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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

Today, in 2070, with advanced robotization of jobs in all sectors, “work” has become a minority pursuit and financial inclusion is mostly understood to mean government cash transfers. Other financial products like loans are anachronisms of a bygone era. The government knows that such transfer programs like “unemployment benefits” are the only way to keep the anemic engine of demand alive for the goods and services that are now produced by a smaller and smaller sliver of the population who live in Byzantine splendor far removed from the humdrum circumstances of the vast majority. (Indeed in 2070, “unemployment” is a forgotten term from an era when “work” was a defining feature of life.) And the lack of work extends to what is today called “knowledge economy” occupations as well as almost every other category of white and blue collar work. Now, all humans enjoy a pension plan that goes into effect at birth and is more than enough to meet basic consumption needs. The benefit ends only with death by lethal injection at the mandatory termination age of 120.

Am I painting a scenario that seems wildly implausible? Perhaps.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

In The New York Times last week was a story of loss and despair titled “1.5 Million Missing Black Men”. It stated: “One out of every six black men, who today should be between 25 and 54 years old, have disappeared from daily life.” Where are these men? What does this mean to the women in their communities? The answer to the first question is that they often die early or are living out much of their lives behind bars. And the answer to the second question is equally tragic and heartbreaking: In many ravaged communities, there are not enough men to be fathers and husbands. In our republic, this reality of the missing men is a profound challenge to our values, our democracy, and our future as a nation. I think there is a consensus on that.

So, you ask me: What does this terrible set of facts about an American tragedy have to do with microfinance and international development? In my opinion, an awful lot. As policy makers and practitioners, it often seems that men have disappeared from our “interventions” and work plans. Resources are focused on empowering poor women, who will work hard and take care of the children (half of whom are boys), while the men are scoundrels or losers who cannot be counted on when it comes to the family’s well-being. Why prioritize men in poverty reduction strategies? Why waste resources on this failed sex?

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

There is unfortunately no reliable substitute for family support when it comes to helping a person succeed with their schooling, with their disability, or with their microfinance loan.

Thomas Friedman of The New York Times recently asked educators in Shanghai what made Chinese schools successful, compared to schools in the United States. The unequivocal answer was that while improved teacher training that the U.S. emphasizes was of course important, far and away the key to student achievement was intensive parental involvement; Chinese schools spend time and resources insuring that parents are trained in how to help their children learn.

A heretical Mr. Provocative agrees with conservatives that throwing billions into the latest education reform fad will have extremely limited success as long as family support is anemic or absent. (This is not to say that reformers don’t routinely ask parents to take more responsibility but clearly such a nudge is not enough.) “It’s the parents, stupid,” or, “It’s the family, stupid.”

We have to point at the family as the prime mover even when this is hurtful and it causes “guilt and shame.” Nothing wrong with pricking the conscience. This is a “theory of change” that is millennia old and has long had some success for most religions—in a positive way. But public policy cognoscenti shun the language of judgment and conscience. In not asking more of families are we not party to what George W. Bush called “the bigotry of low expectations?”

My “it’s the family, stupid” sentiment has been reinforced by listening to a recent Ted Talk by Stanford graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Rachel Kolb, who was born profoundly deaf.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

It is time for an impact study on the value of so many microfinance conferences. What drives and sustains this cottage industry, rife with redundancy, terrible for the carbon footprint, a wound to a poor NGO’s bottom line, and arguably a poor use of staff time, especially when said staff is in charge of putting the conference together?

Yes, I know the arguments for attending and/or putting on conferences: networking with newbies and golden oldies; sharing interesting, even industry disruptive ideas; exploring or deepening partnerships with other kin; raising the visibility of the industry through the media that finally this time will give microfinance the coverage it deserves.

And ABOVE ALL, may the gods be merciful, connecting us with the funders to insure the NGO’s future in perpetuity—or at least until the end of the calendar year.

All these are valid and honorable reasons to attend—in moderation.

As for me, I am a guilty regular at the parties among other guilty regulars, who I am quite sure may harbor some of the same doubts about the number of annual microfinance extravaganzas on the docket that I do—all conferences claiming to be the one indispensable conference that no one can afford to miss. Like me, they surely reflect on how the bucks spent on air fare, four star hotels, lavish meals, and other extravagances could be used directly to relieve a thousand human beings suffering in poverty somewhere with a direct cash transfer. And instead are being used to cosset us like the poverty royals that we are.

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> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

Economic inclusion for persons with disabilities (PWDs) is more possible than ever because of technological innovations that can transform the workplace, by making it accessible for persons with different kinds of disabilities. Screen reading software for the blind is just one example. Furthermore, there are some twenty-first century jobs that may perfectly fit the skill set of certain PWDs.

One recent stellar example of PWDs entering the workforce in a new way was reported by Emma Jacobs of the Financial Times on June 7. She spotlights the achievement of Thornkil Sonne, a Danish businessman (and Ashoka Fellow) who supplies autistic recruits to the IT industry and has shown that people with autism routinely demonstrate superior skills compared to their non-autistic peers. Many persons with autism (but by no means all) excel at data entry, software programming, and other technical tasks. This has persuaded SAP, the profit-driven German business software company to recruit 110 autistic employees to test its software products.

