microfinance: see microcredit.
Microfinance refers to the provision of financial services to poor or low-income clients, including consumers and the self-employed. The term also refers to the practice of sustainably delivering those services.

More broadly, it refers to a movement that envisions “a world in which as many poor and near-poor households as possible have permanent access to an appropriate range of high quality financial services, including not just credit but also savings, insurance, and fund transfers.”

The Challenge

Traditionally, banks have usually not provided financial services to clients with little or no cash income. Banks must incur substantial costs to manage a client account, regardless of how small the sums of money involved. For example, the total revenue from delivering one hundred loans worth $1,000 each will not differ greatly from the revenue that results from delivering one loan of $100,000. But it takes nearly a hundred times as much work and cost to manage a hundred loans as it does to manage one. A similar equation exists when delivering other financial services. There is a break-even point when providing loans or deposits below which banks lose money on each transaction they make. Poor people usually fall below it.

In addition, most poor people have few assets that can be secured by a bank as collateral. As documented extensively by Hernando de Soto and others, even if they happen to own land in the developing world, they may not have effective title to it. This means that the bank will have little recourse against defaulting borrowers.

Seen from a broader perspective, it has long been accepted that the development of a healthy national financial system is an important goal and catalyst for the broader goal of national economic development (see for example Alexander Gerschenkron, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, Joseph Schumpeter, Anne Krueger etc.). However, national planners and experts focus their attention mainly on developing a commercial banking sector dealing in high-value transactions, and often neglect the delivery of services to households of limited means, even when these households comprise the large majority of their populations.

Because of these difficulties, when poor people borrow they often rely on relatives or a local moneylender, whose interest rates can be very high. An analysis of 28 studies of informal moneylending rates in 14 countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa concluded that 76% of moneylender rates exceed 10% a month, including 22% that exceed 100% a month. Moneylenders usually charge higher rates to poorer borrowers than to less poor ones. While moneylenders are often demonized and accused of usury, their services are convenient and fast, and they can be very flexible when borrowers run into problems. Hopes of quickly putting them out of business have proven unrealistic, even in places where microfinance institutions are very active.

Over the past centuries practical visionaries from the Franciscan monks who founded the community-oriented pawnshops of the fifteenth century, to the founders of the European credit union movement in the nineteenth century (such as Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen) and the founders of the microcredit movement in the 1970s (such as Muhammad Yunus) have tested practices and built institutions designed to bring the kinds of livelihood opportunities and risk management tools that financial services provide to the doorsteps of poor people. While the success of Grameen Bank (which now serves over 7 million poor Bangladeshi women) has inspired the world, it has proved difficult to replicate this success in practice. In nations with lower population densities, meeting the operating costs of a retail branch by serving nearby customers has proven considerably more challenging.

Although much progress has been made, the problem has not been solved yet, and the overwhelming majority of people who earn less than $1 a day, especially in the rural areas, continue to have no practical access to formal sector finance. Microfinance has been growing rapidly with $25B currently at work in microfinance loans. It is estimated that the industry needs $250 billion to get capital to all the poor people who need it. The industry has been growing rapidly and there have been concerns that the rate of capital flowing into microfinance is a potential risk unless managed well.

Boundaries and principles

Theoretically, microfinance may encompass any efforts to increase access to, or improve the quality of, financial services poor people currently use or could benefit from using. For example, poor people borrow from informal moneylenders and save with informal collectors. They receive loans and grants from charities. They buy insurance from state-owned companies. They receive funds transfers through remittance networks (like Hawala). They bury jewellery in secret places near their homes, ask relatives to look after their money, and save for family weddings by raising chickens.

There are not many bright lines that can sharply distinguish microfinance from similar activities. Claims could be made that a government that orders state banks to open deposit accounts for poor consumers, or a moneylender that engages in usury, or a charity that runs a heifer pool are engaged in microfinance. However, it is generally agreed that microfinance is about giving poor people a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’ by providing them with expanded access to financial services. Furthermore, correcting the problem of access is best done by expanding the number of financial institutions available to them, as well as the capacity of those institutions. In recent years there has been increasing emphasis on expanding the diversity of those institutions as well, since different institutions serve different needs.

