New book reveals untold stories of money and power from the African diaspora

Caroline Shenaz Hossein, from the Department of Social Science
Caroline Shenaz Hossein, from the Department of Social Science

Social Science Professor Caroline Shenaz Hossein traverses the Americas to tell the untold stories of black people and money in the world of microfinance.

In her new book, Politicized Microfinance: Money, Power and Violence in the Black Americas, Hossein examines peoples of African descent living in the Western Hemisphere, how they engage with financing and how the process helps or hurts them depending on their cultural context.

She does not shy away from issues of race and class. Notably, she studies the identities of not only borrowers, but also lenders and their own personal biases.

“That’s something that is new and innovative to the field within development and economic development, specifically for the microfinance sector,” she said.

Microfinancing or micro-banking is meant to provide resources to low-income people to assist them in fighting poverty and becoming self-sufficient. Hossein worked in the field of microfinance for a decade in progressive non-profits fighting for social change in sub-Saharan Africa and some Caribbean countries.

“I realized that things were not as they appeared to be,” she said. “A targeted financial resource that was supposed to be helping people was actually marginalizing them further.”

As a result, people would reject the support that was meant to help them.

In Hossein’s case study in Haiti, it’s the financial managers, not the borrowers, whose lives are necessarily in danger. Being a microfinance lender begins as a feel-good position where you help the poor and can move to a position where you fear angering the “moneyed elite who might kill you execution style because you are trying to make money more accessible and fairly distributed,” said Hossein. “Ultimately, people can die for really challenging political and economic elites by making these economic resources available to certain groups.”

Amidst the violence, the Haitian case has produced positive results in that cooperatives are a collective institution seen as a more inclusive way to bank.

“The original intention of microfinance is to turn commercial banks upside down and to empower the people to take control of these resources through solidarity groups and cooperatives,” said Hossein. “That’s the thrust of the book: trying to really untangle when these directed financial resources are being used to assist communities from an underdeveloped to a developed state and the kind of informal and formal politics that interferes with that.”

Hossein investigates how to create opportunities for people so they don’t have to leave their homelands.

“I’m a first-generation Canadian, but my parents were economic refugees from some of the places I write about,” said Hossein. “I really wanted to figure out how to make business more inclusive, whether we’re talking about here in Canada or other countries.”