Who is served by philanthropic initiatives and how? My recent research in India’s microfinance industry has urged me to revisit taken for granted notions of donation and assistance that implicitly structure our conversations about helping to transform the conditions of oppressed communities in India and the U.S.
Although many of us may still cling to the notion that microfinance is inherently service-oriented, those working in India’s microfinance industry, at least, do not think of themselves as philanthropists. But the industry does supplement their lending services with an increasing range of philanthropic initiatives, ranging from eye camps to educational programs to job training. These services were the subject of my research.
One program I studied offers courses on entrepreneurship to microfinance borrowers, all women. These trainings comprise a sizable corporate social responsibility initiative of a rapidly growing for-profit lending institution. At first gloss, it seems to be an initiative so deeply philanthropic, it could hardly be criticized: poor women borrowers attend participatory educational courses free of charge, and learn valuable skills about how to run a small business, how to manage their money and time, and how to expand their business if they wish.
But for all the potential opportunity these trainings seemed to offer, I found they were rarely about the women attending them. These borrowers were often far more diverse than the organization ever took the time to understand. While some had small businesses, as the organization presumed, many of them earned money through domestic work, factory work, or construction work. A few had been to college. One borrower I interviewed was an experienced carpenter who also headed up eighteen other women’s self-help groups in her area. In short, the borrowers gathered had their own experiences and ideas, and commonly found the content patronizing or irrelevant. And they voted with their feet. When they were engaged, they stayed, and when they were bored or simply had something better to do, they just up and left.
Yet, “impact assessments” done on this program previously reported astonishingly positive results that reflected none of the ambiguity I observed. A downloadable “fact sheet” about the program reports through bar charts that most women who attended felt they could manage their money better after taking the training, and felt they had better business skills. But many, if not most, of the women I spoke to could barely articulate one clear lesson from the training in their own words. If I asked them a yes/no question, however, such as, “Did you feel more confident after taking the course?” they almost always said “yes.” These women could be as courteous as we would be to a visitor. I found them adept at sensing exactly how they were supposed to answer such questions.
Over the course of my months of observation, I came to the conclusion that the ones doing the giving benefit the most. Through this initiative, the Indian lending institution can claim that they train thousands of poor women, and help them make better livelihoods for themselves. Thus, the lending institution rebrands itself as philanthropic, while the women who take the trainings might still be wondering what they were supposed to get out of that last activity.
What would it mean to reimagine a model for philanthropy in which the distinction between the giver and the beneficiary were less pronounced, the gift more of an exchange between groups that have much to learn about one another?
We live in a moment when privileged Indians the world over find ourselves asking what philanthropic work we can to do to help those less fortunate than ourselves. But perhaps we might also ask what work philanthropy does for us—by establishing us as benevolent givers, by rebranding our images, by vindicating our success. And once we have that reality check in place, perhaps we can begin the hard and humbling work of forging alliances with less privileged groups who, like the women I spoke to, often have legitimately clear ideas for where they want to go with their lives. We cannot know what those ideas are without asking, in an open-ended way, and asking continuously. And then asking them what questions they have for us.