Some principles that summarize a century and a half of development practice were encapsulated in 2004 by Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and endorsed by the Group of Eight leaders at the G8 Summit on June 10, 2004:

  1. Poor people need not just loans but also savings, insurance and money transfer services.
  2. Microfinance must be useful to poor households: helping them raise income, build up assets and/or cushion themselves against external shocks.
  3. “Microfinance can pay for itself.” Subsidies from donors and government are scarce and uncertain, and so to reach large numbers of poor people, microfinance must pay for itself.
  4. Microfinance means building permanent local institutions.
  5. Microfinance also means integrating the financial needs of poor people into a country’s mainstream financial system.
  6. “The job of government is to enable financial services, not to provide them.”
  7. “Donor funds should complement private capital, not compete with it.”
  8. “The key bottleneck is the shortage of strong institutions and managers.” Donors should focus on capacity building.
  9. Interest rate ceilings hurt poor people by preventing microfinance institutions from covering their costs, which chokes off the supply of credit.
  10. Microfinance institutions should measure and disclose their performance – both financially and socially.

Microfinance can also be distinguished from charity. It is better to provide grants to families who are destitute, or so poor they are unlikely to be able to generate the cash flow required to repay a loan. This situation can occur for example, in a war zone or after a natural disaster.

Debates at the boundaries

There are several key debates at the boundaries of microfinance.

Practitioners and donors from the charitable side of microfinance frequently argue for restricting microcredit to loans for productive purposes – such as to start or expand a microenterprise. Those from the private sector side respond that because money is fungible, such a restriction is impossible to enforce, and that in any case it should not be up to rich people to determine how poor people use their money.

Perhaps influenced by traditional Western views about usury, the role of the traditional moneylender has been subject to much criticism, especially in the early stages of modern microfinance. As more poor people gained access to loans from microcredit institutions however, it became apparent that the services of moneylenders continued to be valued. Borrowers were prepared to pay very high interest rates for services like quick loan disbursement, confidentiality and flexible repayment schedules. They did not always see lower interest rates as adequate compensation for the costs of attending meetings, attending training courses to qualify for disbursements or making monthly collateral contributions. They found also it distasteful to be forced to pretend they were borrowing to start a business, when they were often borrowing for other reasons (such as paying for school fees, dealing with health costs or securing the family food supply). The more recent focus on inclusive financial systems (see section below) affords moneylenders more legitimacy, arguing in favour of regulation and efforts to increase competition between them to expand the options available to poor people.

Modern microfinance emerged in the 1970s with a strong orientation towards private sector solutions. This resulted from evidence that state-owned agricultural development banks in developing countries had been a monumental failure, actually undermining the development goals they were intended to serve (see the classic compilation edited by Adams, Graham & Von Pischke). Nevertheless public officials in many countries hold a different view, and continue to intervene in microfinance markets.

There has been a long-standing debate over the sharpness of the trade-off between 'outreach' (the ability of a microfinance institution to reach poorer and more remote people) and its 'sustainability' (its ability to cover its operating costs -- and possibly also its costs of serving new clients -- from its operating revenues). While it is generally agreed that microfinance practitioners should seek to balance these goals to some extent, there are a wide variety of strategies, ranging from the minimalist profit-orientation of BancoSol in Bolivia to the highly integrated not-for-profit orientation of BRAC in Bangladesh. This is true not only for individual institutions, but also for governments engaged in developing national microfinance systems.

Microfinancial services are needed everywhere, including the developed world. However, in developed economies intense competition within the financial sector, combined with a diverse mix of different types of financial institutions with different missions, ensures that most people have access to some financial services. Efforts to transfer microfinance innovations such as solidarity lending from developing countries to developed ones have met with little success.

Financial needs of poor people

In developing economies and particularly in the rural areas, many activities that would be classified in the developed world as financial are not monetized: that is, money is not used to carry them out. Almost by definition, poor people have very little money. But circumstances often arise in their lives in which they need money or the things money can buy.

In Stuart Rutherford’s recent book The Poor and Their Money, he cites several types of needs:

  • Lifecycle Needs: such as weddings, funerals, childbirth, education, homebuilding, widowhood, old age.
  • Personal Emergencies: such as sickness, injury, unemployment, theft, harassment or death.
  • Disasters: such as fires, floods, cyclones and man-made events like war or bulldozing of dwellings.
  • Investment Opportunities: expanding a business, buying land or equipment, improving housing, securing a job (which often requires paying a large bribe), etc.

