A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit
Joanne Meyerowitz
Princeton University Press, $32 (cloth)

A Critical History of Poverty Finance: Colonial Roots and Neoliberal Failures
Nick Bernards
Pluto Press, $26.95 (paperback)

Making Women Pay: Microfinance in Urban India
Smitha Radhakrishnan
Duke University Press, $26.95 (paperback)

Democratizing Finance: Restructuring Credit to Transform Society
Fred Block and Robert Hockett
Verso Books, $24.46 (paperback)

When the Grameen Bank and the Bangladeshi academic who helped start it, Muhammad Yunus, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, the event marked the rise of microfinance—the style of global development they pioneered. The prize committee joined supporters such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and governments across the Global South in valorizing the idea that making small loans to those typically considered unworthy of credit could “empower” them and “alleviate” poverty.

Microfinance made markets the key domain for fighting global poverty.

After experimenting for a number of years, Yunus launched the Grameen Bank in 1983, lending working capital (often as little as a few dollars) to rural women making handicrafts or running shops. Grameen’s appeal was captured in the idea of “social business” that Yunus extolled. While he readily critiqued exclusionary banks and predatory moneylenders, microcredit was hardly opposed to commerce. Instead, it made markets the key domain for fighting global poverty. After all, these were loans not handouts. Lenders expected women to use the money profitably, often grouping Grameen borrowers together so they were jointly liable for individual debts. They believed that social pressure and mutual support would significantly diminish the rate of default—and it did.

By the turn of the millennium, Yunus was microcredit’s most effective global salesman. The 1997 Microcredit Summit in Washington, D.C., launched a plan “to reach 100 million of the world’s poorest families, especially the women of those families, with credit for self-employment.” Influential advocates such as Nicholas Kristof and Hillary Clinton spread the gospel through emotional appeals to individuals and institutions: finally, here was something that could lift millions out of poverty. And the message resonated, not least because it aligned with the prevailing liberalism of the time. It was pro-poor and pro-woman, and it hinged on private initiative rather than state welfare or political struggle.

Yet not even half a decade after Yunus’s Nobel Prize, the popular consensus on microfinance started to unravel. A series of crises among borrowers suggested that virtuous “credit” could not so easily be divorced from odious “debt.” In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a leading laboratory for microfinance, the government’s enthusiasm for the program and a turn to profit-oriented lending led to widespread, exploitative loans. Once-negotiable microloan repayment schedules became increasingly stringent and extractive. Some households were borrowing from as many as ten different institutions, often using one expensive loan to pay off another as they struggled with agrarian crises and precarious employment. One government report found at least fifty-four suicides, as lenders harassed borrowers for repayment. These deaths were the most visible signs of a promise gone awry. When local politicians denounced the obligation to pay creditors, millions of citizens refused to repay their outstanding loans. By one account, 98 percent collection rates suddenly dropped to less than 10 percent.

Capitalist imperatives have conspired repeatedly to rehabilitate poverty capital as a talisman of progress.

The crisis and backlash in Andhra Pradesh was hardly unique. In her 2010 book Poverty Capital, Ananya Roy details how microfinance’s uptake in more commercial models eroded any potential virtue in the Grameen Bank model. Some microfinance proponents sounded alarms over disasters such as Andhra Pradesh; even mainstream economists cast doubt on the benefits of microloans. Yet others, such as the World Bank’s microfinance evangelists, blamed the problems in places such as Andhra Pradesh less on the extractive nature of debt than on the “populist pronouncements” of politicians, which encouraged “clients to question their obligations to repay.” In the face of controversy, advocates rebranded microcredit as “financial inclusion,” with digital technologies for credit scoring and payment heralded as new means to reach the promise. By 2015 the global microfinance industry acquired an estimated 200 million clients. Since then, digital lenders have further expanded the frontier, often with devastating effects.

The simultaneous allure and anxiety that characterizes microfinance has spurred two new histories of the industry. The books—Bernards’s A Critical History of Poverty Finance: Colonial Roots and Neoliberal Failures (2022) and Joanne Meyerowitz’s A War on Global Poverty: The Lost Promise of Redistribution and the Rise of Microcredit (2021)—depart from the optimism of 1997 and 2006. They instead view microfinance as rooted in colonial and neoliberal models for the governing of workers, the extraction of value, and the maintenance of inequality. Through attention to the ideas and instruments of microfinanciers, these scholars offer important critiques. Yet in attending mostly to the archives of development practitioners, they offer fewer insights into what borrowers want and how they challenge hegemonic finance. Moreover, seeing the history of microfinance as an ongoing repetition of exploitation means the authors cannot offer a vision in which finance—whether socialized, decommodified, or democratized—might play a role in improving the lives of the global majority.

