The Foreign Service Journal, June 2021

46 JUNE 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL at the level of selling sugar by the cube) and the duration of trans- actions is short. In short, most of the characteristics of real enterprises and entrepreneurs are missing. In these bazaar types of economy (as opposed to the firm-based economies characteristic of the advanced industrial countries), goods flow, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz once put it, “in hundreds of little trickles, fun- neled through an enormous number of transactions,” and the trader “is perpetually looking for a chance to make a smaller or larger killing, not attempting to build up a stable clientele or a steadily growing business.” First, Invest in Understanding Since there has always been a social purpose to microfinance, its greatest fault is its almost willful ignorance of the social, cul- tural and economic complexities of the many systems in which its clients operate and live. Context is key, and if the contextual conditions are not conducive to a generally rising tide, then pov- erty remains and can even grow. Ironically, it is only now, after three-quarters of a century of post–World War II growth in the advanced economies, that we see how vulnerable most people in our own privileged world are to context. We are well advised to acknowledge a good dose of humility about how far, really, we have come, and howmuch, really, we know about poverty. What Henry George said in 1879 in his famous book Progress and Poverty remains true today: “This association of poverty with progress is the great enigma of our times. It is the central fact fromwhich spring industrial, social and political difficulties that perplex the world, and with which statesmanship and philan- thropy and education grapple in vain. From it come the clouds that overhang the future of the most progressive and self-reliant nations. … All important as this question is, pressing itself from every quarter painfully upon attention, it has not yet received a solution which accounts for all the facts and points to any clear and simple remedy.” In the enormously challenging project of poverty alleviation in the developing countries, therefore, the starting pointmust not be an urgent jump into action, but first an investment in understanding. n