Vulnerable Minorities: There’s an Elephant in This Room

> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

The elephant in the room of vulnerable minorities that continue to be excluded in large numbers from microfinance services is the globe’s second largest population after women: men. The vulnerability of men is often overlooked, due to their historic domination of women and their control of wealth in most societies throughout recorded history. Of course for every wealthy landowner or merchant, there were many slaves, landless laborers, and indentured servants, who controlled none of the world’s wealth and were lucky if they scratched out a living.

When microcredit first gained traction and credibility as a poverty alleviation strategy in the seventies, creating self-employment opportunities for women in the informal sector was central to its mission. Organizations like Women’s World Banking (birthed at the UN’s World Conference on Women in 1975) and Pro Mujer (1990) embodied this outreach strategy. There were very sound reasons to focus on women, who are and remain the poorest of the poor. And this emphasis reflected the zeitgeist of the time, as many of the early leaders of microfinance came of age in the women’s movement. Theirs was a struggle for equal rights and equal pay in societies that were patriarchal and discriminatory. It was a logical next step to bring this message of women’s rights to international development work.

The focus on women was validated and reinforced by success in microfinance’s formative years. Through that experience, conventional wisdom developed that women were more reliable payers, worked better in groups, and were more likely to use loan proceeds to benefit their families. Men, by contrast, were seen as selfish and uncooperative, more likely to squander their loans on drink and other vices.

Today, women remain the clients of choice for MFIs. According to a 2011 MIX survey, “Gender-oriented goals are generally prominent among MFIs: women represent a relatively high proportion – usually the majority – of clients across regions and half of MFIs offer non-financial services specifically designed to target the needs of women.”

In the 21st century, targeting the employment needs of poor women is as valid as it ever was—but what is not acceptable in the 21st century is not to target the needs of men as well. Men are hurting. In the Middle East, unemployed men are a serious threat not just to the region’s stability and prosperity, but to family life as well: “We have, throughout the Arab world, a young, unemployed, alienated and radicalized group of people, mainly men, who have found a vehicle to express themselves,” says Rob Malley, the Middle East-North African program director for the International Crisis Group.

For the first time in U.S. history, women today outnumber men in the work force. There are more young African American men in prison than in college. Women are 60 percent more likely than men to earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 23, according to data recently released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In North Korea, far more women are breadwinners than men, due to the collapse of formal employment opportunities for men. The women have stalls in markets (the informal sector) and refer to their husbands as “puppies,” (a terrible insult) since they are utterly dependent on their wives for survival.

Work prospects like these produce angry, frustrated men; and angry frustrated men, from time immemorial, take out their rage on their women. We know right here at home in the United States that as male unemployment ticks ups, so does domestic abuse.

Now microfinance is not and should not be social work. It cannot solve domestic ills, but certainly gainful self-employment for men is a worthy goal that must not be ruled out a priori. Most men want to do right by their families: feed their children, clothe them, and educate them. They aspire to lives of meaning and purpose as much as their wives do. Whether we need organizations named Pro Hombre and Men’s World Banking, I don’t know. But something needs to be done, and soon, about this vast and vulnerable minority. There is a crisis of male unemployment around the world that is likely only to worsen in the coming years. This elephant in the room is not going to lumber away any time soon.

Have you read?

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide

Equal Pay for Equal Work: Are MFIs Paying Women Employees the Same as Men?

Let’s Examine the Underlying Social Causes of Poverty