Studies Find Microfinance Does Not Reduce Poverty, Assets Do

Mega-MicrofinanceHamburg  Several years ago ACORN International did a research report that seemed heresy to many, but started from the simple proposition that since microfinance is debt, debt does not reduce poverty, therefore the value of microfinance was the same as buying a job through an employment agency: work at a steep price. For many the myth of microfinance will endure and millions of dollars will continue to support what are essentially public and philanthropic investments in banking startups, not for the poor, but for the managers of the debt fueled lending agencies themselves, many of which start as nonprofits and if able to prove out their finances at high interest, convert to for-profits.

Standing out on the ledge of prevailing economic development opinion, I took note of an article in the October 2015 Scientific American that looked at the work of a Yale University based nonprofit called Innovations for Poverty Action and its founder Dean Karlan, an economics professor there. He had become suspicious of microloans while working in South Africa decades ago and seeing people constantly returning to renew loans and understanding that it didn’t add up to getting out of poverty, but instead was little more than a debt treadmill.

At some length he says:

“Over the years microloans kept nagging at my colleagues and me. Fifteen years after my first study attempt in South Africa, we now have seven randomized trials completed on traditional microloans and one on consumer lending back in South Africa…These studies found some benefits of microloans, such as helping families weather hard times, pay off goods over time and make small investments in businesses. But there was no average impact on the main financial well-being indicators – income and household and food expenditures.”

In short maybe the loans didn’t hurt them, but neither did they help them, at least enough to get out of poverty. Furthermore, Karlan noted that these microloan programs were not reaching the poorest of the poor or what they term “ultra-poor,” people living on the purchasing power of $1.25 per day.

Not to just be a Debbie Downer, IPA’s experience argues for providing the poor with a “productive asset” to make a living, giving them training on asset utilization, providing them a direct stipend for daily living or what we used to call in welfare rights – More Money Now!, giving them health support and savings tools, and regular coaching like CEOs get.

It would cost money, but at least it would be money well spent, because monitoring has already established that health and hunger were greatly improved and the very poor were making real progress in areas as diverse as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Pakistan, and Peru.

Sounds like that could be a way to go if we were really trying to get somewhere.

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