Market participation = empowerment
A central criticism voiced, focuses on how micro finance institutions make convenient connections in publicity material, between individuals taking a loan, their increased participation in local markets and their level of empowerment. That is, these things are understood as enforcing each other continuerly and positively.
All loan projects claim publicly to increase women’s empowerment, but it is difficult to define exactly what empowerment means for the borrowers themselves and how this changes perhaps after they take a loan.
With this, the critics mean that a poor person’s life has not necessarily been improved, just because they have the chance of taking a loan. Life can perhaps change, in that individuals after taking a loan will have to work harder, go to markets more regularly and perhaps make more important decisions concerning what to invest in.
It is however far from certain that this means that they will have been empowered positively. This is because a loan can also mean that they can become more stressed because their level of responsibility has increased. and that they have many more new worries to contend with. Also, both the potential success and failure of individual women in a loan group and their empowerment potential , are closely related other factors. (see case 1)
Amongst these can for example be named the extent of their husbands success, the number of dependants borrowers have to look after, the number of children they have and the age of these, the borrowers own age, their health situation, and the extent to which borrowers have social support from relatives and friends. It is the result of this very complex matrix within the household, which dictates how credit monies are utilised, and whether the individual will in fact experience increased empowerment on a personal and long term basis. (see case 2)
Market participation = increased income
Projects often make an automatic link between individual borrowers becoming market traders, and an assumption that this leads to income increases and subsequently, better household standards, including children’s education and food consumption.
The issue here though, say critics, is that just because people participate in markets more often, it doesn’t mean that they return home with a profit and are able to eat better food. Improved individual consumption could just as well stem from borrowers spending their loaned money on food, which in the long term is unsustainable, because it shows that income alone cannot cover essentials. Again, these positive developments may certainly occur, but its not a simple matter to say micro finance is the difficult cause of them all.
Significance of strong households
A great number of individuals certainly gain a great deal from their participation in loan projects, both socially and economically, which is reflected in the growing demand for micro finance. An individual’s level of empowerment will though will be influenced heavily by the borrower’s ability to balance between different household demands, capabilities, expectations and ambitions. In other words, the chances of an individual gaining from taking a loan are vastly improved if they have solid help from their family. It will increase further if these are all in relatively good health, and in a position to support the women in their everyday economic activities.
Importance of social networks
Individuals can similarly be reliant on social networks, that help secure loan group membership, because they may not be economically strong enough to join a group on their own. The problem here can be that social relations cannot be expected to cover an individual’s economic losses, although loan projects will assume that social relations makes this possible.
Again here, it can be seen as both a positive and negative thing that family members may end up in the same group. It can perhaps mean that the group will work harder together because they are related. But it can also mean, that a relatively weak individual is allowed to join the group, which may threaten the success of the whole group. This may be the case if the individual is unable to repay and also has other time consuming, household problems to solve. (see case 3)
On the positive side however, help in joining a group can mean that a borrower frequents markets more often, which can make individual success more likely, that would otherwise not have occurred. The borrower will probably also have gained valuable experience, competitive advantages and better contacts over others, who have not joined a group. Supporters would additionally say that this can be a source of inspiration to others, and it is in this context that projects speak of improved empowerment in the market.