Thoughts on David Hess and Lamia Karim
Financial aid and social change maintain a fragile relationship, in which money determines the progress, goals and outcomes of social movements. Dependant on outside investment produces obvious political shortcomings, particularly within the anti-globalization movement. David Hess “Local and Not-So-Local Exchanges: Alternative Economies, Ethnography, and Social Science” (2013) offers a compelling argument for localism. Localism is a hands-on advocacy, capable of mobilizing a wide range of communities on the left-right spectrum by highlighting local identity, and identifying the threat of corporate competition and neoliberalism (Hess 2013, 5). This humble perspective “focus[ed] more on building democratically accountable economic organizations for the bottom-up” (5). Hess’ work is starkly contrasted by Lamia Karim’s Microfinance and its Discontents which critically examines the role of NGO work within economically depressed Bangladesh Her research targets microfinance loans, as they quickly became a regular practice of most development programs and the general neoliberal economic platform. Karim exposed the unsettling truth of these entrepreneurial ventures: impoverished rural women who were unable to receive government subsidies on education, food or housing, were approved for loans by the NGO Grameen Bank, but many ended up either accumulating more debt as they struggled to repay their debts with interest, or suffered forced wage garnishment or repossession. The Grameen model of NGO symbolized financially empowering the poor, while inflicting devastating economic hardship on the very population they claimed to assist. Neoliberal NGO’s ultimately became the most cunning of predators, arguing “poor women are bankable” only to mean easily exploited.
Hess and Karim advocate for the same thing; local grassroots economic stimulation free of neoliberal manipulation. Though Karim warns, “They[Grameen Bank, and similar NGO’s] are not grassroots organizations that the poor create and control for their welfare; rather they are institutions that facilitate globalization at the grassroots level”. Their self-reflection and critique of their respective movements is refreshing and much needed, and their accounts warn us of the tricky nature of bootstrap capitalism that too often subverts well-intentioned communal efforts aiming.