In international development, crisis and critique are rarely enough to scrap favored initiatives. As Bernards argues in his new book on “poverty finance,” a term he uses to include microfinance and associated initiatives, even sullied ideas can live on despite coming to nothing. Examining microfinance’s antecedents as far back as interwar empires, he writes that “Most of these have failed on their own terms; virtually all have failed to deliver substantial benefits; none have unambiguously delivered significant, large-scale reductions in poverty.” This history of failure is, ironically, a reason for the continued commitment to microfinance and its variants. Quoting geographer Jamie Peck, Bernards writes that poverty finance tends to “fail and flail forward.” A peculiar mix of evergreen optimism, opportunistic forgetting, and capitalist imperatives have conspired repeatedly to rehabilitate poverty capital as a talisman of progress.

The staunch commitment to using financial services to meet public purposes depends on the continuation of poverty and the lack of developmental progress.

In contrast to the promise of “empowerment,” microfinance more often resembles “a grimly exploitative mechanism for extraction.” In Bernards’s assessment, these initiatives transfer responsibility from states onto impoverished workers, especially women, who must labor to keep up with exacting and expensive loans. But Bernards’s critique goes deeper: microfinance is built on a “fantasy” that denies its true function as a form of rule rather than assistance. Whether developing insurance products for the unemployed or providing agricultural credit to farmers, the staunch commitment to using financial services to meet public purposes depends on the deferral of success—the continuation of poverty and the lack of developmental progress. Indeed, he argues, when microcredit reached global prominence, it was already part of an unacknowledged, century-long repertoire for managing poverty.

Casting his view back to British and French colonial initiatives, Bernards documents a genealogy of poverty finance. He veers widely across the twentieth century—from money lending in Punjab to West African agricultural exports—to argue that debt was often a means to discipline labor and appropriate commodities cheaply. Colonial merchants profited, in part, through the limitations on credit: being the only lender in town meant trading firms and their brokers could reliably secure the cocoa or palm oil grown in places such as Nigeria or the Gold Coast. By the 1940s some British administrators wanted to expand financial services to boost colonial exports and welfare, yet commercial lenders were often hesitant to take risks or part ways with their capital for long-term investments. Capital, for Bernards, needs to be coaxed outward from its own safe spaces of accumulation, thus colonial developmental ideologies inaugurated an ongoing project by aid organizations and states to convince financiers to lend to poor people across the Global South.

As his history makes clear, finance does not occur in a virtual realm detached from borrowers’ everyday activities. A world of gruelling, uncertain work stands between the dispersal of a loan and its repayment. Farmers who borrow to buy seeds and fertilizer are obliged to labor on cash crops. Urban women who take a loan to cover school fees need to produce and sell petty crafts. In this way, poverty finance governs how peasants and workers spend their time. Insofar as it succeeds, it draws people into markets and furthers the imperative to labor. Yet the low and volatile income their labor earns hardly assures success: governments and aid organizations, as Bernards argues, must continually work to create these markets and maintain participation in them. In the colonial era, for example, administrators fretted about a lack of thrift: “The Gold Coast African . . . prefers to spend lavishly, even foolishly, when he has money; and to borrow when he has none,” they complained. Colonial officials hoped to instill more commercial mindsets, yet this was expensive and risky. Missionary schools and co-operative agricultural systems tried to encourage new types of financial habits, but the enduring parsimony of the colonial state and the risks of political disputes limited such efforts by French or British officials. For Bernards, forgetting this colonial inheritance allows contemporary financial inclusion efforts—from digital loans to climate insurance—to repeat the extraction and exploitation of the past. Only with an honest appraisal of this history can the presumed novelties of microfinance be fully recognized for what they are.

In the seventies, attention shifted to prioritizing the “basic needs” of the world’s poor, and away from calls for redistributing economic power and resources to poor countries.

