I’ll start with a caveat. Isn’t it hard to quantify and qualify the benefits of a practice that is spread throughout the world and working under so many different guises? It would seem that something whose practices are as disparate and widespread as microcredit would fall into this category.
Karol Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen have generally ignored this problem in a piece for the Wilson Quarterly regarding the benefits and failures of microcredit around the world.
It’s important to remember that 7 out of 10 borrowers are Asian – so maybe it isn’t as widespread a phenomenon as a thought. Women make up a large majority of those receiving loans, mostly because banks have always discriminated against them although they prove to be good credit risks, managing family budgets and all.
More interesting tidbits about microcredit:
- While loan sizes are variable, they are often in proportion to a country’s income level;
- Microlenders charge between 50 and 100 percent interest, which is not as much as local money lenders charge;
- Many microlenders refuse to lend money to start businesses, which seems counter intuitive;
- Micro loans are often used for things outside of commerce: school fees, doctors fees, house improvements;
- Microlenders also loan to people in the informal sector, which banks do not.
The report also focused on the works of local money lenders, who often borrow from rich relatives and then loan it to villagers in need. In more than one sense, it is these lenders that truly work on the micro level: they demand no paperwork and no waiting period; they deal strictly on a cash basis; they are often the last chance for credit to the very poor; they do, however, demand quick repayment.
One interesting aspect of the paper is the differing ideas of savings. While those in the West tend to keep their savings in cash or gold, people across the developing world often transform it into other forms of liquidity: perhaps animals, like cows or goats. Neither of these can be stolen like money, they won’t necessarily be borrowed from friends and relatives; and they have alternative benefits: they produce milk or fertilizer from dung or companionship.
After all that, the authors come up with some seemingly well deserved uncertainties about the new panacea that is microcredit:
Microcredit is making people’s lives better around the world. But for the most part, it is not pulling them out of poverty. It is hard to find entrepreneurs who start with these tiny loans and graduate to run commercial empires. Bangladesh, where Grameen Bank was born, is still a desperately poor country. The more modest truth is that microcredit may help some people, perhaps earning $2 a day, to earn something like $2.50 a day. That may not sound dramatic, but when you are earning $2 a day it is a big step forward. And progress is not the natural state of humankind; microcredit is important even when it does nothing more than stave off decline.
With microcredit, life becomes more bearable and easier to manage. The improvements may not show up as an explicit return on investment, but the benefits are very real. If a poor family is able to keep a child in school, send someone to a clinic, or build up more secure savings, its well-being improves, if only marginally. This is a big part of the reason why poor people are demanding greater access to microcredit loans. And microcredit, unlike many charitable services, is capable of paying for itself—which explains why the private sector is increasingly involved. The future of microcredit lies in the commercial sector, not in unsustainable aid programs. Count this as another benefit.
If this portrait sounds a little underwhelming, don’t blame microcredit. The real issue is that we so often underestimate the severity and inertia of global poverty. Natalie Portman may not be right when she says that an end to poverty is “just a mouse click away,” but she’s right to be supportive of a tool that helps soften some of poverty’s worst blows for many millions of desperate people.
This paper has sparked a lot of debate, in both the popular press and in the more economic-centric journals. What the study proved to economics-reporter James Surowiecki of the New Yorker is that people in poor countries need to start thinking bigger, not just making more small groceries (that sell the same thing as the small grocery down the street), but investing in small and medium-sized businesses.
In high-income countries, these companies create more than sixty per cent of all jobs, but in the developing world they’re relatively rare, thanks to a lack of institutions able to provide them with the capital they need. It’s easy for really big companies in poor countries to tap the markets for funding, and now, because of microfinance, it’s possible for really small enterprises to get money, too. But the companies in between find it hard. It’s a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “missing middle.”
The question remains, of course, where to get the backers for such firms. He reports that some foundations have belatedly begun filling in that inefficiency in the market. For interested entrepreneurs, you've got homework to do: read his piece and then this piece; this does not constitute a paid advertisement or an endorsement.