Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Affective Investments": The Politics of Microfinance Tourism

First cohort, IMTFI fellow Anke Schwittay recently published a new book titled New Media and International Development: Representation and Affect in Microfinance (Routledge 2014). Research for this book began in 2009 with an IMTFI grant awarded to her and Paul Braund to study the digital lending network emerging around, a person-to-person microlending website founded in San Francisco in 2005. In this post, Anke reflects on the process of writing the book, and how it grew out of her IMTFI research.

The IMTFI grant enabled field research in Mexico and Indonesia, allowing us to study how the virtual network of Kiva is grounded in particular localities. We learned about the ways in which Kiva recruits its partner organizations and manages technological infrastructures and financial flows with microfinance institutions (MFIs). We also studied how the MFIs themselves deal with the requirements of being a Kiva partner, especially around borrower selection and verification, and the role that Kiva Fellows play in facilitating this process.

During a visit to the offices of Kiva’s Indonesian partner, MFI, I noticed a poster showing photos of a group of tourists sitting in meetings with borrowers, but also riding through the countryside in Jeeps and snorkling in sparkling blue waters. Intrigued, I asked one of the MFI staff about the poster, and he explained to me that his organization regularly hosted small groups of tourists, mainly from Germany and New Zealand, who come to combine learning about how microfinance works on the ground with more typical holiday adventures. This conversation was the beginning of my interest in the way in which everyday people in the Global North learn about microfinance, which eventually became the central focus of the book.

During the course of researching the book, I visited Chennai, India as a participant in a micro finance tour, I conducted interviews with Kiva borrowers and Fellows, and analysed the Kiva website, blogs and photos. I realized that the representation of microfinance has much to do with the ways in which it remains popular among Northern publics, even in the face of increasing academic and journalistic critique. These representations materialize in prototypical images of smiling women, often in traditional clothes in their places of work, and in what I call ‘microfinance’s obligatory success stories’ of poor women enterprising themselves out of poverty and often work on an affective level. 

This has lead me to analyse the connections established by sites like Kiva as ‘affective investments,’ which are financial, social and emotional commitments to distant others. The book traces these investments from more mediated ones established through a CGAP photo competition and the Kiva website to personal encounters through microfinance tourism and volunteering as a Kiva Fellow.

I also ask if these affective investments enable a more critical engagement with microfinance that is necessary in order for Northern publics to learn about its negative aspects. This is especially important because these publics are usually only treated to anecdotal and highly photogenic stories of success that do not engage the questionable impact of microfinance, its complex gender dynamics or its links to neoliberalism that have been exacerbated with commercialization. I conclude that while personal encounters as tourists and volunteers do open up possibilities for more critical engagement, these are usually foreclosed by the scripted nature of microfinance encounters and by the pressure from microfinance organizations at all levels to upkeep its obligatory success story.

Follow this link to read more of Anke Schwittay's work with IMTFI.

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