The case of Kiva and Grameen: Towards a Marxist feminist critique of 'smart economics'.

Author:Byatt, Brett
Position::Behind the News


Over the past decade, there has been a revision of the feminist discourse within development. This is to say that there has been a focal shift away from women's liberation to female 'empowerment', particularly female empowerment through the introduction of women to the financial markets. This is what is meant by the term 'Smart Economics'. This essay will argue that mainstream feminism has been co-opted with neoliberalism, reimagining what it means to empower women. Neoliberal feminism in development has taken a 'Bottom of the Pyramid' (BoP) approach, which promotes the idea that those in poverty should be viewed as consumers and entrepreneurs who can alleviate their own poverty (Calkin 2017). With the creation of microfinance institutions (MFIs) as an attempt to alleviate poverty, I argue that by allowing women the access to capital through small loans, this 'Smart Economics' is a neoliberal instrument of exploitation. 'Smart Economics' is capitalism's attempt to create and exploit new markets and in turn new labourers and consumers. By outlining a brief Marxist Feminist perspective on 'Smart Economics', I will illustrate my argument that by bringing capitalist globalisation to rural areas, MFIs, such as Grameen Bank and, the case studies I will use in this paper, further endanger the women they disproportionately lend to as well as perpetuating a debt trap to the world's poorest.

The design and implementation of 'Smart Economics'

Capitalism is rife with power relations, particularly between the labourer and capitalist, and men and women. 'Smart Economics' has been designed and constructed to gloss over these power relations that are deeply embedded into capitalist society. Since the financial crisis in 2008, the corporate-led gender equality agenda has attempted to cover up the ills of capitalism by suggesting that all that is needed to stop the crises of capitalism is more feminine qualities in the markets. Through a coalition of feminist organisations, capitalist states, funding institutions and transnational corporations, what Roberts (2012) calls 'transnational business feminism', women have been targeted in the Global South for the alleviation poverty. Corporations have hijacked mainstream feminism to reconceptualise female empowerment as integration into labour and financial markets (Roberts 2016). Calkin (2017) describes this hijacking as the 'corporatisation of global development governance', where we see a proliferation of public-private partnerships for female empowerment (p. 70). This 'corporatisation' in fact does not liberate women from their oppression, but instead reinforces the patriarchal gender roles that are prescribed by capitalism. Hester Eisenstein (2017) explains that

the ills of the capitalist world economy can be fixed by the incorporation of women into the regular operations of business. Women are being viewed as a kind of all-purpose tonic for the sputtering, uneven growth and recurring crises of the world economy ... (p. 38) which can be interpreted as to say that capitalism is using women's prescribed gender role, as the more 'rational', 'risk averse' and caretaking, to suture the wounds of the capitalist economy (Roberts 2012).

The design of 'Smart Economics' stems from the much broader realm of 'transnational business feminism' (Roberts 2016). Rooted in the patriarchal hierarchy of capitalist power is the social construct of gender, which is in no way challenged by this 'feminist' framework. Instead, corporations perpetuate these constructs by introducing women into the highly gendered structures of financial markets. A major hypocrisy in this thinking is that it values women's work less than their male counterparts, which is contrary to its 'feminist' outlook. Instead of recognising the socioeconomic worth of domestic labour, 'Smart Economics' finds that women's labour has been used inefficiently and through immersing them into the financial markets, this will contribute to the alleviation of gender inequality. From the viewpoint of this neoliberal agenda, women who do not participate in the financial markets live in a constant state of insecurity, which essentially reinforces the gendered relations perpetuated by capitalism. This is a deep misconception on behalf of the neoliberal economists arguing for economic empowerment. For example, in the crux of the financial crisis, after the so-called recovery from the...

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