Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Empowering NGOs: The Microcredit Movement through Foucault's Notion of Dispositif

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Empowering NGOs: The Microcredit Movement through Foucault's Notion of Dispositif

Article excerpt

Morgan Brigg (*)

The provision of credit, particularly credit targeted at rural populations, has been a long-standing strategy in national development efforts' in the world South. In Bangladesh, the birthplace of micro-credit through the now-famous and globally influential Grameen Bank, rural credit was touted as central to development efforts in the 1970s. (1) However, neoclassical economists, who argued that such practices resulted in a distortion of the market for scarce investment funds, identified targeted and subsidized credit as a failure from the mid-1970s. (2) During this same period, a number of nongovernment organizations (NGOs) were experimenting with mechanisms for the alternative delivery of credit. Termed microcredit, these mechanisms involve the provision of collateral-free small loans to jointly liable people for the purposes of income generation and self-employment. The recipients of loans are typically not eligible for credit from commercial lenders, and they are predominantly women. In development circles, microcredit has generated a wave of enthusiasm with the Microcredit Summit Secretariat (MCS) launching a "global movement to reach 100 million of the world's poorest families, especially the women of those families, with credit for self-employment and other financial and business services, by the year 20O5." (3)

Amid the enthusiasm for microcredit, there has been limited critical response from development studies. This is in part a corollary of the "impasse" of the 1980s (4) and the fact that development studies is still coming to terms with the rise of NGOs and the proliferation of associated notions such as self-empowerment in the shifting development project. As development studies is informed by both a strong economic orientation and attempts to address the realities of poverty, microcredit is further insulated from critical inquiry as an initiative that promises both a commonsense good such as "empowerment" and a better standard of living for the poor. This article begins to address this lacuna by developing one framework for a critical response to initiatives such as microcredit.

I first suggest that the critical tools for understanding the shifts in the development project need to be extended beyond those approaches that center on economic relations. To begin to address this need, I develop one aspect of postdevelopment literature by drawing on Michel Foucault's notion of dispositif--a task that requires some adjustments to the ways in which this concept has been used so far. The dispositif is particularly useful for engaging with the fluidity and heterogeneity of the development project and for consideration of relations of knowledge, power, and subjectivity alongside the economic. To address the question of the rise of NGOs and associated notions of autonomy and empowerment specifically, I make use of Foucault's concept of governmentality. Considering recent shifts in the development project through this lens highlights ways in which phenomena such as the rise of NGOs are not necessarily emancipatory. To the contrary, it suggests a basis for the emergence of initiatives and practic es that increase the penetration of power into the social body of the Third World through the development dispositif. To demonstrate these issues and my approach I examine the Grameen Bank and microcredit movement, arguing that it is through "empowerment" that the developmentalist subjective modality is promoted in an operation of developmentalist discipline.

Critical Approaches Beyond Economic Relations: Responding to the Changing Development Project

Shifts within the development project of the 1980s saw a greater role for NGOs in development efforts. For instance, Abu Sarker notes that, in the case of Bangladesh, reduction in public services and state spending was accompanied by increased support for NGOs by Bangladesh's external development partners.(5) More generally, the downsizing of state-based functions of social welfare and development have resulted in the emergence of NGOs as prominent players in development efforts. …

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