Poor people find creative and often collaborative ways to meet these needs, primarily through creating and exchanging different forms of non-cash value. Common substitutes for cash vary from country to country but typically include livestock, grains, jewellery and precious metals.

As Marguerite Robinson describes in The Microfinance Revolution, the 1980s demonstrated that “microfinance could provide large-scale outreach profitably,” and in the 1990s, “microfinance began to develop as an industry” (2001, p. 54). In the 2000s, the microfinance industry’s objective is to satisfy the unmet demand on a much larger scale, and to play a role in reducing poverty. While much progress has been made in developing a viable, commercial microfinance sector in the last few decades, several issues remain that need to be addressed before the industry will be able to satisfy massive worldwide demand. The obstacles or challenges to building a sound commercial microfinance industry include:

• Inappropriate donor subsidies

• Poor regulation and supervision of deposit-taking MFIs

• Few MFIs that meet the needs for savings, remittances or insurance

• Limited management capacity in MFIs

• Institutional inefficiencies

• Need for more dissemination and adoption of rural, agricultural microfinance methodologies

Ways in which poor people manage their money

Rutherford argues that the basic problem poor people as money managers face is to gather a ‘usefully large’ amount of money. Building a new home may involve saving and protecting diverse building materials for years until enough are available to proceed with construction. Children’s schooling may be funded by buying chickens and raising them for sale as needed for expenses, uniforms, bribes, etc. Because all the value is accumulated before it is needed, this money management strategy is referred to as ‘saving up’.

Often people don’t have enough money when they face a need, so they borrow. A poor family might borrow from relatives to buy land, from a moneylender to buy rice, or from a microfinance institution to buy a sewing machine. Since these loans must be repaid by saving after the cost is incurred, Rutherford calls this ‘saving down’. Rutherford's point is that microcredit is addressing only half the problem, and arguably the less important half: poor people borrow to help them save and accumulate assets. Microcredit institutions should fund their loans through savings accounts that help poor people manage their myriad risks.

Most needs are met through mix of saving and credit. A benchmark impact assessment of Grameen Bank and two other large microfinance institutions in Bangladesh found that for every $1 they were lending to clients to finance rural non-farm micro-enterprise, about $2.50 came from other sources, mostly their clients’ savings. This parallels the experience in the West, in which family businesses are funded mostly from savings, especially during start-up.

Recent studies have also shown that informal methods of saving are very unsafe. For example a study by Wright and Mutesasira in Uganda concluded that “those with no option but to save in the informal sector are almost bound to lose some money – probably around one quarter of what they save there.”

The work of Rutherford, Wright and others has caused practitioners to reconsider a key aspect of the microcredit paradigm: that poor people get out of poverty by borrowing, building microenterprises and increasing their income. The new paradigm places more attention on the efforts of poor people to reduce their many vulnerabilities by keeping more of what they earn and building up their assets. While they need loans, they may find it as useful to borrow for consumption as for microenterprise. A safe, flexible place to save money and withdraw it when needed is also essential for managing household and family risk.

Current scale of microfinance operations

No systematic effort to map the distribution of microfinance has yet been undertaken. A useful recent benchmark was established by an analysis of ‘alternative financial institutions’ in the developing world in 2004. The authors counted approximately 665 million client accounts at over 3,000 institutions that are serving people who are poorer than those served by the commercial banks. Of these accounts, 120 million were with institutions normally understood to practice microfinance. Reflecting the diverse historical roots of the movement, however, they also included postal savings banks (318 million accounts), state agricultural and development banks (172 million accounts), financial cooperatives and credit unions (35 million accounts) and specialized rural banks (19 million accounts).

Regionally the highest concentration of these accounts was in India (188 million accounts representing 18% of the total national population). The lowest concentrations were in Latin American and the Caribbean (14 million accounts representing 3% of the total population) and Africa (27 million accounts representing 4% of the total population). Considering that most bank clients in the developed world need several active accounts to keep their affairs in order, these figures indicate that the task the microfinance movement has set for itself is still very far from finished.

By type of service “savings accounts in alternative finance institutions outnumber loans by about four to one. This is a worldwide pattern that does not vary much by region.”

