Monthly Archives: February 2012

Zones of Improbable Progress

From Keith Lewin’s Taking Targets to Task Revisited: How Indicators of Progress on Access to Education can Mislead

In reality financial and non financial bottlenecks often result in progress falling behind an on-track pathway of dates and milestones. Year on year the gradient of what needs to be achieved steepens. The planning and implementation system can then enter a “Zone of Improbable Progress” (ZIP). Either the goals fall into disrepute because they are unachievable and there is no confidence in making more and more rapid progress, or the goals are redefined and shifted forward in time (Lewin, 2007a:30)

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Filed under Capacity, Economics, Education

A Note on Microfinance

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the failures of microfinance, particularly in India. After digging a little deeper I noted that most of what was being labeled “microfinance” simply wasn’t, or wouldn’t be labeled as much by father of the movement Mohammad Yunus. The interest rates were several times higher than his Grameen Bank, were being given to individuals, and men. Now, “most microfinance institutes charge exorbitant interest rates, ranging between 30 to 50 percent, and sometimes more.” Grameen only lends to groups of women and their interest rates are 20% for income generating loans, 8% for housing loans, 5% for student loans, and 0% for beggars.  The issue with these other MFI’s is that they are as usurious as the people and businesses that Yunus was trying to displace.

When I first encountered micro-finance I thought it was an amazing idea. I “drank the kool-aid”, so to speak. My academic adviser at the time helped contextualized it for me – he’d seen micro-finance in the field but it only seemed to help as a positive feedback in conjunction with other programs. Later I stopped my involvement with a Chinese microfinance group when I saw how large their loans were. The size of the loans, their interest rates, and who was being lent to has made me question whether a lot of this is worthy of the name micro-finance. It would be like calling the forced displacement of a mother tongue a women’s literacy program.

I’ve defended micro-finance from the Marxist left who view micro-finance as capitalist penetration to every level of society. My retort is to question their assumption that the people getting these loans are somehow in a pre-capitalist state. Like Amartya Sen, I think we can critique a lot of capitalism without also denying that lack of equitable access to markets is a deprivation of rights, of positive freedom. As an example, just seven families run the rice wholesale trade in the Philippines. It’s extremely difficult for smallholders to get fair prices when they have to deal with collusion. Smallholders also have to deal with massive imports of cheap imported rice. From my vantage point, the solution isn’t to remove poor farmers from the market but get them as close as possible to fair retail prices.

The same applies to credit. I understand the economics of it works out, but think about it: huge multinational banks are given loans by the government at the cheapest rates anywhere – sometimes paid to take on the loans! Their cheapest loans are then passed on to their safest (read: richest) customers, usually big businesses. At the very, very bottom of this chain are the poorest of the poor. They get the highest interest rates. The banks that got the cheapest rates get bailed out when their loans go sour, while smallholder farmers have been forced to sell their wives because of drought.

It’s in this spirit that I support micro-finance. The poor are taking out loans but often from the worst sources possible, at the worst rates, and are the least able to cope when something goes wrong. It would be great if the poor didn’t need credit. But, like everyone else reading this, they do. So it’s comparable to something like giving clean needles to heroin addicts. You don’t have to agree with loading the poor up with debt to understand that giving them better credit choices is better than leaving it up to chance or the market.

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Filed under Development, Economics

Higher Education: The Dropout Dilemma, Part I

I’ve started a career out of comparing and contrasting all the educational similarities and differences I’ve seen as an American transplanted to Asia. One of my favorite similarities was how Chinese teachers I worked with projected corrections for all the perceived failings of their schools on to American education and vice versa. American teachers, for the most part, imagined Chinese students as highly attentive, studious, disciplined, respectful students – packed 100 to a class but still dutifully listening to Teacher, completing all their homework, and studying for all their exams. My Chinese coworkers imagined American high school classrooms as approximating The Dead Poet’s Society for every class, every day of the week.

One of my favorite contrasts is higher education enrollment. Let me start with what I dislike most about the Asian higher education system I’ve encountered: I taught at a Chinese “polytechnic” and worked with some brilliant students there. The students took a single test, the gaokao, which determined their entire educational future in one go. Couldn’t sleep well the night before? Welcome to ______ Polytechnic. Or nowhere. Once graduated from the polytechnic, there was (functionally) almost no chance of getting into a four-year university. On the university side of thing, (functionally) no one fails. Once you’re in, you’re in. The dies were set and cast the moment the gaokao tests were scored.

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Filed under Education