important part of the digital financial inclusion enterprise, with poorly regulated lending apps fueling over-indebtedness. As informal savings groups and mutual support associations have become central in the livelihoods in many low-income communities, I suggest that more attention is needed to the intersection between the self-help groups and FinTech initiatives in the global South.
In Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World, sociologist and filmmaker Rupert Russell travelled to some of the world’s most chaotic places: war zones in Ukraine, Iraq, and Somalia, the climate wars in Kenya and Guatemala, and Venezuela’s economic catastrophe. Told as gonzo investigation into what made the 2010s so tumultuous, Russell links each of these eruptions to swings in commodity prices, and the financial speculators whose bets set their prices.
Digital and mobile finance applications have boomed in Kenya over the last decade. Mobile money, Vodafone’s M-Pesa system in particular, is ubiquitous. Kenyan banks and smaller start-ups have led the adoption of a wider range of mobile and digital financial applications.
For promoters of fintech as a tool for development, Kenya is a paradigm case. Estimates from Tavneet Suri and William Jack – suggesting that the advent of M-Pesa had directly moved 194 000 households, equivalent to 2 percent of the country, out of extreme poverty – have been triumphantly cited across a wide range of mediareports and policy documents. The rapid adoption of mobile and digital finance, according to advocates, has allowed Kenya to ‘leapfrog’ the developmental constraints of its existing financial system. In the words of one author: ‘new technologies solve problems arising from weak institutional infrastructure and the cost structure of conventional banking’.
There are good reasons to question this rosy narrative, as recent critics have demonstrated compellingly. Among others, Milford Bateman and colleagues raise a number of important methodological and other objections to Suri and Jack’s claims, and Serena Natile shows how narratives of ‘inclusion’ mask the perpetuation of gendered patterns of exclusion and inequality. Wider applications of fintech in Kenya have come in for critique as well. Kevin Donovan and Emma Park highlight emerging patterns of digitally-enabled over-indebtedness. Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino trace the emergence of monopolistic corporate power enacted through the extension of digital platforms (including for finance) in Kenyan agriculture. Ali Bhagat and Leanne Roderick show the emergence of new forms of racialized dispossession and exploitation through efforts to extend fintech applications to refugees in Kenya.
On a more basic level, ‘leapfrogging’ narratives have to contend with the fact that the geography of Kenyan fintech looks a lot like that of the financial system more generally. The fintech boom is predominantly an urban phenomenon, and especially concentrated in Mombasa and in and around Nairobi. Data from the 2019 national ‘FinAccess’ survey shows that 6.6 percent of respondents currently or had previously used of mobile lending services, and 6.4 percent reported the same of digital lending apps. The corresponding figures among urban residents were 17.2 and 11.4 percent. The proportion of residents in Nairobi Metropolitan Area and Mombasa using mobile money services (25 percent) and digital lending apps (18.2 percent) is more than double the respective use rates of mobile (12.3 percent) and digital borrowing (7.1 percent) among urban residents elsewhere.
Next January the next United Nations Programme of Action for least developed countries (LDCs) will launch in Doha. It will set the framework for the next 10 years of international support for the world’s 46 officially poorest and most structurally disadvantaged countries, home to around a billion people.
LDCs are low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development. Membership of the category is based on three criteria: income per capita, human assets and economic and environmental vulnerability.
Assistance for LDCs currently falls under three categories: trade, aid and a range of ad hoc measures broadly aimed at help with taking part in the international system, such as lower contributions to the UN budget and support for travel to international meetings like the annual UN General Assembly.
Support is largely based on the premise that LDCs are artificially or temporarily excluded from global commerce. Preferential market access, temporary development assistance and help with participating in multilateral processes are intended to tackle this defect, in turn helping the LDCs ‘catch up’.
Dating to 1971, the category is the only one recognised in UN and multilateral legal texts. There is no official ‘developing country’ or ‘middle income’ category with associated support measures. Low income countries are not specifically targeted, and the small and vulnerable states are only recognised as a working group at the World Trade Organisation. They are not acknowledged in the legal texts.
Although donors don’t meet aid pledges and support doesn’t go far enough, official targets are possible because the LDC group is officially recognised in the UN system and has legal bearing. An example of such a target is the commitment by developed countries to deliver 0.15-0.20% of gross national income (GNI) in development assistance to LDCs. The European Union offers duty-free, quota-free market access to LDC exports under its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme for LDCs.
The theory behind support for LDCs is implicitly based on the mainstream economics view that LDCs lag behind because they aren’t exposed enough to correct market prices and conditions. The removal of so-called distortions like overseas tariff and non-tariff barriers, alongside temporary development assistance and help taking part in the global system, is supposed to free up these economies to play a fuller role in the international economy. Economic growth will drive development and reduce poverty.
The evidence shows that for most LDCs this theory never worked. Until the pandemic the economies of some LDCs were performing well. Up to 12 could leave the category in coming years. A few, like Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar, were able to take advantage of lower tariffs for their garment exports. These three countries account for 87% of imports to the EU under EBA.
But half were supposed to meet the criteria by 2020, according to international targets. 12 graduations falls well short. The six that have left since the formation of the category in 1971 have not all done so because of better international market access or special support measures. Commodity exports, tourism or improved health and education are mostly responsible.
The remaining LDCs aren’t catching up. The gap is widening. The pandemic devastated the group. Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank 1.3% on average in 2020, with the economies of 37 contracting during the year and extreme poverty in the group rising by a staggering 84 million. But even before Covid, average real GDP per capita for the group had long diverged from other developing countries and the rest of the world.