An important source of detailed data on selected microfinance institutions is the MicroBanking Bulletin. At the end of 2006 it was tracking 704 MFIs that were serving 52 million borrowers ($23.3 billion in outstanding loans) and 56 million savers ($15.4 billion in deposits). Of these clients, 70% were in Asia, 20% in Latin America and the balance in the rest of the world.

As yet there are no studies that indicate the scale or distribution of ‘informal’ microfinance organizations like ROSCAs and informal associations that help people manage costs like weddings, funerals and sickness. Numerous case studies have been published however, indicating that these organizations, which are generally designed and managed by poor people themselves with little outside help, operate in most countries in the developing world.

"Inclusive financial systems"

The microcredit era that began in the 1970s has lost its momentum, to be replaced by a ‘financial systems’ approach. While microcredit achieved a great deal, especially in urban and near-urban areas and with entrepreneurial families, its progress in delivering financial services in less densely populated rural areas has been slow. Another major goal of the microcredit movement was to put the traditional moneylender, who typically charges at least 10% a month and often much more, out of business. There is little evidence of progress towards this goal.

The new financial systems approach pragmatically acknowledges the richness of centuries of microfinance history and the immense diversity of institutions serving poor people in developing world today. It is also rooted in an increasing awareness of diversity of the financial service needs of the world’s poorest people, and the diverse settings in which they live and work.

Brigit Helms in her book 'Access for All: Building Inclusive Financial Systems', distinguishes between four general categories of microfinance providers, and argues for a pro-active strategy of engagement with all of them to help them achieve the goals of the microfinance movement.Informal financial service providers: These include moneylenders, pawnbrokers, savings collectors, money-guards, ROSCAs, ASCAs and input supply shops. Because they know each other well and live in the same community, they understand each other’s financial circumstances and can offer very flexible, convenient and fast services. These services can also be costly and the choice of financial products limited and very short-term. Informal services that involve savings are also risky; many people lose their money.Member-owned organizations: These include self-help groups, credit unions, and a variety of hybrid organizations like ‘financial service associations’ and CVECAs. Like their informal cousins, they are generally small and local, which means they have access to good knowledge about each others’ financial circumstances and can offer convenience and flexibility. Since they are managed by poor people, their costs of operation are low. However, these providers may have little financial skill and can run into trouble when the economy turns down or their operations become too complex. Unless they are effectively regulated and supervised, they can be ‘captured’ by one or two influential leaders, and the members can lose their money. NGOs: The Microcredit Summit Campaign counted 3,133 of these microcredit NGOs lending to about 113 million clients by the end of 2005. Led by Grameen Bank and BRAC in Bangladesh, Prodem in Bolivia, and FINCA International, headquartered in Washington, DC, these NGOs have spread around the developing world in the past three decades. They have proven very innovative, pioneering banking techniques like solidarity lending, village banking and mobile banking that have overcome barriers to serving poor populations. However, with boards that don’t necessarily represent either their capital or their customers, their governance structures can be fragile, and they can become overly dependent on external donors. Formal financial institutions: In addition to commercial banks, these include state banks, agricultural development banks, savings banks, rural banks and non-bank financial institutions. They are regulated and supervised, offer a wider range of financial services, and control a branch network that can extend across the country and internationally. However, they have proved reluctant to adopt social missions, and due to their high costs of operation, often can’t deliver services to poor or remote populations. The increasing use of alternative data in credit scoring, such as trade credit is increasing commercial banks' interest in microfinance.

With appropriate regulation and supervision, each of these institutional types can bring leverage to solving the microfinance problem. For example, efforts are being made to link self-help groups to commercial banks, to network member-owned organizations together to achieve economies of scale and scope, and to support efforts by commercial banks to ‘down-scale’ by integrating mobile banking and e-payment technologies into their extensive branch networks.

Evidence for reducing poverty

Some proponents of microfinance have asserted, without offering credible evidence, that microfinance has the power to single-handedly defeat poverty. This assertion has been the source of considerable criticism. In addition, research on the actual effectiveness of microfinance as a tool for economic development remains slim, in part owing to the difficulty in monitoring and measuring this impact.

Sociologist Jon Westover found that much of the evidence on the effectiveness of microfinance for alleviating poverty is based in anecdotal reports or case studies. He initially found over 100 articles on the subject, but included only the 6 which used enough quantitative data to be representative. One of these studies found that microfinance reduced poverty. Two others were unable to conclude that microfinance reduced poverty, although they attributed some positive effects to the program. Other studies concluded similarly, with surveys finding that a majority of participants feel better about finances with some feeling worse.