Meyerowitz’s new book, A War on Global Poverty, also belies the notion that microfinance was a radical, new idea in the 1990s. Like Bernards, she argues that redistributive justice was never its goal. However, she offers a more recent history of microfinance focused on the 1970s. In her view, this was the decade when market-oriented initiatives came to dominate the aid sector, providing the stage for neoliberal transformations. Meyerowitz draws on recent scholarship, including books by Adom Getachew and Samuel Moyn, that trace the demise of more ambitious programs for remaking national and international economies. In place of an earlier focus on infrastructure, industrial employment, and reformed trade regimes, in the ’70s, attention shifted to prioritizing the “basic needs” of the world’s poor: food, water, shelter, and schooling. Those commitments edged out alternative visions like the New International Economic Order, which called for redistributing economic power and resources to poor countries. Meyerowitz shows that opposition to muscular redistribution came not only from business interests and their conservative activist allies but from self-identified liberals and leftists as well. Neoliberalism, in this telling, is the result not of Reagan and Thatcher’s electoral victories, nor the changing fate of corporate profitability. Rather, it arose from surprising intellectual affinities that discredited social democratic and socialist politics and valorized the expansion of markets to meet public goals. As her subtitle suggests, redistributive politics faded, deferred to a later date that would never arrive. In microfinance small loans stand in for improved terms of trade, developmental states, and welfare programs.

Microfinance also reflects Meyerowitz’s second focal point, which is the repositioning of women within international development. While Bernards has surprisingly little to say about how poverty capital came to focus on women in the Global South, Meyerowitz rightly foregrounds the significance of gendered notions of uplift and empowerment in remaking international aid. Prior to the ’70s, women were most often cast as “excessive breeders” or unqualified carers who needed training and guidance to limit procreation and improve hygiene. Over the next decade, “development experts repositioned women as producers . . . and made increasing attempts to pull indigent women’s labor out of subsistence and into the market economy.”

While the economic downturns of the ’70s forced women around the world into marketplaces and commodity production, Meyerowitz focuses mostly on the debate in U.S. policy circles over women’s role in global development efforts. The notion that “development” bypassed or harmed women came from many quarters; Meyerowitz shows how this gendered approach gained influence as key advocates “downplayed feminism” and instead depicted women as underused economic resources. She draws on the archives of the Ford Foundation and USAID, two funders that promulgated a style of developmentalism that defanged more radical options. Adrienne Germain of the Ford Foundation receives special attention, not least for her interest in Bangladesh and friendship with Yunus. Germain energetically worked to convince male-dominated institutions that poor countries could not “afford to abuse and under-utilize fully half” their people—one of the few resources they had.

While Bernards says little about women, Meyerowitz foregrounds the significance of gendered notions of uplift and empowerment in remaking international aid.

Other advocates focused their attention on the U.S. aid apparatus. Liberal feminists delicately maneuvered to mandate that USAID integrate women into development programs in 1973. However, implementation faced a slow road, bogged down by resistance and logistical difficulties. A requirement that year—long before the Reagan revolution—insisted that USAID work through private and voluntary entities as much as possible. Not only were USAID and others increasingly committed to creating markets, that effort had also to be executed through non-state intermediaries. Though government institutions maintained a role—through enabling regulation, funding basic infrastructure, or even serving as a guarantor as USAID did for the Mexican microfinance institution Accion—much of the work was delegated to nonprofit and commercial entities.

Many organizations rushed to take advantage of the new government funding for women’s livelihoods. Few exemplify the odd alliances of microfinance as keenly as Women’s World Banking, founded—by a Ghanaian entrepreneur, Esther Ocloo; a Gandhian cooperative organizer, Ela Bhatt; and a Wall Street veteran, Michaela Walsh—to “provide guarantees to banks that made microloans to women.” Bhatt’s Self-Employed Women’s Association was something of a model, having helped illiterate women navigate loan applications and then, in 1974, opening its own bank. These unlikely allies were united in their view that women were disproportionately poor and thus uniquely positioned to provide basic needs and better investments than men. The resulting initiative modelled how a style of discreet feminism could be integrated into poverty capitalism.

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While the shifts in the 1970s formally prioritized women’s well-being and livelihoods, they hardly protected women’s rights. Meyerowitz—whose previous work centered on the history of gender and sexuality in the United States—sees a divergence between that context and how microfinance worked internationally. Just as Black women were being recast as undeserving “welfare queens” in the United States, racialized women elsewhere in the world were depicted as the key to development and proper recipients of aid. Yet rather than an irony, these two trends aligned. The movement against welfare was an attack on rights-bearing citizens—a collusion between patriarchs and neoliberals, as Melinda Cooper has shown. And, while international aid organizations called for empowering women, microfinance offered nothing beyond charity and the market. By locking women into philanthropy and commerce, it undermined an already tenuous hold on rights-based claims-making by female citizens. In both movements, women’s well-being was pursued through paternalistic oversight and market involvement.

