Microfinance depends vitally on a modern cultural value that drives the global economy: the time-value of money. Microfinance practices work where this value is already well developed. The poorest parts of the world, almost by definition, are those where this value is not well understood.
Take Lawino for example: the beleaguered village woman in The Song of Lawino (by Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek). She complains that her Westernized husband condemns her “because I waste time.” She responds that in her (Acoli) culture people are seen as lazy “not because they waste time but because they only destroy and do not produce.”“ Listen My husband, In the wisdom of the Acoli Time is not stupidly split up Into seconds and minutes, It does not flow Like beer in a pot That is sucked Until it is finished.”
Lawino’s time is concrete; bound to events and common life-sense. It follows the cycles of the sun, the seasons, and the lives of villagers and the animals around them. It is bound to the seasonal rhythms of agricultural and labour. Lawino sees her husband’s clock as pretty, but too abstract to be practical. “When there is no water in the house you cannot wash the child even if it is time for his bath!”
Microfinance delivers products with abstract cash flows that are alien to the rhythms of village life. In any other business we would have redesigned our products to meet demand. Is culture blinding us?