AbstractThis study explores the social processes through which microfinance is constructed as a success. Bolivian microfinance industry is regarded as one of the most advanced, but Bolivia is still one of the world s poorest countries. Why is microfinance, in spite of disappointing contribution to economic growth, regarded as a success? What is the success and how is it represented? An anthropological study of microfinance discourse as a field of contested approaches to poverty alleviation, and of the concerns that shape practice in a Bolivian microfinance institution (MFI), shows how the representation of Bolivian microfinance industry is constructed as a success in terms of institution building, not poverty alleviation.
The construction of the success story of microfinance in Bolivia results from both neoliberal theories of causes and solutions to poverty and development, and the social practices by actors within the industry when implementing policy as well as producing outcomes that score on indicators selected for the evaluation of performance. Does microfinance solve poverty? Obviously not, as success is derived from outcomes measured by indicators for institutional performance which, in fact, conceal impact on poverty and contradictory practices. Objective indicators reflect instead short-term financial and institutional goals. Green (2003) describes this as a process of transforming policy visions into manageable realities through the social constitution of projects subject to specific techniques of audit, organization and control (2003:124 original emphasis). In the context of microfinance, projects may be replaced by the social constitution of institutions , in this case MFIs, subjected to the expectations and demands for accountability, transparency, efficiency, and profit. Mosse (2005) turns the questions upside-down and argues that policy is not a priori and does not order practice, but that policy is produced by practice (2005:246). The focus is thus not whether microfinance succeeds, but how success is produced and represented (Mosse 2005:8).
This is not an anthropological account of development as failure, instead I follow Green s (2003) attempt to explore the social processes that produce the financial indicators of success, and Mosse s (2005) argument on how social practice sustains the discursive representations of policy and success. The financial and institutional performance indicators are the statistical basis for studies of microfinance within other social sciences, and an anthropological account of microfinance practice will complement the picture provided by such studies.