What does security mean when facing crushing poverty and limited opportunities? Does “Security”—i.e., state security—even matter when “security”—personal security—is so tenuous? And what does “empowerment” actually mean when used by development organizations and NGOs? I would argue, through my personal observations in the field, that we are facing a possibly intractable conflict within international security, one that pits policy makers concerned with state Security founded on principles of developing “civil society” and “democratization” against a growing development community focused on individual security that is neither concerned with political participation or even social mobility; rather, this growing discourse has created a reliance upon “microresponsibility,” where security is centered within the individual, her immediate community and the NGOs that serve them.
The idea of civil society as an unquestioned good—as its attendant principle of “social capital”—is important to the question of microresponsbility in that both ideas, I would argue, are linked to quasi-foundational neoliberal principles that foreground the individual and protection of individual rights—as grounded in property and its protection—such that the pursuit of individual rights will result in the greatest good, as represented by democratic political structures.
Theorists of democratization and civil society, however, have shifted from a messianic approach towards civil society as a means of improving international security to a more critical approach. Practitioners, for their part, have been building new linkages and foundations to security based on microlevels of development that are not necessarily aimed at growing democratic political systems. Indeed, this movement may tell us more about approaches to individual security—and alternatives to the state—then it will tell us about large-scale security strategies.
This post is a first attempt to examine an important shift among local and international development practitioners away from civil society development based upon a political commitment to democracy, to practices based on models of individual security and development. On this view, security does not occur solely within proscribed political conditions but rather within individuals’ abilities to obtain basic needs and secure basic human rights. I analyze the rapid growth of microfinance and “social entrepreneurship” more generally as a transnational phenomenon that has displaced the discourse of “democratization” within the civil society practitioner community.
I refer to the effects of this phenomenon as “micro-responsibility,” which I define in a two-fold fashion. First, the term represents the commonly-held belief that economic empowerment will lead to other forms of empowerment (i.e., social, cultural, political), particularly where women are concerned, and that paying attention to improving individual lives through innovation and entrepreneurship will accomplish this task. Secondly, the term captures the idea that the state no longer becomes the referent of security when individuals begin to see non-profit and for-profit social entrepreneurial organizations (SEOs), themselves, and their immediate communities as the main providers of economic and personal security.
While often represented as an unquestioned good for communities, the growth of this idea may, in fact, represent a site of disruption of the power of the state and will disrupt hegemonic states’ attempts to ground international security within a democratizing framework, as was the case in the post-Soviet era. While I find the idea of micro-responsibility intriguing, and, in many cases beneficial to its practitioners and clients, I do not assert that the practices of microfinance and social entrepreneurship are always beneficial and indeed, will argue that without careful considerations of its effects, microfinance schemes (and attendant unsubstantiated claims to universal success) can be as harmful as unexamined ideas regarding civil society.
Utilizing observation, fieldwork and practice in Thailand, India and the Dominican Republic, I contrast the discourse of democratization with the burgeoning language of “micro-responsibility” where civil society and democracy, as development strategies, have become less meaningful to practitioners than that of micro-development. Further, I argue that it would be a mistake for policy makers to assume that the successes of micro-responsibility could be replicated as a policy strategy in the same way that encouraging “civil society” and democratization was adopted, because micro-responsibility defies “cookie-cutter” approaches to development. I conclude that micro-responsibility as a development strategy may not be “democratic” in the conventional sense of the word, but may give some clues as to how policy makers, practitioners and theorists might understand individual security.
Democratization as a strategy: Neoliberalism and Post-Soviet Spaces
With the demise of the Soviet Union, policy makers in both the US and the EU began to focus their attention on how best to take advantage of that unique moment in history, and how to utilize the transition to their best advantage. The US, particularly, made the link between “freedom,” “democracy” and neoliberal reforms a centerpiece of its post-Soviet policies towards the newly independent state (NIS); policies such as the Northern European Initiative (NEI) were aimed to aid the Baltic states in their transition and ultimate membership in NATO and the EU (Horn 2010). The language of democratization, from this perspective, was loaded with neoliberal assumptions and norms regarding personal responsibility, civil society, the role of women and government intervention (or not) in these elements.