Both Bernards and Meyerowitz critically examine development discourse, their books tracking development practitioners and scholars—those credentialed “experts” who move easily between World Bank conclaves, Ford Foundation workshops, and Euro-American university seminars. These experts wrote voluminously, and their reports and archives tell an important version of development history. Yet Bernards’s and Meyerowitz’s sources only rarely capture details about the people who aid organizations claim to serve. The livelihoods and aspirations of the people affected by poverty capital recede in these histories. The trouble with this double erasure—first by development elites, second by historians—is that it only produces creditor histories. Borrowers become an undifferentiated population of poor victims. For Meyerowitz and Bernards, borrowers exist principally in what we might call the indigent slot, with a nod to the anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s concept of “the savage slot.” For Trouillot anthropology was complicit in a Western project of distorting and containing colonized people through the framework of “native” or “primitive.” Relying on sources that see people through the lens of indigence, need, and suffering, historians may be rightly critical of development experts and their projects, but they cannot sufficiently account for the “the poor,” their differences, and their ambitions.

As Black women were being recast as undeserving “welfare queens” in the United States, racialized women elsewhere were depicted as the key to development and proper recipients of aid.

The elision of popular economic practices in these histories also stands in contrast to the microfinance institutions they analyze. Proponents of poverty capital have a longstanding interest in the everyday habits and behaviors of ordinary people. Indeed, the industry often invested in research on the lives and livelihoods of workers and peasants as part of their effort to extend debt to them. Large household surveys might ask how much people can afford to repay; behavioral economists might try to discern how finance intersects with other obligations. As Julia Elyachar writes, the animating idea of this style of developmentalism has been “to reconstitute the social networks and cultural practices of the poor as part of the free market.” In Cairo, where she studied, this involved mapping and appropriating the talents, proclivities, and friendships of would-be borrowers. In other words, the practices of people lumped together as “indigent” hold the attention of the microfinance industry because the sector rises or falls on the diversity of borrowers’ livelihoods, cultures, and ambitions.

One effect of the narrative imbalance between creditors and borrowers is to suggest that microfinance elites are uniquely responsible for the shape of poverty capital. Bernards gives the impression that austere colonial administrators and risk-adverse European bankers alone were responsible for the uneven extent of financial services. But in many cases, it was not so much European greed and neglect nor an abstract logic of capitalism that foreclosed access to financial services. Instead, the choices of colonized people not to borrow money or save it in a bank was (and remains) an important strategy to maintain autonomy, a deliberate distancing from capitalist extraction. Their refusal is also evidence of what Parker Shipton calls competing “fiduciary cultures,” the normative ideas that shape how people give and receive, trust and repay. As he shows in a trilogy of books, the Luo people in Kenya tactically and opportunistically engage with state and commercial finance. They often refuse to partake because bank loans are at odds with their own moral, sacred, and economic commitments—most notably a strong preference against commodifying and mortgaging land. Convincing Luo people and many others to become borrowers, savers, or contributors to insurance schemes requires accommodating—or changing—their ideas about worth, risk, and allegiance. Financial exclusion is not merely something done to people; exclusion can be a moral and political position taken by people.

Today’s critics of poverty capital must come to terms with why people desire credit, as many borrowers are eager financial actors.

The critical focus on development experts also downplays the fact that many borrowers are eager financial actors. Historically many people debarred from banks have demanded access to financial services. While their voices are not necessarily found in the archives of USAID or the World Bank, they are accessible to historians. Many of the protests that challenged colonial rule in the 1940s and ’50s included demands for better access to agricultural credit. For instance, in 1948 the prominent Ugandan activist Ignatius Musazi and his supporters called for wide-ranging reforms, including the establishment of an agricultural bank that would finance African production. When the Uganda Credit & Savings Bank opened its doors to African borrowers a few years later, there was a rush for loan applications. Applicants were usually relatively well-off men, with control of fertile land and a hand in local government, but less well-to-do aspirants also saw this instance of poverty capital as a necessary instrument for their own advancement. In the coming years they continued to advocate for an expansion of financial services, meaningfully remaking and challenging elite programs.

Today’s critics of poverty capital must come to terms with the reasons people desire credit, and this demands attention to particular fiduciary cultures and shifting ethics. Debtors cannot be defined solely as victims of circumstance. Understanding borrowers’ worlds and how they have pursued, challenged, or accommodated poverty capital is a necessary part of the history of microfinance, and it is critical to reduce poverty and transform finance.

