The Social Construction of the Microfinance Industry: a comparison of donor and recipient perspectives

Arjun Bisen, Bronwen Dalton, Rachel Wilson


Abstract

Microfinance has been one of the fastest growing “industries” of the new millennium, with the sector now containing over 10,000 microfinance institutions (MFIs) worth an estimated USD with over $60 billion in assets (Microfinance Information Exchange 2011). This expansion has stimulated interest from both scholars and the mainstream media. There is a growing volume of academic research which broadly centres on two approaches: an “institutionalist perspective” that highlights microfinance as an innovation in applying market solutions to social problems; and the other approach, often described as welfarist, that questions the capacity of an increasingly commericalised sector to realize a mission of poverty reduction. But do these themes and concerns permeate academic boundaries? Specifically, does media coverage in key donor and recipient countries confirm or challenge or even engage with these debates? To date much of this academic literature has overlooked how “microfinance” has been socially constructed in the public sphere through the mass media. Through its interpretation of events, the media can influence the way an issue is discussed and evaluated and in this way influence individual perceptions (Gamson 1988). In this article we present an analysis of recent media coverage of microfinance in one key donor country, the United States and one major recipient country, India. By conducting a media content analysis of 100 newspaper articles (sorted by level of relevance) that appeared in the top 10 highest circulating English language newspapers in India and the US over a 12 month period January-December 2008 we discuss how media coverage in these two countries differed in significant ways. The Indian media sample tended to focus on operational issues and report on specific business activity within the microfinance industry, in general treating it as a ‘regular’ part of the financial and banking system. While the US media sample made broader generalizations about the industry, linking it to meta narratives and broader themes – peculiarly microfinance as an innovation due to its harnessing of market forces to realize positive social outcomes. This finding contributes to understanding of the interpretations, and the differences in interpretations, of microfinance between donor and recipient countries and offers insights into the power relations at play within the microfinance industry and the broader development and business community.

Keywords

Microfinance; Nonprofit; India, US

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