The “third wave” of democratization, as Huntington (1991) referred to the newly independent states and democratization in Latin America and the developing world, replaced the modernization school’s assumption that these states were not ready for democracy or incapable of appreciating democratic institutions, either culturally or structurally. It became fashionable among policy circles to think of democratization as merely the application of a laundry list of democratic institutions and procedures, such as a multiparty system or voting. States that could provide proof of reasonably fair elections and efforts towards liberalization were assumed to be “transitional” democracies. These rather facile assumptions, however, completely ignored the impact of structural factors, such as existing institutions, previous experience as independent states, or (dis)inclination towards Western liberal culture (Bunce 1999; Carothers 2002). Indeed, many of those states still assigned to the “transitional” category look nothing like burgeoning democracies; only the thinnest definition of democracy could allow these states to retain their status as such.
The transitologists were followed by the “consolidationists” who examined “consolidated” democracies, where it appeared that democratic institutions were beginning to take root. The definition of democracy, however, remained rather superficial, based upon an institutional approach rather than real structural and attitudinal changes. This literature has since begun to question the efficacy of democratization efforts, particularly those that promote the (supposedly independent) NGO sector as the central focus of civil society (Ottaway and Carothers 2000; Quigley 2000).
The idea—however tenuous—that civil society and democratization are parallel processes has had a strong hold on European and American policymakers. This speaks to the construction of civil society as imagined by western European and American scholars. In the neo-Toquevillian model (Alexander 1998; Gellner 1994; Putnam 1993, 1995), for example, civil society is predicated on the freedom (of the individual) to act according to his (or her, but generally his) personal social predilections or political bent, which ultimately results in democratic political organization. The relationship between democratic institutions and civil society then becomes a mutually reinforcing relationship; civil society in non-democratic states, as Foley and Edwards (1996: 46) note, will become a site of radicalism against the state. Democracy begets democratic civil society—but civil society is necessary to beget democracy. This is the paradox Walzer (1992: 104) brings to our attention: given power imbalances within civil society, and the inequities of state power, “only a democratic state can create a democratic civil society.” Nevertheless, civil society has come to be viewed by theorists and policy makers alike “as a necessary precondition or companion of democracy in every context” (Kubik 2004: 1).
In the context of the post-Soviet era of transitional states and US and EU foreign policies, however, the paradox could not be overlooked. As Kubik (2004: 14) notes, political scientists “tend to focus on transparent arrangements and mechanisms of accountability while they tend to neglect the task of identifying and analyzing mechanisms (particularly informal) of emancipation.” Similarly, policy makers tended to underestimate the actual “mechanisms of emancipation” when developing democratization strategies. Where policy makers attempted to inculcate democratic values through the creation of civil society—by encouraging the growth of NGOs and other independent associations, for example—they were forced to contend with the counter efforts of governments proclaiming the virtues of democracy while continuing age-old power struggles. As could be seen in many transitional states, political leaders often played lip service to the necessity of civil society—a “magic word” often used to placate US and western European policy makers—while simultaneously undermining the growth of democratic civil society through legislation and other measures meant to inhibit and intimidate any possible opposition. Further, democratization policies from the west often overlooked different forms of “civil society,” such as those found in non-democratic states such as China or Belarus, which do have burgeoning civil societies within authoritarian states.
While encouraging the growth of democracy through the proliferation of NGOs was not necessarily a failure, few could argue that democratization policies have been a raging success. What this focus on civil society did do, however, was to open up a space for innovation and non-state political participation, particularly where development was concerned. “Social entrepreneurship” is now the buzz word: where once practitioners talked of political empowerment through civil society, they are, more often these days, speaking of innovative projects that ameliorate specific problems faced by communities, of marketing and developing for the “bottom billion” and “scaling up.”
Microfinance and Microenterprise as a Revolution in Development
The microfinance revolution began in 1976, when Mohammad Yunus introduced the Grameen Bank to several small villages in Bangladesh. Yunus’ innovative idea was that the greatest obstacle to economic security for the poor was their inability to access credit. He developed a system where the “poorest of the poor” could secure credit through solidarity lending rather than collateral. Since then the bank has grown exponentially: by December 2009, the Bank had disbursed over 8.7 billion US dollars, and the model has been adopted in over 40 countries. Others have followed suit with a variety of social entrepreneurial projects, both through non-profit and for-profit business models. Different forms of microlending have also evolved, including lending through banks (guaranteed by outside lenders), on-line direct loans through organizations like kiva.org, and community self-financing models that promote self-sufficiency beyond the Grameen model.
