An Untimely Obituary

I should start with the good news. David Roodman is not dead. The bad news is that he’s left the Centre for Global Development and moved to Bill Gates’ team. I’m not 100% sure what he’s going to do there, but it’s not microfinance. I saw him in Norway at a conference recently, where he formally announced his resignation, and also slipped in a quick dig about my book. In fact some may be surprised to hear that I am so saddened by his departure, but truly I am. David criticized me on a number of occasions (always in good taste), we engaged in a number of fierce debates on his open blog, and whenever he had the chance to challenge me he usually would. The opening sentence in his review of my book was “I can’t recall feeling such an acute combination of fury and delight at a book before.” The review is fairly critical, but despite the digs, David praised it for raising an important area of discussion – the principal-agent problem and the disturbing role of the microfinance investment funds. It’s one of my favourite reviews.

We did an event together in NYC for my book tour, and he was one of the finest sounding boards for bouncing ideas off. On a number of occasions he compared me directly to Milford Bateman, whom David has sparred with on a number of occasions, and on the basis of the friend of my enemy etc. this would presumably place me firmly at odds with David. On the contrary.

David was one of the most intelligent commentators in a sector dominated by spin and unintelligent people. You had to read his posts carefully, and he would almost always take the time to respond to comments – good manners. Unsatisfied with superficial answers he would get under the skin of a question and pursue the answer where others might give up. His stance was generally ambiguous. He is well known for a quote in Time Magazine suggesting microfinance had no impact on poverty, “on average”. It was mis-quoted frequently, but here you had precisely a Roodman-subtlety – those two words, on average, were critical. He scoured the academic literature, and arrived at a very similar conclusion to the likes of Maren Duvendack – it’s generally not a very good poverty alleviation tool, but does that make it useless? Roodman thinks not.

I “met” David virtually, while commenting under a pen-name on his blog. I was still writing my own book so had to remain anonymous. Then we met in person at a conference in Montevideo where I discreetly mentioned I was the mystery blogger. I had provided David with some interesting information and an unusual direction in some of his blogs – an insider spilling the beans, and we occasionally bump into each other at conferences. His triumph was to straddle the practitioner-academic divide. Although highly academic (mathematics), and with relatively little field-experience, David was able to get academic concepts into the broad microfinance community, an extremely valuable service in a sector barely able to calculate an interest rate.

It would be unfair to omit reference to his on-going debate with Pitt & Khandker. These economists had published a paper in 1998 about how wonderful microfinance was, and David re-analysed the data and came up with a different conclusion: remove 16 outlying observations from the dataset of 5.218 observations and the miraculous impact of microfinance vanishes. Other economists joined the fray, and one day an entire book will no doubt be written about the exchanges. The debate includes some subtle econometrics, and I’m not qualified to declare a winner. David took on a couple of big economists in the process, as well as the broader religion of microfinance, and although he got his fingers burnt in the ensuing debate, respect for challenging the status quo. But to be fair I ought also mention that Pitt and Khanker’s 2012 response was severe: “[the] Roodman and Morduch claims are based on seriously flawed econometric methods and theory and a lack of due diligence in formulating models and interpreting output from packaged software…”. Ouch.

His book, Due Diligence (a term many in the microfinance investment community are disappointingly unfamiliar with) is superb, up to a point. It flows well, he constructs the arguments with a healthy balance of fact, logic, common sense and personal reflection. His history of microfinance is concise, informative and readable. The book is far more critical than I initially expected, indeed possibly more critical than even mine in some ways. And yet David managed to not alienate too many people, and still get invited to conferences despite raising some uncomfortable questions. He became the “household” name for tolerable microfinance criticism, whereas other critics, myself included, tended to polarize people. Fair enough. Working at a Washington think-tank possibly obliged him to act more prudently than us heretics, but I think it was mainly a wise combination of deliberate ambiguity and clever politics which afforded him this role. By not taking aim too squarely at individual institutions or people, many probably assumed the criticism was aimed at others, and let it slide. He is so clearly more intelligent than those still labouring under the illusion that microfinance is a miracle cure that they probably realised it was foolish to pick a fight with him, as long as they weren’t named explicitly.

Then, a few months ago, he went quiet. A few of us wondered what was going on. No replies to skype messages even – the ultimate insult. Then, out of the blue, he emerged with one of the more fierce debates: Four Arguments Against the Elimination of Child Labour. Call me a radical, but I am one of the few (alas) in the microfinance sector who actually disapproves of child labour, particularly the variety which is a) illegal and b) displaces education. So David’s critique of this was strange, and dare I say it, not as well argued as normal. Was the writing on the wall? A lengthy debate ensued, with comments flying around, it was all rather exciting, then petered out like such posts do, and the kids are still working in their micro sweat-shops blissfully unaware of the debate. Then more silence from David.

So, did it come as s surprise that he quit microfinance? Not entirely, but I will miss him. Who is there to debate now? Many of the academics are ludicrously specialised and don’t blog much. David had a broad audience which led to healthy debates. Who will replace him? Almost everyone I can think of is less ambiguous (i.e. more polarized) than David, which doesn’t bode well for healthy debate. We need ambiguity and intelligence combined. But he set out with a mission, published a fairly good book, answered some key questions, prompted healthy discussion, and had some fun in the process. But when you spend that much time investigating something which ultimately doesn’t work that well it is often wise to abandon a sinking boat.