Other criticisms

There has also been much criticism of the high interest rates charged to borrowers. The real average portfolio yield cited by the a sample of 704 microfinance institutions that voluntarily submitted reports to the MicroBanking Bulletin in 2006 was 22.3% annually. However, annual rates charged to clients are higher, as they also include local inflation and the bad debt expenses of the microfinance institution. Muhammad Yunus has recently made much of this point, and in his latest book argues that microfinance institutions that charge more than 15% above their long-term operating costs should face penalties.

The role of donors has also been questioned. The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) recently commented that "a large proportion of the money they spend is not effective, either because it gets hung up in unsuccessful and often complicated funding mechanisms (for example, a government apex facility), or it goes to partners that are not held accountable for performance. In some cases, poorly conceived programs have retarded the development of inclusive financial systems by distorting markets and displacing domestic commercial initiatives with cheap or free money.

There has also been criticism of microlenders for not taking more responsibility for the working conditions of poor households, particularly when borrowers become quasi-wage labourers, selling crafts or agricultural produce through an organization controlled by the MFI. The desire of MFIs to help their borrower diversify and increase their incomes has sparked this type of relationship in several countries, most notably Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of borrowers effectively work as wage labourers for the marketing subsidiaries of Grameen Bank or BRAC. Critics maintain that there are few if any rules or standards in these cases governing working hours, holidays, working conditions, safety or child labour, and few inspection regimes to correct abuses. Some of these concerns have been taken up by unions and socially responsible investment advocates.


Following is a selected bibliography

  • Adams, Dale W., Douglas H. Graham & J. D. Von Pischke (eds.). Undermining Rural Development with Cheap Credit. Westview Press, Boulder & London, 1984.
  • de Aghion, Beatriz Armendáriz & Jonathan Morduch. The Economics of Microfinance, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.
  • Branch, Brian & Janette Klaehn. Striking the Balance in Microfinance: A Practical Guide to Mobilizing Savings. PACT Publications, Washington, 2002.
  • Christen, Robert Peck, Jayadeva, Veena & Richard Rosenberg. Financial Institutions with a Double Bottom Line. Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, Washington 2004.
  • Dichter, Thomas and Malcolm Harper (eds). What’s Wrong with Microfinance? Practical Action, 2007.
  • Dowla, Asif & Dipal Barua. The Poor Always Pay Back: The Grameen II Story. Kumarian Press Inc., Bloomfield, Connecticut, 2006.
  • Gibbons, David. The Grameen Reader. Grameen Bank, Dhaka, 1992.
  • Helms, Brigit. Access for All: Building Inclusive Financial Systems. Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, Washington, 2006.
  • Hirschland, Madeline (ed.) Savings Services for the Poor: An Operational Guide. Kumarian Press Inc., Bloomfield CT, 2005.
  • Khandker, Shahidur R. Fighting Poverty with Microcredit, Bangladesh edition, The University Press Ltd, Dhaka, 1999.
  • Ledgerwood, Joanna and Victoria White. Transforming Microfinance Institutions: Providing Full Financial Services to the Poor. World Bank, 2006.
  • Mas, Ignacio and Kabir Kumar. Banking on mobiles: why, how and for whom? CGAP Focus Note #48, July, 2008.
  • Raiffeisen, FW (translated from the German by Konrad Engelmann). The Credit Unions. The Raiffeisen Printing & Publishing Company, Neuwied on the Rhine, Germany, 1970.
  • Rutherford, Stuart. The Poor and Their Money. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000.
  • Wolff, Henry W. People’s Banks: A Record of Social and Economic Success. P.S. King & Son, London, 1910.
  • Maimbo, Samuel Munzele & Dilip Ratha (eds.) Remittances: Development Impact and Future Prospects. The World Bank, 2005.
  • Wright, Graham A.N. Microfinance Systems: Designing Quality Financial Services for the Poor. The University Press, Dhaka, 2000.
  • United Nations Department of Economic Affairs and United Nations Capital Development Fund. Building Inclusive Financial Sectors for Development. United Nations, New York, 2006.
  • Yunus, Muhammad. Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. PublicAffairs, New York, 2008.

See also


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