The discourse around microenterprise and microfinance, on the whole, has been positive, particularly where women are concerned. The “magic of micro,” this discourse suggests, gives women political, economic and social voice; incomes are raised, confidence increases, children go to school and families prosper. Esteva and Prakash (1998: 61-63) suggest that women of the “social majorities” (otherwise known as the “bottom billion”) seek out alternative understandings of “we” to find ways to share, to express affection and to maintain traditionally small communities in the face of the pressures of the modern world; in this light, one might understand the attraction of microlending methodologies that stress small-group lending and social collateral. The small group methodology also disrupts the assumption that democratic majority opinion will best represent the interests of all; indeed, “micro-responsibility” counters this belief head-on, through the atomization of interests and demands.
While the link between democratization and economic development has been made explicit through US and EU efforts at democratization (e.g. tying foreign aid to social and political reforms), development practitioners do not necessarily make the same link. Neoliberal democratization is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for social economic justice; indeed, one might argue that such efforts have caused more harm than good, as evidenced by the current global economic crisis. One should not forget that the previous US administration was clear in its mission to democratize the world while also enforcing free-market reforms.
The connection between development aid and democratization, however, resulted in very similar approaches: aid institutions and foreign policy making institutions, in their efforts to make “big changes” for the good resulted in little change at all. William Easterly’s book The White Man’s Burden (2007) discusses the failure of the “The Big Plans” and the “Big Push” for development in the Global South through international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the UN Millennium Development Goals. He argues that there are two kinds of development people: the Planners and the Searchers. The Planners create large-scale plans that look promising on paper, like raising a billion dollars to buy mosquito nets for people in Africa. But Easterly argues that these planners are not charged with actually implementing these plans, thus they are not held accountable when the “Big Plan” fails, as they inevitably do.
The Searchers, on the other hand, look for ways to satisfy their “customers,” who, in this case, are the bottom billion, the poorest of the poor. They are on the ground, they talk to people, they find out what people need, and they follow through. Their successes may begin with a relatively small impact, but, the good programs, the inventive solutions, and the dedication of these kinds of “searchers” result in “scaling up” to reach many more and have an even greater impact. The Grameen Bank is a prime example of this point. It takes listening, not from a privileged position, but from the vantage point of someone who wants to find the gaps and fill them.
The grassroots level may well be where true economic development happens, and many of the larger scale government programs and initiatives that I have witnessed have often resulted in nothing more than talk—a few pamphlets released, perhaps a conference with a conference report, but no real, tangible results. According to Easterly, “the right plan is to have no plan,” which is not to say that aid agencies cannot have an impact, but that they cannot do so based on one-size-fits-all development efforts.
Indeed, the growth of transnational advocacy networks (TANs), as described by Keck and Sikkink’s seminal work, Activists Beyond Borders (1998), has given outlet to those grassroots movements who have, in the past, been limited by the state and traditional state-to-state interactions. Through these networks of local, national and international NGOs and organizations, a web of organizing has been created that can efficiently spread particular norms, advocate for important social issues (like women’s rights, human trafficking, etc.) and find ways to bypass state structures that may obstruct or obscure their goals. States, of course, may also try to perpetuate particular agendas, but the fact that these non-state actors have become so influential means that there is a parallel universe of social action happening that states cannot control or completely appreciate.
So, what does this mean for democratization strategies and global civil society? I would argue that we are at a moment now where local, national and international organizations can have tremendous impacts on the improving life for the “bottom billion” not through any grand strategies, but working as any healthy civil society does—through contention, through the representation of a variety of interests and viewpoints, through harnessing the energy of smart, dedicated people who can see a “market” in the poorest of the poor and offer real solutions. This does not mean, however, that “democratization” will be the mechanism by which global civil society is created; indeed, those strategies are may well be counterproductive.
