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Gender in microfinance

Dr Farzana Tanima
School of Accounting, Economics and Finance

Accounting for women’s empowerment in microfinance initiatives

A few years after completing her PhD, Dr Farzana Tanima is transforming accounting practices for microfinance initiatives for women in Bangladesh to account for the true impact of social development programs.

Microfinance initiatives, while regarded as a powerful mode of empowering women and alleviating poverty by providing loans to entrepreneurs and small businesses in developing countries, are laden with controversy. Concerns for the accountability of microfinance institutions who profit from lending schemes have been highly publicised. Less so, the way in which conventional accounting systems disservice women beneficiaries.

“There’s a focus on financial self-sustainability and repayment rates as the only form of success in microfinance but we need to move away from that,” Dr Tanima says. “Showing only numbers hides other narratives.”

In her PhD at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, Dr Tanima critiqued the narrow economic logic which dominates microfinance and considered alternative accounting practices that push for progress towards, rather than stagnate, women’s empowerment.

In this way, her work to date is fast transforming the role of accounting which extends to corporate social responsibility. “If you can change that language of accounting, you can bring about change in society and organisations.”

At UOW, Dr Tanima has continued to explore ways in which accounting can foster social notions of women’s empowerment. Her research draws upon the rich literature of gender and development studies and educational research to change how the success of microfinance initiatives is measured. This will challenge institutional norms of traditional accounting practices to promote greater social accountability.

Dr Tanima has quickly established herself as a leading researcher in this space, receiving the Accounting and Finance Association of Australia and New Zealand (AFAANZ) Best PhD Award and more recently, in 2016, the Broadbent and Laughlin Emerging Scholar Award.

She is leading a multidisciplinary UOW Global Challenges project to evaluate microfinance initiatives from a social accounting perspective. This involves working with women loanees to create accounts which counter traditional financial reports and developing qualitative tools for monitoring, evaluating and reporting microfinance from individual interviews and focus group sessions.

Dialogic accounting, as it is called, can capture narratives of women’s empowerment where numbers can’t. It also puts a magnifying glass to oppressive power imbalances in organisations and structural barriers that disempower women.

Dr Tanima has a strong personal interest in the socio-political issues in her home country, Bangladesh. Here she is building firm relationships with women beneficiaries and non-government organisations, in particular, the Integrated Social Development Effort (IDSE), to enable her research.

“Accounting is more than a number-crunching discipline. Accounting is a force for change. It can an influence people’s behaviour and affect social and organisational change.”

Dr Tanima is putting those words into action.