Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Framing Microfinance in Australia --Gender Neutral or Gender Blind?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Framing Microfinance in Australia --Gender Neutral or Gender Blind?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Since the 1980s, microfinance has gained importance as an effective tool to alleviate poverty within the international development field (Ditcher 2007; Hulme & Arun 2009; Armendariz & Morduch 2010). In Australia, microfinance is also emerging as a distinct poverty alleviation strategy. As Corrie explains, although microfinance programs in Australia have developed quite differently to microfinance in developing countries, 'they have a growing and significant role. Through enabling financial inclusion via access to affordable and appropriate financial services, microfinance programs aim to ameliorate poverty' (2011: i). While the community sector was the 'first in the field' (Corrie 2012: 6) of Australian microfinance, the most prominent program being the No Interest Loan Scheme (NILS) offered by Good Shepherd Youth and Family Services (GSY&FS), government support for microfinance has expanded over recent years. The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs established the Financial Management Program in 2009 to consolidate the government's financial management support services which included emergency relief, financial counselling, Home Energy Saver Schemes, Community Development Financial Institutions and microfinance. Under this program, microfinance was allotted $50 million in 2008-09, and this amount increased to $105 million in 2009-10 (FaHCSIA n.d.). The funding forecast for 2012-2013 was $133.7 million (ANAO n.d.). Microfinance is thus a significant area of contemporary Australian social policy. But to what extent has gender been considered in this area of social policy?

This paper recognises that microfinance institutions (MFIs) around the world develop their activities in context specific ways, which are reflected not only in different types of programs, but also in the different ways microfinance is framed and targeted. It is the framing and targeting of microfinance in relation to gender in Australia that is the subject of this paper. The paper begins with an overview of perspectives on the relationship between gender and microfinance. These predominantly relate to microfinance in developing countries. The benefit of this overview, however, is that it enables the identification of what might be termed silences: that is, what is not said or what is missing, in microfinance discourses in Australia. As Ronnblom argues, 'through articulations in other settings, the silences in a specific context become clearer' (2012: 135). The representation of gender in microfinance discourses in Australia is then explored through an analysis of a key Australian report on microfinance, 'From the margins to the mainstream: the challenges for microfinance in Australia' (Burkett et al. 2009), which also included the published objectives of 22 Australian microfinance programs, as these objectives were articulated in 2009 in a 'Directory of Microfinance Programs'. Through a discussion of the implications of how microfinance is represented in these texts, the paper aims to contribute to the broader objective of moving beyond gender-blind policy development in Australia.

Microfinance and gender inequality in developing countries

The evolution of microfinance in developing countries has been associated with iconic institutions such as Bank Rakayat in Indonesia, BancoSol in Bolivia and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. The Grameen Bank, which gained immense popularity with its founder winning the Nobel Prize, propounded an approach to poverty alleviation which mobilised marginalised communities through microenterprise loans and group formation. In particular, microfinance was championed as a means of mobilising women, and microfinance initiatives explicitly targeting women became a major plank of both poverty alleviation and gender equality strategies in the development context during the 1990s (Kabeer 2009; Armendariz & Morduch 2010; Rai & Ravi 2011). …

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