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David Roodman's Microfinance Open Book Blog


Ann Dunham Soetoro, Maya, and BarackIf she were still alive, Ann Dunham would have turned 68 today. I'm sorry to say that I don't know much about her. Her life ended in 1995, just as the World Wide Web took off. In The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben observed that in Americans' sense of their own history, a light flips on around 1955 or 1960, when television became common. Eisenhower and Little Richard are from way back; Kennedy and the Beatles are modern. The advent of the Web may created a similar break in our subjective sense of history. Pre-1995 is another world. Indeed, there are almost no traces of Ann Dunham online---I have found only this fragment. She is practically invisible now.

But when she was alive, I am told, she was quite the opposite of invisible: a firecracker in the international professional world of microfinance. She helped develop the extraordinarily successful microfinance system of the Bank Rakyat Indonesia. She worked in the early 1990s for Women's World Banking and the Ford Foundation.

The below is from a remembrance by anthropologist Michael Dove of Dr. Soetoro (going by the surname she acquired from her second husband). Perhaps you are in a position to add your own memories? As I have let slip in the past, I am passionate about unearthing and curating the artifacts history.

Dr. Soetoro’s most sustained academic effort was her 1,043-page dissertation, “Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia: Surviving Against All Odds,” completed in 1992 and based on 14 years of research. This was a classic, in-depth, on-the-ground anthropological study of a 1,200-year-old industry. Her principal field site was a cluster of hamlets, containing several hundred households, on an arid limestone plateau on Java’s south coast. There, village metalworkers produced dozens of different iron blades and tools for use in farming, carpentry and daily life.

When Dr. Soetoro began her study in 1977, the village could be reached only by walking a mile and a half from the nearest paved road. The first battery-powered television set did not arrive in the village until 1978, and was placed in a window and watched by the village en masse; electricity did not arrive until a decade later. In her dissertation, Dr. Soetoro called this village “a wonderful and mysterious place to live.”

Running through Dr. Soetoro’s doctoral research, as through all her work, was a challenge to popular perceptions regarding economically and politically marginalized groups; she showed that the people at society’s edges were not as different from the rest of us as is often supposed. Dr. Soetoro was also critical of the pernicious notion that the roots of poverty lie with the poor themselves and that cultural differences are responsible for the gap between less-developed countries and the industrialized West.

Indeed, Dr. Soetoro found that the villagers she studied in Central Java had many of the same economic needs, beliefs and aspirations as the most capitalist of Westerners. Village craftsmen were “keenly interested in profits,” she wrote, and entrepreneurship was “in plentiful supply in rural Indonesia,” having been “part of the traditional culture” there for a millennium.

Based on these observations, Dr. Soetoro concluded that underdevelopment in these communities resulted from a scarcity of capital, the allocation of which was a matter of politics, not culture. Antipoverty programs that ignored this reality had the potential, perversely, of exacerbating inequality because they would only reinforce the power of elites. As she wrote in her dissertation, “many government programs inadvertently foster stratification by channeling resources through village officials,” who then used the money to further strengthen their own status.

These same observations also led her to start working with institutions like the Ford Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development to devise alternate pathways for reaching and working with the poor. She helped to pioneer microcredit programs that made small amounts of capital available to weavers, blacksmiths and other low-income groups---people who would otherwise have had no access to credit.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.