Challenging the Claim that Microfinance Loans Result in Poverty Reduction

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Author of “Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic,” Hugh Sinclair dares to challenge the idea that microfinance loans could promote an end to poverty.
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Microfinancing was thought to be a solution to poverty, but industry experts may have been too optimistic.

Author and microfinance consultant Hugh Sinclair reveals the dark side of microfinancing in Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012). After a decade in the industry Sinclair began to realize that microloans do not help the poor as they were so fervently promised to do. In this excerpt taken from chapter one, “Thou Shalt Not Criticize Microfinance,” Sinclair lists just a few of his challenges to the claim that microfinance loans will bring an end to poverty.

“I’m a dodgy moneylender, exploiting the poor with useless, overpriced loans, ideally obliging their children into forced labor in the process.” This did not go down well. I had been introduced to yet another gathering of bright-eyed microfinance experts at yet another microfinance conference, and I had incorrectly assumed that irony and sarcasm were within their grasp. They were not. I attempted to redeem myself. “Guys, I’m joking . . . it was a joke. I’m a microfinance consultant, we’re all cool . . . sorry.”

I had broken the golden rule of microfinance, the unwritten code that bonds its practitioners together. I had criticized microfinance and, perhaps worse, I had implicitly challenged the developmental claims the sector proclaims so vehemently. This is unacceptable from an insider. But none of the experts offered a defense or rebuked my confession. Such comments cut a little too close to the nerve to warrant further conversation. It is usually better to discuss the weather or the palatial décor of the conference rooms instead.

Lack of tact had once again led me into an awkward situation, but it could have been worse. Twice I have narrowly avoided being punched in conferences for daring to suggest that microfinance was in fact falling a little short of miraculous.

There is actually surprisingly little evidence supporting microfinance as a practical tool of poverty reduction, but this rather critical detail is ignored within the microfinance sector for one simple reason. Microfinance does not apparently require evidence to prove it works–since, on the face of it, it seems to work. It works because the poor repay loans, and this is all the proof the sector requires. Some 200 million people now receive microfinance loans, most of whom repay the loans. Therefore they miraculously became better off in the process. So the argument goes.

The majority of credit card holders in the U.S. and Europe pay their bills eventually, so therefore they too are becoming wealthier by the day thanks to Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. The argument is no more complex than this. The fact that a large proportion of these microloans are used for consumption, or to repay other loans, or to pay off the evil village moneylender, is irrelevant.

The fact that crippling poverty persists in countries like Bangladesh, India, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Bolivia is seen as an irrelevant detail. The persistence of poverty means that we need more microfinance. When Indian women started poisoning themselves under the burden and shame of chronic overindebtedness, or when the citizens of an entire country refused to repay their microfinance loans claiming unfair treatment, those who provided the loans remained silent or claimed that it all had nothing to do with them.

Many people do rather well out of microfinance, and celebrities from Bono to the Clintons, President Fox of Mexico, and the Queen of Spain have jumped on the bandwagon. The sector is of course extremely proud of its Nobel Peace Prize-winning godfather, Muhammad Yunus.* Yunus had embarked on a courageous mission to rid the world of poverty using fairly priced microloans to entrepreneurs. Alas, those charged with achieving this globally had a slightly different vision. Even Yunus himself has criticized the microfinance sector for the extortionate interest rates some microfinance institutions (MFIs) charged, accusing such institutions of becoming precisely the loan sharks that microfinance had initially sought to replace. Yunus’s flagship institution, Grameen Bank, with whom he shared the Nobel Peace Prize, charges interest rates of about 20 percent–enough to make any mortgage-holder in the developed world weep, but actually very reasonable in the microfinance world. The fact that Grameen Foundation USA had inadvertently supported and invested in at least one bank that charged rates six or seven times higher has been largely ignored.

