Nicholas Kristof at the NYT writes about two studies evaluating the impact of microfinance on poverty, enterprise, and socio-economic development. These studies originally came out earlier this summer, discussing the activities of Spandana in India (full report), and First Macro Bank in the Philippines (full report).
The studies are not new but their coverage on the NYT is certainly refreshing. And looking at them together reveals a few interesting points.
First, it is clear that the accepted usage of the term “microfinance” has expanded substantially. First Macro Bank should not even be compared to Spandana for its target clientele is extremely different – existing entrepreneurs with above average national income. That FMB qualifies as a “microlender” seems to suggest merely that microfinance is now behaving as any business – going after the most profitable clients.
Second, it is clear that the impact of microfinance is a lot more fuzzy than development enthusiasts had us believe:
The effect on businesses is not dramatic but some clearly benefit. In the Philippines, male-owned businesses increase profits, although female-owned businesses do not. In India, borrowers who already own a business buy assets for their business. One borrower out of eight starts a business they would not have started otherwise. Others buy durables for their homes
However, there is no evidence that microcredit has any effect on health, education, or women’s empowerment, at least right now, eighteen months after they got the loans. On the other hand, there is also no evidence that people are behaving irresponsibly. Indeed in India we have evidence of people giving up some of the little daily pleasures of life (like tea, snacks, betel leaves and tobacco), to pay for bigger things that they could not previously afford (carts for their business, televisions for their homes).
So, microfinance has no clear impact on socio-economic indicators. And that is ok according to the authors.
Many seem to think that this is not enough. However, as we see it, microcredit seems to have delivered exactly what a successful new financial product is supposed deliver—allowing people to make large purchases that they would not have been able to otherwise. The fact that some people expected much more from it (and perhaps they are right, may be it will just take longer), is perhaps inevitable given how eager the world is to find that one magic bullet that would finally “solve” poverty. But to actually blame microcredit for not promoting the immunization of children is no different from blaming immunization campaigns for not generating new businesses.
In other words, the failure of microfinance to deliver a miraculous cure for poverty is a failure of its early proponents, not of the method itself. As a report pointed out in 2006, microfinance should be viewed as just another business. That perspective is very necessary if we are to get some realism into the debate on what works in microfinance and what does not.
Microfinance has succeeded in developing a relatively low-cost delivery model that can reach millions of underserved clients. That is its success. Its failure is that it has for too long believed in its own rhetoric of poverty alleviation. Now that we know that is not true, it is time to move beyond an obsession with providing credit, to other financial products such as savings and insurance that are likely to be much more effective at insulating the poor from life’s volatility.