Anthropologists have more successfully wrestled with microfinance as something that people might turn to for their own purposes, not only as victims of aggressive lending or dire need. Their work offers less political clarity—since not every loan is a Faustian bargain—but it better explains why poverty capital has the reach it does. Juli Huang, for instance, lived with Bangladeshi women who took out loans to work as “iAgents,” information brokers with smartphones and tablets. In navigating the move out of their homes to market-mediated livelihoods, these women struggled not only to repay their debts but to maintain their standing within the community. But it wasn’t all coercive pressure; they were also drawn to new opportunities. In Huang’s approach, women’s lives are not merely shaped by poverty nor are they reduced to subjects of neoliberalism. Rather, they are pulled in multiple, sometimes competing directions, making do in situations characterized by ambiguity. At once daughters and wives, traveling salespersons, and NGO representatives, they face competing expectations and respond through the “strategic juggling of multiple, simultaneous, and often conflicting” actions.

Research like Huang’s exposes the limits of the “indigent slot” in understanding the continued popularity of microfinance. The ambiguous lack of clarity for borrowers and regulators alike gives microfinance some of its enduring power. Indeed, many come to microfinance for reasons other than borrowing. The sector has become an enormous employer, providing a path to income and respectability. In Sohini Kar’s ethnography of microfinance in Kolkata, the work of loan officers is not only revealed as grueling, but also risky, as officers face “stigmatization as debt collectors.” Yet working for a microfinance institution also offers a paycheck and the promise of advancement for marginalized Indians. As a result, many agree to undertake the labor necessary to further financialization.

Public power underwrites the financial sector, but it does so to the benefit of private profit rather than collective purpose.

In her compelling new book, Making Women Pay (2022), Smitha Radhakrishnan further explores the diverse motivations that sustain poverty capital. She tells the story of a woman she calls Shankari, who formed or led twelve microfinance groups of up to thirty women in her Bengaluru neighborhood. This work was part of a broader effort through which Shankari “[advocated] for her neighborhood.” Brokering public and private programs not only helped her neighbors, it also made her into a community leader with access to resources. For lenders, women like Shankari are necessary intermediaries, providing branch offices with the social infrastructure and local knowledge to enroll and manage clients. The overlapping interests of brokers like Shankari and microfinance institutions help propel the reach of poverty capital—no less than USAID funds or World Bank reports.

None of this denies the lack of alternatives borrowers face under state austerity, underemployment, and agrarian crisis, nor what Radhakrishnan calls the “gendered value extraction” by microfinance. Organizations such as Grameen focused on women for many reasons, but it was no accident that they could, as Lamia Karim put it, compel women to repay their debts by instrumentalizing the “rural codes of honor and shame” imposed on women. For borrowers, microloans are expensive, with interest rates two to three times more than what banks offer, despite reliable repayment histories. The value women produce is funnelled upwards, through channels characterized by gender, caste, and class inequalities. Within Indian microfinance, Brahmin men dominate the upper echelons of the sectors while women—like Shankari—are relegated to less visible and powerful roles. Patriarchal cultures within the sector militate against female advancement, even while the sector extols its promising vision for women.

Both Meyerowitz and Bernards are reluctant to advance programs from their histories, but their closing pages do offer hints. Meyerowitz agrees with activists’ proposals for international taxation on large firms and polluters, the regulation of multinational corporations, protections for workers, a universal basic income, and debt cancellation for poorer nations. None of these involve microfinance industry practices, and only the last touches on debt directly. Bernards, too, sees little to rehabilitate or reform in microfinance. Instead, he believes lending should be replaced by “democratising control over the global economy,” greater redistribution, and the “social provision of basic needs” in housing, food, water, and care.

Finance can only be transformed if it puts informal workers and central bankers in the same frame.

These are fine goals, but they stand at a distance from the particularities of people’s lives, ethics, and aspirations. They are also remote from the workings of the financial sector—micro or otherwise. This is a shame, because it is unwise to cede the levers of finance to international institutions, neoliberal governments, and their banker allies. We need alternatives. Even public provisioning and social democracy rely on monetary mechanisms and financial engineering. A better approach would attend more closely to the specific technical and legal constitution of poverty capital, including its relationship with “mainstream” finance.

A recent collection edited by Fred Block and Robert Hockett offers one potential model. Democratizing Finance (2022) is the latest intervention in the Real Utopias Project inaugurated by the late sociologist Erik Olin Wright. Like the other books in the series, this volume focuses on reforms that the editors deem realistic while also possessing the power to meaningfully tame, or even dismantle, capitalism.