Microfinance is a $70 billion industry, employing tens of thousands of people, predominantly managed by a closed group of funds based in the U.S. and Europe acting as gatekeepers of the private capital available, and increasingly some of the public funding as well. The industry is largely unregulated, opaque, and hard to investigate in practice. A tireless PR machine recruits spokespeople, advertises on television, and holds endless promotional events. An almost cultlike aura surrounds the sector. Insiders are expected to toe the party line. It’s to all of our advantage to belong to such an epistemic community with a common set of broadly held beliefs.

The cracks started appearing when Compartamos, a Mexican MFI, did the first big stock market flotation of a supposedly “social” bank, netting a tidy $410 million for a handful of lucky investors, financed in large part by ridiculously high interest rates that the poor seemed bizarrely happy to pay. A few maverick academics had been trying to sound the alarm for some years, and some insiders began to question the fundamentals of pumping credit into mostly ineffective “businesses” at suspiciously high prices. But as with all nascent bubbles, promoters perpetuated the hype. Compartamos had woken people up to the fact that it was not merely a fringe of the poor who would reliably pay interest rates of 100 percent or more for a loan of $200, but hundreds of millions of them–the profit potential was massive. Forget sub-prime–sub-sub-subprime was way better, and what’s more, there were few pesky regulators to keep an eye on such inconveniences as consumer protection. A new gold rush began.

The Department for International Development (DFID, the UK equivalent of USAID), a traditional supporter and investor in microfinance, funded a major study of the research surrounding microfinance and concluded that the entire exercise had been mostly ineffective:

[I]t might have been more beneficial to explore alternative interventions that could have better benefitted poor people and/or empowered women. Microfinance activities and finance have absorbed a significant proportion of development resources, both in terms of finances and people. Microfinance activities are highly attractive, not only to the development industry but also to mainstream financial and business interests with little interest in poverty reduction or empowerment of women. . . . There are many other candidate sectors for development activity which may have been relatively disadvantaged by ill-founded enthusiasm for microfinance.

However, it remains unclear under what circumstances, and for whom, microfinance has been and could be of real, rather than imagined, benefit to poor people. . . Indeed there may be something to be said for the idea that this current enthusiasm is built on similar foundations of sand to those on which we suggest the microfinance phenomenon has been based.

While I do not refute the findings of this important report, I equally cannot refute the evidence I have seen with my own eyes: that some microfinance is very beneficial to the poor. I hope to explain how this dichotomy of opinions arises within the microfinance sector.

I stumbled into the microfinance sector in 2002. Initially I shared the naïve belief that microfinance was “the next big thing” and could genuinely assist the poor. The initial signs looked promising to an untrained eye, and I joined the club in promoting the panacea of microfinance.

The underlying concept of microfinance sounds so seductive. Ask a microfinance expert what microfinance is and they will recount a heartwarming tale of a woman living in a hut in some poor country who gets a minuscule loan to buy a productive asset, often a sewing machine or a goat, and by working hard she builds up a small business that receives successively larger loans until she is eventually catapulted out of poverty. Depending on the creative flair of the storyteller, the loans may also lead to amazing benefits to her children and community, and phrases like “female empowerment,” “human dignity,” and “harnessing entrepreneurial flair” will be slipped in periodically.

This concept appeals to people in the “developed” world, many of whom are increasingly skeptical of simply handing money to traditional charities after apparently so few results of decades of this practice. Helping people to help themselves appears more compatible with the ethos of developed countries: hard work and ambition, competition, and developing new markets. The heroes of the NASDAQ are the pioneers who take a simple idea and propel it to become a huge multinational business–why not in developing countries also, on a smaller scale?

Microfinance touches on the core values of entrepreneurial vision, of teaching a man how to fish rather than handing him a fish on a plate. It appears to be such an excellent idea. Capital is loaned, invested wisely, recycled to the next wave of poor people, investors in Geneva and Washington make a reasonable return in the process, and soon poverty vanishes altogether. It appeals to the positive aspects of capitalism and economic development, and it leverages the positive desire to work hard and provide for one’s family. Everyone’s a winner. So how dare anyone ever criticize it?

