The disciplinary power of micro credit
Examples from Kenya and Cameroon
Micro credit is increasingly heralded as a means for empowering women in the Third World. Yet, these views are becoming less fashionable as the limitations of micro credit come to the fore, particularly its failure to reduce women's poverty or transform gender relations. My research on women and micro credit in Kenya and Cameroon suggests that the provision of micro credit to women in general, and to sub-Saharan African women in particular, acts more like a disciplinary power, turning them into 'efficient economic actors' to be inserted in the market economy, rather than a tool for their empowerment.
This chapter discusses the tensions between micro credit's potential to empower and to discipline. First, it explores the concept of empowerment, analysing why it came to be appropriated by the development community in general, particularly in Africa. Second, it discusses Foucault's notion of disciplinary power and highlights its relevance to micro credit and women's empowerment process. The third part uses the Foucauldian framework to evaluate the policies and practices of micro credit in Kenya and Cameroon. This is an interesting comparison, as Kenya was one of the first African countries to embrace micro credit, while Cameroon adopted it later. This difference reflects their different economic trajectories, and their impact on government and donor community efforts (or not) to fight poverty and gender subordination. The fourth section assesses the extent to which women are empowered as a result of their access to micro credit. The last part briefly compares formal micro credit schemes with grassroots ones, such as the rotating savings and credit associations, in order to evaluate their relative empowerment potential.
The concept of women's empowerment can be traced back to the emergence of the feminist movement. In the 1970s, increasing awareness of the deteriorating position of Third World women following the world economic recession brought the issue of empowerment to the fore. Despite its popularity, empowerment as a concept is difficult to define. Empowerment for one person is not to another,