Narratives, Ranajit Guha & Microcredit

I have been on an overdose of Ranajit Guha’s writings and papers from the Subaltern Studies over the past few weeks. Guha’s reasoning on the project of colonial historiography in Chandra’s death is something I, perhaps prematurely, feel overrated. Moreover, its increasing currency is suspect as far as the merit of the argument is concerned. The language of the text is highly imaginative and I like the way it is presented. The point that the colonial project asserted itself in ways like this trial of a deceased woman’s death is overdrawn. Guha’s big draw has been his highly imaginative language and the force with which the thoughts pound a reader’s mind – for instance, his claim of “reclaim the document for history”.

The paper has a certain dramatic force –

This essay begins with a transgression-a title that is designed to violate the intentions for which the material reproduced below has already served with two authorities-the authority of the law which
recorded the event in its present form and that of the editor who separated it from other items in an archive and gave it a place in another order-a book of documents collected for their sociological
interest. The movement between these two intentions-the law’s and the scholar’s-suggests the interposition of other wills and purposes.

He goes on further to state that “we know nothing of them (historical events) except that they must have occurred”. Having said this, the exercise situates itself in an imaginary domain where the scholar’s guess is as good as any other person thinking about it. But for Guha –

 the very fact that they occurred, in whatever unspecified ways, would justify yet another intervention– a return·to the terminal points of the shift, the only visible sites of legal and editorial intentionality, in order to desecrate them by naming the material once again and textualizing it for a new purpose.

This obsession of social scientists as Guha is beyond me. It is hard to understand why should this view of colonial historiography prevail over the other narratives.

However, I realized while talking to a friend that distinct dissections as these of an action could be useful and may be a simple way of looking at the microcredit debate between Grameen and SKS as it unfolded last year. We began enquiring if SKS followed the same approach as that of Grameen and where did the difference lay. I have keenly followed several sharp dissections of the issue and long drawn analyses on these two organizations, particularly at CGDEV’s blog. But what we discussed here was at a larger, ‘approach’ front.

Grameen and SKS have not followed the same model. In fact in a long drawn and public debate Prof. Yunus has criticized Akula’s SKS way of microcredit. He was alluding to the fact that SKS variety is essentially “commercial microcredit” whereas Grameen’s origin and current mode of work as well, is significantly different and in not-for-profit mode. (A quick “Yunus vs Akula” search should yield relevant links to the spat that happened between them last year.)

Prof. Yunus called SKS and similar companies as “profit minded loan sharks” at some point. So now one can estimate how different these two are. SKS is clever financial engineering to extend credit to low income groups and earn returns. This when done at a larger scale will create windfall profits. And this made the company valuable the day it went public and offered its IPO.

And why is Grameen seen as successful by a vast majority? Hazarding a reason – because the capital mobilized as credit was not expected to yield “returns” for its investors. Another paper (presented at WEAI’s 86th Conference) Crisis in Indian Microfinance: A Tale of Growth and (No) Regulation explains the shift from a social model of capital helping poor avail credit and increase their income vs. capital which was brought in by large institutional investors with an expectation that it should make more profits. And SKS took institutional investors’ capital to scale and expand. And therefore had to push for returns and profits.

In another paper, Grameen and Microcredit: A Tale of Corporate Success, Anu Muhammad does an empirical study of Grameen’s claims and performance. What this paper does is that it puts Grameen to a very hard test on numbers and claims that the organization has made over the past. It is an assessment exercise. The numbers might tell a different story and lay bare the mismatch between claims and results on the ground, as well as the measures adopted by Grameen in later years.

The other part of the story is that the world understands Grameen NOT by its means and ways, but by the values and the intention with which it began. It generally happens that the intention along with the early simpler ways of disbursing credit is what remains in the public memory when they talk or hear about Grameen. As the organization grew, changing scale of operation, geographic reach and people at Grameen led to a divergent way of doing things which had hardly any similarity with the early formula. This is where these empirical works are situated and help in unveiling the larger, long term effects of the organization.

The method in the paper is rigorous. This is what an economist is likely to do. At the same time, this is the kind of research with which a social scientist has issues with. It is rendering dead the narrative and lived experiences of several people who might have benefited from microcredit. Instead the analysis disconnects the narrative and takes only the numbers. Depends on the reader what he would like to prioritize – the social/narrative or the hard numbers.

Or as Guha would do – read an event either in its present form or look at the way its editor archived it when it occurred. The views on microcredit are bifurcated in quite a similar fashion – one can consider only the intentions as a considerations while the rest would settle for no less than examining it on how it unfolds on the ground and impacts lives. On this front, reading Guha’s complex arguments and sociological analysis sure helps!

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