The problems with these crass descriptions of microfinance blurted out at dinner parties by zealous microfinance experts are numerous. Insiders are conditioned to reel them off automatically, but many privately agree they are mostly fantasies. But the fantasy is more palatable than to admit to having negligible impact while charging high interest rates to the poor. We promote an end to poverty if only the poor would take out a neverending series of overpriced loans.

To cite a selection of the flaws of the romanticized image of the female microfinance client living in the hut with the sewing machine:

1. Such cases are surprisingly hard to find in practice. Men often send their wives to get loans because they know they are more likely to be approved.

2. Loans are almost invariably not spent on the productive sewing machine or goat, but on a TV, repaying another loan to a very similar bank, paying other bills, or general consumption. The benefits of the loan quickly disappear, but the debt remains, accumulating interest at an alarming rate, often encouraging the client to obtain another loan elsewhere to meet the repayments, often from the very moneylenders the microfinance community claims to replace.

3. Interest rates on loans, when all the various hidden charges are considered, are substantially higher than those stated. Interest rates under 30 percent a year are disappointingly rare, and rates of 100 percent or higher are common. One celebrated MFI in Mexico charges up to 195 percent per year.

4. The small business is rarely able to generate sufficiently massive returns over prolonged periods to cover these interest payments. And even if the loan does result in some genuine improvement to the life of the individual entrepreneur, it is quite possible that this is at the expense of other people in the marketplace. When Walmart opens in a town in America, many smaller shops are driven out of business. According to the microfinance sector this phenomenon does not occur in developing countries. We ignore the businesses that fail.

5. The number of people catapulted out of poverty is minimal, and no widespread measurable reduction in overall poverty has been detected. At best, a few individuals see their situations improve, and these lucky few provide the examples for MFI marketing materials. The real debate about actual poverty reduction fluctuates between it being marginal or negative. Serious belief in Muhammad Yunus’s suggestion that poverty will be eradicated from the planet and become a historical curiosity in “poverty museums” within a generation or two is hard to find in practice.

6. It is assumed that every poor person is a budding Bill Gates. A quick glance at the overwhelming majority of businesses that receive microloans hardly suggests cutting-edge innovation–most market traders sell precisely the same products as everyone else in the marketplace. Not everyone in Europe or the USA is a budding entrepreneur, so why would we expect anything different in developing countries?

7. The use of child labor is a carefully avoided question. The reality is that many families involved in labor-intensive micro-enterprises employ their own children, and no one knows the impact of such labor in the long term. As universal education becomes a reality in more and more countries each year, particularly in Latin America, it is likely that some of these children are stacking shelves or selling cellphone cards at the expense of getting an education. Conveniently, few microfinance banks and only one microfinance fund have policies on child labor. The self-regulatory watchdogs carefully avoid discussion of child labor in their “Client Protection Principles.”

8. Most microfinance clients are not part of the “extreme poor.” In fact, quite a few are perhaps best described as lower middle class, and while it is a pity that commercial banks will not lend them money on reasonable terms, it does not follow that an MFI offering them a loan at 60 percent interest per year to buy a TV is necessarily contributing to development.

9. The clients of most MFIs are not generally covered by the regulatory protection afforded to people in more developed countries.

10. When joining groups of borrowers who guarantee one another, one rather unpleasant downside is overlooked for the defaulting client–not only do they incur the wrath of the MFI, which can be quite oppressive, but they also lose their friends, who are obliged to step in and meet the shortfall.

This list of valid questions to challenge the stereotypical microfinance loan is far from exhaustive. In response, the sector is slowly acknowledging that it overhyped microfinance, and that expectations of the imminent eradication of poverty were perhaps optimistic. But the machine has been set in motion. Large commercial banks have entered the sector, lured by the whiff of profit and the appearance of social responsibility. Universities now offer courses in microfinance. There are microfinance MBAs. There are even microfinance T-shirts.

Reprinted with permission from Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic: How Microlending Lost Its Way and Betrayed the Poorby Hugh Sinclair and published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

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