Mara Kardas-Nelson at Harvard Book Store


We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky:
The Seductive Promise of Microfinance

in conversation with QUINN SLOBODIAN


June 11, 2024
7:00 PM ET


Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

Harvard Book Store welcomes MARA KARDAS-NELSON—award-winning independent journalist—for a discussion of her new book We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky: The Seductive Promise of Microfinance. She will be joined in conversation by QUINN SLOBODIAN—author of Crack-up Capitalism and Globalists, and Professor of International History at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. 

About We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky

In 2005, pop star Bono proclaimed, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit, she, her husband, her children and her extended family will eat for a lifetime.” By the mid-2000s, it had become international development dogma that microfinance—very small, high-interest loans—was the way to end poverty. The UN had dubbed 2005 the year of microcredit. A year later, when Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on microfinance, he proclaimed that tiny loans would “put poverty in museums.”

It was a beautiful vision. But there was just one problem: microfinance doesn’t work – at least not as promised.

Mara Kardas-Nelson's We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky is a story about unintended consequences, blind optimism, and the decades-long ramifications of seemingly small policy choices that reverberate around the world. It is a story of poor women doing their best to make ends meet under the toughest circumstances, and of international development workers, funders and advocates —from Bono to Bill Gates to Bill Clinton—who promise a brighter future with a quick-fix solution that may ultimately trap poor people in poverty. The book is deeply rooted in the deeply immersive narratives of women who take out microfinance loans in Sierra Leone; their stories are set against a detailed history of the meteoric rise of Muhammad Yunus’ lofty vision and the gradual shift from a small non-profit program to a booming for-profit industry. We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky puts in harsh relief the questions we all should have been asking for decades: who makes money off microfinance—and more importantly, who, and what, gets left behind?

Praise for We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky

“Through a dazzling, superbly paced combination of astute history and on-the-ground observation in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Mara Kardas-Nelson holds the claims of microfinance up to the light. I wish that every new idea touted as the solution to the world’s problems had such a thoughtful and compassionate examination.” —Adam Hochschild, bestselling author of American Midnight and King Leopold’s Ghost

“What happens to money loaned to extremely poor people? Who gains and who loses? In her exhaustively researched tour de force, Mara Kardas-Nelson explodes myths – in some cases, lies – bringing tough truths to microfinancing, high-interest loans, and even the Nobel Prize. We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky should be mandatory reading for everybody looking for solutions to extreme poverty.” —Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health

"By turns a fascinating global history of micro-credit and a haunting account of its effects on a handful of women in Sierra Leone, We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky traces the rise, fall and afterlife of an industry built on neoliberal fantasies, on the preening of powerful poseurs, and on the backs of millions of desperate people." —James K. Galbraith, The University of Texas at Austin and author of Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know

"Mara Kardas-Nelson has written a superb, layered, riveting book everyone should read. She takes us inside the minds of architects of microfinance programs who spent decades standing behind their inventions and the women whose lives are endlessly challenged by those programs, considering the forces and mechanisms that conspire against them and inviting us to imagine how it could be different across the world. We Are Not Able to Live in the Sky reminds us that well-intentioned is not the same as imaginative or aspirational when it comes to building systems to accompany others out of poverty." —Ophelia Dahl, cofounder, Partners in Health

Masking Policy

Masks are encouraged but not required for this event.

Mara Kardas-Nelson
Mara Kardas-Nelson

Mara Kardas-Nelson

Mara Kardas-Nelson is an independent journalist focusing on international development and inequality. Her award-winning work has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, NPR, The Guardian and elsewhere. Mara has also spent years working in global health. Originally from the U.S., she has also lived in Canada, South Africa and Sierra Leone. Her time in different parts of the world informs the questions she asks, and how she frames her stories.

Photo Credit: Jess Alvarenga

Quinn Slobodian
Quinn Slobodian

Quinn Slobodian

QUINN SLOBODIAN is the author of the award-winning Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, which has been translated into six languages. A frequent contributor to the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Dissent, the Nation, the New Statesman, and the New York Times, he is the Professor of International History at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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