The obvious replacement candidates are the Governance Across Borders blog, or Dan Rozas’s website, both of which possess some of the characteristics of Roodman, albeit with smaller audiences. Time will tell.

But reverting to David’s book, there is a mystery surrounding the last chapter, and perhaps this will remain the final unanswered question of the Roodman-era in microfinance. The chapter just doesn’t flow so well. It seems out of place. It is not argued so rigorously. It is inconsistent with the meticulous detail and logic applied in the rest of the book, which as I mentioned, is pretty critical of the sector. Suddenly, out of the hat, Roodman conjures up his “industry building” argument. In a nutshell, the fact that microfinance doesn’t appear to work doesn’t matter, because we’ve built an industry in the process. I liken it to a town without a hospital. Some do-gooders donate a hospital, and ten years later return to the town to discover the health of the locals is unchanged. “But at least we’ve got a hospital now” one retorts. Is that a satisfactory answer? Sure, it might provide employment, have some spill-over effects, but can we defend hospitals without reference to health? And shouldn’t we aim a little higher? It just doesn’t seem to be a rigorous answer, and sits uncomfortably as the final chapter of an otherwise excellent book. In this regard (alone) I would compare David’s book to Stephen King’s “It” – a definitive book if you remove the final chapter.

To quote David’s arch-rival, Milford Bateman’s comment on the book was “The book is…less a product of genuine research and more a bought-and-paid-for, but yet sophisticated and subtle, piece of propaganda.” I don’t know if I agree with Bateman here, or understand entirely his point, but I was left with this feeling that despite 200+ pages of critique: the positive conclusion was flawed. An attempt to appease the fanatics perhaps? To not alienate friends met along the way who are utterly convinced they were about to solve world poverty once and for all? Some gentle pressure from the book sponsors MasterCard Foundation and CGAP perhaps? We’ll likely never know the truth about the final chapter.

A final topic that is largely ignored by the microfinance community is that David is a mad keen on Morris dancing. Search for images of Roodman in Google and it’s surprising what comes up. So I shall end my untimely obituary with some photographic highlights. And no, these are not real quotes.

“Grab the camera: I found a microfinance client who got out of poverty”

“Our microfinance training program includes poverty-alleviating folk dancing classes”

“Milford wrote a book too, but he’s rubbish at Morris dancing”

So, there we have it. David Roodman, thank you, it was fun, you made me think, sometimes laugh, I thoroughly enjoyed our debates and shall miss them. I wish you the best of luck with Gates and his gang, and if I need some advice on microfinance or Morris dancing, I’ll drop you an email.

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3 Responses to An Untimely Obituary

  1. DavidRoodman says:

    You are very kind, in much of what you write and in giving me the Tom Sawyer-like experience of witnessing my own funeral.

    Just a few thoughts in a response:

    * Yes, Pitt and Khandker’s 2012 paper is, characteristically, severe. I think my response to it is also pretty emphatic:

    * I argue against certain campaigns to eliminate child labor, but that doesn’t mean I’m never bothered by it. For me, it’s a question of what pragmatically will do the most good.

    * I went silent because I began working on things besides microfinance, and felt muddled about whether to do that stuff too in an “open book” way. See

    * The end of my book makes a reasoned case for a particular view. Maybe the reasoning is flawed. But it’s hard to get into a discussion about it until you or someone else goes directly to the text, so I won’t try to defend it here.

    * You suggest I’m capable of deliberate ambiguity for the sake of clever politics. Hah. One thing I’m not is a clever politician. I must state categorically for the record that I did not receive any pressure from MasterCard or CGAP. Nor did I feel obliged by working at a DC think tank to act “more prudently.” Whatever diffidence you observe in the text probably just reflects a character trait–a strength in some contexts, a weakness in others. To an extent, I was born that way. To an extent, I was made that way by my upbringing. Only at that sense can there be a hidden story behind the final chapter. And actually in the final paragraphs I do allude to my past. Anyway, as theory of evolution shows us, the question of where traits come from is quite distinct from the question of whether they are valuable.

    Hugh, it was a treat to read my obituary, and it has been an acute combination of fury and delight to interact with you over the last few years. I wish you the best.


  2. Phil says:

    Also having been very tempted to write a blog obituary (the title would have been “RIP DRMOBB” – in honour of Roodmanisms like YARTOM*, with DRMOBB standing for D. R.’s microfinance open book blog), I’m glad Hugh went ahead and did it. As a German my genetic humour deficit would have made it impossible to be half as charming and witty. But moreover, you’ve provided a great overview of David’s achievements in the blogosphere.

    All I can say is: spot-on, Hugh. David: IMHO you defined what a microfinance blog is, or should be. I think Hugh still under-states the effect you had. All science aside, you produced the first (and perhaps still only) readable, entertaining, controversial, non-technical and pathos-free microfinance zine out there on the web. At least for me, your blog shaped the expectations I wanted to live up to in my writing (despite us usually dis-agreeing on substance). I hope you bring the same rigour, passion, originality and openness to your future exploits at Gates.

  3. An honest writeup and a good farewell to someone who will absolutely be missed in the micro-finance community. Good job.

    I just wanted to say that Governance Across Borders is a good resource (but in my opinion you just can’t compare Dan Rozas to Roodman.) No offense to Rozas.

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