The Burdens and Freedoms of Micro-responsibility
Before the picture should appear too rosy, however, the “magic of micro” needs also to be interrogated, particularly if we consider “micro-responsibility” as not only a response to state inadequacies but also a possible challenger to traditional political organization. Micro-responsibility, I would argue, does not readily translate to political and social empowerment in the traditional sense of democratic development. Instead, politics and security are community-based, focused inward on what can be accomplished on the small, local level. As such, “empowerment” must be a carefully orchestrated set of conditions that seek to carefully undermine harmful, yet deeply imbedded social attitudes.
Studies such as Mayoux’s 1999 evaluation of microlending programs in southern India reveal that the benefits for women are not readily apparent, and in some cases, have resulted in even worse situations for the women involved. What Mayoux refers to as “virtuous spiral” of good intentioned “empowerment” efforts centered around microlending programs resulted in increased family violence, heavier domestic burdens for the women and, the end, failed businesses. Others, such as Ackerly (1995), Hunt and Kasynathan (2001) and Leach and Sitaram (2002) have pointed out that, while microfinancing programs may have offered women new opportunities to earn income, these opportunities often do not translate to socio-economic mobility or “real” empowerment. Indeed, the experiences of many women in the developing world’s microfinance programs have mirrored the “triple burdens” experienced by women in the post-soviet transition period.
But these are issues that can be addressed with programs that are conscious of the special needs of women in developing economies, as the recommendations Mayoux gives as a result of her study. The point I wish to address here is the connection between the perception of microfunding agencies as service providers who, while espousing “self-help” strategies for the poor also encourage a dependency rooted in a skepticism that the state can provide for the common good. While declaring that credit for the poor will be a liberating mechanism, these agencies also advocate explicit social norms. For example, the Grameen Bank has distilled its core values into the “16 Decisions,” which all borrowers are required to follow. For organizations such as Esperanza (a microcredit organization based in the Dominican Republic), the mission of the organization is explicitly oriented in Christian beliefs, and every borrowers meeting is begun with Bible lessons and gospel songs.
Snapshots from the Field: India, The Dominican Republic and Thailand
The following illustrations of what I call micro-responsibility (or attempts to create such) are based on observations in the field in India, the DR and Thailand. All three cases represent new field research, thus the data is incomplete and as such these are more impressions than formal research. Still, through observation, practice and discussion with others in the field, a picture of new structures of power and security evolving on the “micro” level and emerging relationships between these communities and advocacy networks that, in many cases, supersede the state. In the cases of the Dominican Republic and India, I would argue that micro-responsibility is more apparent. Even in the atmosphere of India’s strong democracy, the vastness of the country, the depth of poverty and underdevelopment, and the state’s openness to social innovation has created pockets of “micro-responsibility” that see no need to turn to the state. In the Dominican Republic, security for the country’s poor, particularly for its Haitian immigrants, is far more tenuous and the state is far less responsive. Thailand, however, represents the opposite situation: the state has opened little space for these types of efforts to work, as Thai’s nationalist project has successfully associated personal security with the state apparatus.
The Dominican Republic
Sitting among a small circle of micro-credit “associates” outside Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, I clapped along to a gospel song sung in Kreyol and smiled at the woman in front of me holding her baby. I felt a tug at my backpack. Realizing that there was someone on the bench directly behind me, I moved my bag in front of me to give his knees more room, only to discover that all the pockets had been unzipped and the contents gone through. I quickly turned and everyone behind me simply smiled and nodded. What to make of this?
I looked around my surroundings. This meeting was being held in a makeshift “village” located directly behind the walls of a brand-new all-inclusive beach resort, which had been built by the itinerant Haitian workers of this settlement, and was staffed, cleaned and served by them. Their houses were made of the refuse of the resort, whatever they could scavenge from the worksite. They were attending this meeting because they wanted more—they wanted food, they wanted better homes, they wanted stability. They wanted security.
The man going through my bag saw only a physically secure white American woman who had come to “observe” them. I had arrived with a group of students and NGO workers in a comfortable van; our clothes were clean, we were obviously well-fed, and all our good intentions could mean for him was the possibility of some small loan for his wife, so she might feed their children. My bag contained very little of interest to most people—a notebook, a bottle of water, toilet tissue, hand sanitizer, perhaps some candy for the children—but for him, the possibility of cash, no matter how little, was enough to violate the “sanctity” of this meeting.
