Monday, November 15, 2010

Microfinance: Capitalism as Charity

Nicholas Kristof, in Sunday's NY Times, talks about microfinance in Pakistan:

'Roshaneh Zafar is an American- educated banker who fights extremism with microfinance. She has dedicated her life to empowering some of Pakistan’s most impoverished women and giving them the tools to run businesses of their own. The United States should learn from warriors like her.

'Bullets and drones may kill terrorists, but Roshaneh creates jobs and educational opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people — draining the swamps that breed terrorists.

'“Charity is limited, but capitalism isn’t,” Roshaneh said. “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.” That’s the point of microfinance — typically, lending very poor people small amounts of money so that they can buy a rickshaw or raw materials and start a tiny business.'

She's, perhaps, teaching people to fish, in an old metaphor, rather than simply feeding them fish. So, teach a man to fish. Needs education and training for that. Then, he needs to be able to fish where there are, in fact, fish--perhaps in a river where tons worth of PCBs, or a Gulf of Mexico with millions of barrels of spilt oil, have been cleaned up, or, better yet, not dumped because of oversight and regulation from without. Perhaps, a market for his fish, a middle class with money to spend, confident and stable because of good jobs at good wages, with good benefits and security in retirement, the latter vital both for retirees and their families. An organization capable of patrolling the waters for purposes of police and rescue, treaties defining their right to fish in particular waters. You get the idea.

The microfinancier of the article--capitalist and, too, female and active outside traditional roles, in a part of the world where neither is always welcome, exemplifies decency, foresightedness and courage. She's done a lot of good, with little if any help from anybody, or government, or NGO. More power to her. Will such as her always suffice? Can individuals, organizations and governments with resources applied towards bettering the lot of developing countries learn from her example, and deploy their money and actions more wisely, or should they withdraw from the field entirely as inherently counterproductive?

Recast thus, I'd suggest that these remain open rather than solved questions, even in the light of transparent failure of many aid programs conducted from without. But I entirely agree that there's much to learn from, as well as applaud, here. Even that bete noir of the right, the Nobel Committee, recognized with a Peace Prize one of the pioneers of microfinance, Mohammed Yunus (a Muslim). There's a sliver of common ground here. All should recognise it, cherish it, learn from it, not only from an ideologically driven perspective but as a celebration of the potential for Homo (sic) sapiens to better our lot, dry a couple of lachrymal secretions in this vale of wrath and tears and move on. Dare I say, move on together?

Sure, i'll say that..

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