Globally, there are millions of vacant jobs in IT. So this could just be the beginning! Such employment opportunities that capitalize on the strengths of the differently-abled to such a degree that they are actually preferred candidates for certain positions in a competitive marketplace is truly extraordinary, even revolutionary, and is something we can all celebrate. But there is a dark side to technological innovations that may doom PWDs just as new opportunities and new acceptance appear on the horizon.

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> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

The painful crawl toward full inclusion of all citizens in all realms of activity is one of the major storylines in American history. It is a key measure of the success of our democratic experiment that we, the people of the 21st century, continue to work with uneven success to perfect our society. How far we have come from the republic of our 18th century founders when only white male property owners enjoyed the privileges of full citizenship! But the advances toward equal rights and opportunities for women, African Americans, gays, persons with disabilities, and other minorities have come through the hard work over many generations of devoted citizen activists fighting for their causes and constituencies.

The point is that rights are not obtained by one Presidential decree, like the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in Confederate territory, or one legal remedy, like the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that enshrined women’s right to vote. These were essential milestones that secured progress, but they were preceded by decades of struggle and would have proven ephemeral if the generations that followed had not persisted in that struggle. There were many setbacks and detours along the way. Nothing was automatic or achieved without extraordinary persistence and sacrifice.

In pursuing financial inclusion, the Center for Financial Inclusion works toward this ideal of non-discrimination, with a special emphasis on economic equality and opportunity for poor people around the world. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the “Responsible Treatment of Clients” principle, one of the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Principles for customers of financial institutions.

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> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

The elephant in the room of vulnerable minorities that continue to be excluded in large numbers from microfinance services is the globe’s second largest population after women: men. The vulnerability of men is often overlooked, due to their historic domination of women and their control of wealth in most societies throughout recorded history. Of course for every wealthy landowner or merchant, there were many slaves, landless laborers, and indentured servants, who controlled none of the world’s wealth and were lucky if they scratched out a living.

When microcredit first gained traction and credibility as a poverty alleviation strategy in the seventies, creating self-employment opportunities for women in the informal sector was central to its mission. Organizations like Women’s World Banking (birthed at the UN’s World Conference on Women in 1975) and Pro Mujer (1990) embodied this outreach strategy. There were very sound reasons to focus on women, who are and remain the poorest of the poor. And this emphasis reflected the zeitgeist of the time, as many of the early leaders of microfinance came of age in the women’s movement. Theirs was a struggle for equal rights and equal pay in societies that were patriarchal and discriminatory. It was a logical next step to bring this message of women’s rights to international development work.

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>Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

What do we know about gender wage equality at microfinance institutions? Is greater operational efficiency at MFIs achieved in part at the expense of women’s pay? Discrimination against women as employees is pervasive around the world.  For example, in the United States, it was only in 2009 that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act became law. Even today, American women continue to earn significantly less than men for comparable work—77 cents to every dollar, according to some studies. I have looked around for evidence that MFIs are conscious of this issue, but my research uncovered no clear insistence for compensation equality for the employees of microfinance institutions from either social investors or industry standard setting groups. In fact, the issue isn’t discussed or even raised.

The highly regarded and influential Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) recently adopted Universal Standards for Social Performance Management, which sets social performance goals for MFIs. The standards are representative of this striking silence on the issue of gender wage equality. While the document includes treating “employees responsibly” as one of the six key areas that must be addressed, it merely affirms blandly: “5a.2 Employee compensation levels constitute a living wage for employees.” It is only in the “Additional Good Practices” annex that the SPTF is more expansive about management standards when it comes to employees, but even then it does not specifically address wage discrimination, see the following: Read the rest of this entry »

>Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

It is striking to a regular reader of microfinance books and articles how little  global poverty is analyzed in terms of class differences and “man-made” political inequality. Indeed it appears to be very nearly absent from the literature.

The lack of discussion about the root causes of poverty is surprising but perhaps an understandable backlash against the cold war era when simplistic Marxist analysis of capitalism as the evil behind every planetary woe–including  the great divide between the haves and the have-nots–gave the search for causation a bad name. Is it a mere coincidence that the rise of a “grassroots capitalism” (aka microfinance—the provision of small amounts of capital to the self-employed poor) as a new approach to poverty reduction, came at a time when Marxism as an ideology was increasingly seen as a catastrophic failure? The two great Communist giants, the Soviet Union and China (along with their proxies) had failed to surpass, let alone equal—the living standards of people in the Western capitalist democracies. By the mid-eighties, after a decade of growing disillusionment, a bipolar world had lost one of its poles and the “hegemony” of capitalism seemed beyond dispute.

To the founding mothers and fathers of microcredit in the late seventies (many of them disillusioned lefties, who had morphed into reluctant capitalists) focusing on the “why” of inequality was unhelpful and stood in the way of a pragmatic approach to economic empowerment. Read the rest of this entry »

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