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Does Microcredit “Empower”? Reflections on the Grameen Bank Debate

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Recent debates about the Grameen Bank’s microlending practices depict participating female borrowers as having fundamentally empowering or disempowering experiences. I argue that this discursive framework may be too reductive: it can conceal how technique and technology simultaneously facilitate relations of dependence and independence; and it can diminish our capacity to understand and assess innovative development initiatives.

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  1. 1.

    The foundation for many of the issues addressed here can be found in three previous articles: Selinger (2007a, 2007b, forthcoming).

  2. 2.

    The Village Phone program began in 1997 as a collaborative venture between the Grameen Bank and two companies, a private for-profit company, GrameenPhone Ltd. and a not-for-profit one, Grameen Telecom.

  3. 3.

    For more on postphenomenology, see Selinger (2006).

  4. 4.

    Phone ladies are also referred to as “mobile calling offices.”

  5. 5.

    Embedded quotations in these four issues are from Ghosh (2006).

  6. 6.

    Having restricted my attention to articles and books written in English, I may be overlooking relevant inquiry in other languages. I also may be overlooking sources that fell outside the scope of my searches. These caveats are important for two reasons. First, in so far as I am relying upon secondary literature and not a personally conducted case study, I do not want to overstate the strength of my conclusions. Second, in so far as I am relying upon phenomenological concepts that were developed by Western thinkers, the analysis risks distorting non-Western lifeworlds. This risk is amplified by reliance upon studies that were written in English, for Western audiences.


  1. Aminuzzaman, S., Baldersheim, H., & Jamil, I. (2003). Talking back! Empowerment and mobile phones in rural Bangladesh: A study of the Village Phone Scheme of Grameen Bank. Contemporary South Asia, 12, 327–348.

  2. Bayes, A. (2001). Infrastructure and rural development: Insights from a Grameen Bank village phone initiative in Bangladesh. Agricultural Economics, 25, 261–272.

  3. Chowdhry, G. (2000). A review of Women and microcredit in rural Bangladesh. An anthropological study of Grameen Bank lending. Journal of Political Ecology: Case Studies in History and Society, 7. Retrieved December 16, 2006, from http://www.jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_7/Rahman1200.html.

  4. Ghosh, J. (2006). Development as a Nobel cause. One World South Asia. Retrieved October 4, 2007 from http://www.southasia.oneworld.net/article/view/142067/1/2235.

  5. Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

  6. Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  7. Murphy, C. (2002). The hunt for globalization that works. Fortune, 146(8), 163–176.

  8. Parmar, A. (2003). Microcredit, empowerment, and agency—Re-evaluating the discourse. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 24, 461–476. Retrieved December 16, 2006, from http://www.southasia.oneworld.net/article/view/142067/1/5339.

  9. Pierik, R. (2007). Fighting child labor abroad: Conceptual problems and practical solutions. In V. Gehring (Ed.), The ethical dimensions of global development (pp. 33–46). New York: Roman & Littlefield Press.

  10. Rahman, A. (1999). Women and microcredit in rural Bangladesh. An anthropological study of Grameen Bank lending. Boulder: Westview Press.

  11. Selinger, E. (2007a). 5 Questions in philosophy of technology. In J. Olsen & E. Selinger (Eds.), 5 Questions in philosophy of technology. United States of America: Automatic/VIP Press.

  12. Selinger, E. (2007b). Technology transfer: What can philosophers contribute? Philosophy and Public Affairs Quarterly, 27(1/2), 12–17.

  13. Selinger, E. (forthcoming). Towards a reflexive framework for development: Technology transfer after the empirical turn. Synthese.

  14. Selinger E. (Ed.). (2006). Postphenomenology: A critical companion to Ihde. Albany: SUNY Press.

  15. Sims, C. (2006). Worldview Podcast. The New York Times. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/21/weekinreview/22worldview.html.

  16. Tucker, J. (1995). The micro-credit cult. The Free Market. Retrieved February 8, 2007, from http://www.mises.org/freemarket_detail.asp?control=215&sortorder=articledate.

  17. Yunus M. (2003a). Halving poverty by 2015—We can actually make it happen. The Round Table, 370, 363–375.

  18. Yunus, M. (2003b). Banker to the poor. New York: Public Affairs.

  19. Verbeek, P. P. (2006). Materializing morality. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 31, 361–380.

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I am grateful to the following people for their assistance with this essay: Richard Dietrich, Don Ihde, Verna Gehring, Robert Rosenberger, David Suits, and Katie Terezakis.

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Correspondence to Evan Selinger.

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Selinger, E. Does Microcredit “Empower”? Reflections on the Grameen Bank Debate. Hum Stud 31, 27–41 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10746-007-9076-3

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  • Development ethics
  • Empowerment
  • Phenomenology
  • Globalization
  • Grameen Bank
  • Mobile phones