Micro-finance programmes are currently dominated by the ‘financial self-sustainability paradigm’ where women’s participation in groups is promoted as a key means of increasing financial sustainability while at the same time assumed to automatically empower them. This article examines the experience of seven micro-finance programmes in Cameroon. The evidence indicates that micro-finance programmes which build social capital can indeed make a significant contribution to women’s empowerment. However, serious questions need to be asked about what sorts of norms, networks and associations are to be promoted, in whose interests, and how they can best contribute to empowerment, particularly for the poorest women. Where the complexities of power relations and inequality are ignored, reliance on social capital as a mechanism for reducing programme costs may undermine programme aims not only of empowerment but also of financial sustainability and poverty targeting.