A small group of women in Hubli, India, started a woman’s collective to produce and sell handmade clothing and textiles. This microenterprise’s poster at an NGO fair proposed to empower the women through the endeavor, hoping to sell their items to a larger audience, particularly to the growing market for such things in the west.
A pile of cloth squares caught my attention: they were hand-blocked, albeit in drab colors, but with interesting patterns. Ah, I said, what lovely napkins! No madam, the man behind the counter responded, they are handkerchiefs. Well, you could use them on your table just as well, I responded. He shook his head—no, no, they are for your nose, don’t you see? I tried to explain that Americans generally don’t use such things, being more interested in the “sanitary” use of bleached soft white paper for our noses. But table napkins would surely sell! I bought six just to prove my point, and a lovely kurta of homespun cotton. I wondered if the organizations guiding them through this process also guided them through marketing and merchandising.
I wore the kurta the next day, and was confronted by several women from the collective. Madam! We must have a picture! We must use this in our brochure to prove that we can sell to Americans! I obliged, but felt a bit sad that they didn’t think an Indian model would be as compelling.
They were hopeful, they had faith in the market, and in the idea of microenterprise. They saw this as a way to security.
Chiang Mai Province, Thailand
Four old women sat in an open-air shed outside the town of Phrao, Thailand, in the northern province of Chiang Mai. They were having their morning snack of rice and cookies before returning to work at their looms, weaving beautiful cloth. They showed us how to work the loom’s shuttle and the patterns they were weaving. They laughed at my odd interest in the smallest of things, like the way they spun their own thread, or how they chose the colors.
Why, I asked, did they do this? Did they hope to sell them abroad? Did they feel “empowered”? The questions confused them. No, they said, we are old “aunties,” this is what we do. The government gives us the money to do this.
They felt secure.
 Much of this section is taken from Horn (2010), pp. 12-13.
 Cohen and Arato (1992 : 273) note the differences between “elite” and “participatory” democracy. Elite democracy (following Schumpeter 1942) “is defined as not as a kind of society or as a set of moral ends or even as a principle of legitimacy but rather as a method for choosing political leaders and organizing governments. The elite model of democracy claims to be realistic, descriptive, empirically accurate, and the only model that is appropriate to modern social conditions.” Participatory democracy, on the other hand, emphasizes the active role of citizens within democracy, where political experience leads to political virture, tolerance, and encourages compromise. (See also Arendt 1963; Barber 1984)
 The “transitology” literature (O’Donnell and Schmitter, 1986; Collier 1999) seeks to make a science of measuring these efforts.
 See Chow Bing Ngeow “Democratic Development in China’s Urban Shequs/Communities” Doctoral Dissertation, Northeastern University 2010. See also Suzanne Ogden, Inklings of Democracy in China, (Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press), 2002.
 I say this with the caveat that perhaps enough time has passed to measure the success of such policies.
 See, for example, International Development Enterprises, founded by Paul Polak, a non-profit that utilizes business models to design, develop and market technologies for the “bottom billion.” www.ide.org
1. We shall follow and advance the four principles of Grameen Bank: Discipline, Unity, Courage and Hard work – in all walks of our lives.
- Prosperity we shall bring to our families.
- We shall not live in dilapidated houses. We shall repair our houses and work towards constructing new houses at the earliest.
- We shall grow vegetables all the year round. We shall eat plenty of them and sell the surplus.
- During the plantation seasons, we shall plant as many seedlings as possible.
- We shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize our expenditures. We shall look after our health.
- We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.
- We shall always keep our children and the environment clean.
- We shall build and use pit-latrines.
- We shall drink water from tubewells. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum.
- We shall not take any dowry at our sons’ weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughter’s wedding. We shall keep our centre free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.
- We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, neither shall we allow anyone to do so.
- We shall collectively undertake bigger investments for higher incomes.
- We shall always be ready to help each other. If anyone is in difficulty, we shall all help him or her.
- If we come to know of any breach of discipline in any centre, we shall all go there and help restore discipline.
- We shall take part in all social activities collectively.
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