Monday, January 24, 2011

Caps, Drugs and Microfinance

(as posted on

Of all the arguments I have heard in support of rapidly scaling microfinance the one I have heard the most is that there is huge demand for money among the poor. Of course there is huge demand. The less you have of it, the more desperately you need it – to tide over the pain and struggle of every day. The next meal, school fees, doctor fees, a pair of shoes, a movie to escape from reality, a drink or two to forget. It’s a painkiller.

When you’re in severe pain, you need a painkiller. What you care about is relieving the pain now. Today. When you are in desperate need of money you don’t have, and it is dangled in front of you, you will take it. But painkillers are insidious.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Culture of Progress?

(As posted on, adapted from my earlier post 'Culture and Progress')

As I write this column Pongal is being celebrated with fervour around Chennai. Pongal is a giving of thanks for the harvest, a celebration of the cow and a renewal of hope. For most of India this is not an abstract symbolism of a bygone way of life but anchored in a day to day reality. Yet I wonder about the joy of Pongal when crop yields are among the lowest in the world, our milk yields lag most Asian countries and farmer suicides are constantly in the news.

Where does the hope come from? On the first day of Pongal – Bhogi Pongal - it comes from worshiping Indira in the hope that it will bring good rains in the next year. The second day it comes from the worship of Surya for an abundance of crop and the third day is a dedication to the cow that gives so much of itself. And then of course let’s not forget the hope of the free Pongal bags and bonuses given out by the State government. After thousands of years of these prayers, and decades of government freebies, it appears to me that altogether this strategy is just not working.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Go on. Innovate!

(as posted at

You’d think that with almost a billion people out there in the rural areas that there would be amazing innovations to be found there every day. But there aren’t. Search as we might innovation is hard to come by. Implicit in the definition of innovation is change, but the village ethos is about tradition. It’s about holding on to age old practices. Walk into a village and life looks almost the way it did hundreds of years ago. In my column last week I talked about celebrating human innovation. Why is there so little of it? Take a look at what India looks like from the sky, ask people a few questions and the answer is quite obvious really.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Decade of the Cow

According to the microfinance calendar, the last ten years were the decade of the cow. We celebrated the cow as the path out of poverty. At Madura we even benchmarked the loan amount to the cost of a cow. What good is a loan if it’s not even enough to buy a cow? And so over the last decade the microfinance industry has supported the purchase of millions of cows across the country. Millions of scrawny cows with poor yield it turns out; a hallmark of the inefficiency of microenterprise. I for one am glad to be past the decade of the cow and am excited and hopeful that this decade we will do away with celebrating cows - and pigs and goats and chickens and antiquated sewing machines and cottage industries - and celebrate instead the human being and its capacity for extraordinary innovation.