The two chapters by the coeditors anchor the book with an intellectual and institutional framework for what Hockett calls “socially useful and maximally inclusive productive enterprise.” In contrast to unaccountable and wasteful commercial investment strategies, their reformed financial sector would allocate capital to necessary tasks—for example, a green transition or maintaining a stable supply of important goods—while also reducing inequality and extractive practices. This is a task best undertaken through public administration, not the private bankers who today pursue shareholder profit over collective need. Yet overturning this status quo is difficult, not least because citizens and policymakers operate with a mystified theory of how finance works.

In this mistaken theory, banks serve as intermediaries between the savings they collect and the loans they issue—they first accumulate money through deposits and then lend it out as credit. Instead, Hockett argues that financiers “generate” credit by issuing loans. “Loans make deposits,” not the other way around. But only some institutions are legally authorized to generate money through lending. Through state licensing—ultimately shored up by the “full faith and credit of the sovereign”—banks lend funds that can circulate publicly as dollar bills. U.S. banks are thus mere “franchisees” of the Federal Reserve and the Department of Treasury, their powers of credit creation delegated by “we the people.”

For Hockett, only a proper theory of finance can help authorize a more accountable use of the state’s financial power. This starts with recognizing that public power does already underwrite the financial sector, but it does so to the benefit of private profit rather than collective purpose. A central bank, he argues, is not merely a lender of last resort, able to provide liquidity or other assistance in momentary crisis. The state guarantees private banking even in “ordinary” times. He writes that “We the public sit at the center of the financial system, and generate the resource that circulates through that system—our own monetized full faith and credit.” Yet because a mistaken view of banking denies the centrality of public authority of private capital, the latter runs roughshod over the former.

Such a view has far-reaching implications. Hockett and Block propose a series of new public institutions designed to invest—on their own or with non-state entities—in national development. Looking across credit unions, state banks, and beyond, Block calls for reforms such as matching grants and loan guarantees that might conjure a more just allocation of capital. Whether the goal is windmill farms or affordable housing, the state should consider expanding who it allows to become a financial franchisee. It should license public sector agencies and nonprofit organizations to create credit for democratically chosen purposes.

Their envisioned investments focus on large-scale infrastructure, but Block does echo Yunus in arguing that the higher cost of credit for lower-income borrowers should be reduced to support “small-scale entrepreneurial efforts.” Hockett likewise supports a push for what microfinanciers now call “financial inclusion.” He worries that profit-oriented banks exploit and exclude citizens from the banking system, and he proposes the Federal Reserve provide the infrastructure for digital “wallets” through which ordinary people and firms could make transactions. A public banking infrastructure would outcompete the “payday lenders, check cashers, and other species of ‘loan shark,’” he writes in an observation akin to Yunus’s condemnation of the “village moneylender.” A public bank account would also provide the state a means to channel resources with a greater degree of granularity than currently possible. (“QE for the people,” he offers in another catchy slogan.)

Critics of microfinance in the Global South would do well to demand not the end of finance, but a radical transformation of credit, savings, and insurance.

Scholars of poverty finance should take note especially of the ideas about public financial infrastructures, more accountable investment decisions, and changes to credit scoring methods. A similar set of imaginative explorations should be undertaken to consider how the specifics of livelihoods, aspirations, and needs may be improved through the public coordination of investment. Critics of microfinance in the Global South would do well to demand not the end of finance tout court—such a position is unlikely to be heard anytime soon—but rather a radical transformation of credit, savings, and insurance.

In other ways, though, the Block and Hockett volume is limited by the overwhelming focus on the United States. This methodological nationalism has various shortcomings. For one, when they echo microfinance talking points, they do less to take on the critical insights from the Global South discussed above. Moreover, the international monetary hierarchy where the United States sits at the pinnacle recedes from view. The monetary autonomy of poorer countries is severely limited, as Ndongo Samba Sylla and others have emphasized; so, too, is the capacity of the bureaucracies that would need to administer public investment and financial infrastructures.

Democratic control of finance in the United States or Europe will need to account for these contexts, not least because finance is not confined to one jurisdiction. As the recent monetary tightening by the Federal Reserve and resulting debt stress around the world make clear, what happens at the Fed doesn’t stay in the United States. Any real utopia of finance will require an internationalist approach, potentially reducing the capital allocated to the already overdeveloped United States. This project requires tacking back and forth between very different histories and economic contexts. Finance can only be transformed if it puts precarious workers and central bankers in the same frame.

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