Microfinance is a source of financial services for entrepreneurs and small businesses lacking access to banking and related services. The two main mechanisms for the delivery of financial services to such clients are: (1) relationship-based banking for individual entrepreneurs and small businesses; and (2) group-based models, where several entrepreneurs come together to apply for loans and other services as a group.
In some regions, for example Southern Africa, microfinance is used to describe the supply of financial services to low-income employees, which is closer to the retail finance model prevalent in mainstream banking.
For some, microfinance is a movement whose object is "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." Many of those who promote microfinance generally believe that such access will help poor people out of poverty. For others, microfinance is a way to promote economic development, employment and growth through the support of micro-entrepreneurs and small businesses.
Microfinance is a broad category of services, which includes microcredit. Microcredit is provision of credit services to poor clients. Microcredit is one of the aspects of microfinance and the two are often confused. Critics may attack microcredit while referring to it indiscriminately as either 'microcredit' or 'microfinance'. Due to the broad range of microfinance services, it is difficult to assess impact, and very few studies have tried to assess its full impact. Proponents often claim that microfinance lifts people out of poverty, but the evidence is mixed. What it does do, however, is to enhance financial inclusion.
- 1 Background
- 2 Microfinance debates and challenges
- 3 History of microfinance
- 4 Microfinance standards and principles
- 5 Scale of microfinance operations
- 6 Microfinance in the United States and Canada
- 7 Micro Finance in India
- 8 "Inclusive financial systems"
- 9 Microcredit and the web
- 10 Microfinance and social interventions
- 11 Impact and criticism
- 12 See also
- 13 Notes
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
Traditionally, banks have not provided financial services, such as loans, to clients with little or no cash income. This is especially true in developing economies that lack a strong financial system. Banks incur substantial costs to manage a client account, regardless of how small the sums of money involved are. For example, although the total gross 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, it takes nearly a hundred times as much work and cost to manage a hundred loans as it does to manage one. The fixed cost of processing loans of any size is considerable as several things—assessment of potential borrowers, their repayment prospects and security; administration of outstanding loans, collecting from delinquent borrowers, etc.—have to be done in all cases. There is a break-even point in providing loans or deposits below which banks lose money on each transaction they make. Poor people usually fall below that breakeven point. A similar calculation resists efforts to deliver other financial services to poor people.
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, the development of a healthy national financial system has long been viewed as a catalyst for the broader goal of national economic development (see for example Alexander Gerschenkron, Paul Rosenstein-Rodan, Joseph Schumpeter, Anne Krueger). However, the efforts of national planners and experts to develop financial services for most people have often failed in developing countries, for reasons summarized well by Adams, Graham & Von Pischke in their classic analysis 'Undermining Rural Development with Cheap Credit'.
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% per month, including 22% that exceeded 100% per 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 active.
Although much progress has been made, the problem has not yet been solved, and the overwhelming majority of people who earn less than $1 a day, especially in rural areas, continue to have no practical access to formal sector finance. Microfinance has been growing rapidly with $25 billion 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 concerns have arisen that the rate of capital flowing into microfinance is a potential risk unless managed well.
As seen in the State of Andhra Pradesh (India), these systems can easily fail. Reasons for failure include lack of use by potential customers, over-indebtedness, poor operating procedures, neglect of duties and inadequate regulations.
Microfinance and poverty
In developing economies and particularly in 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. This is often the case when people need the services money can provide but do not have dispensable funds required for those services, forcing them to revert to other means of acquiring them. In his recent book The Poor and Their Money, Stuart Rutherford cites several types of needs:
- Lifecycle Needs: such as weddings, funerals, childbirth, education, homebuilding, widowhood and 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, jewelry 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 a 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 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.
Microfinance is defined by the process of formulating groups within a community to assist poverty stricken people by lending them money without the need of credit or collateral. An example of microfinance is the Saving Up program. In the Saving Up Program people put aside a certain amount of money, for example $1 per week which is collected and dispersed as a lump sum by an external agent minus a fee for holding the funds. The Saving Up Program assists the poor in saving their money and teaches them how to save.
FINCA, the Foundation for International Community Assistance, was formed in Latin America in the 1980s. It set out with the Village Banking Manual with the idea to run a savings-and-loans club run by the poor women clients with initial help from outsiders. It turned savings in to lump sums with support from various NGO’s who took on the project and spread it around the world. These village banks blended ‘hot’ (members’ savings) and ‘cold’ (external financing) money to provide these time-based services. It runs multiple savings accounts and grows from interest on loans. Its strategy of financing and blending money allows for the system to become self-sustaining from the NGO after several cycles of loans, aiming for sustainability and long-term services which is of course a huge advantage. The disadvantage of this model is it’s assumption that larger loans are needed by their clients, and although that may be true to a certain degree, each group of clients has different needs and maximum loan capacity due to their income. Situations must be tailored to fit the needs of their clients rather than assuming that growth is inevitable. The other disadvantage is the same with many informal and semi-formal financing, and it is that if one defaults on their payments it disrupts the whole system and has the ability to ruin it.
According to Rutherford, there are three ways to save, known as basic personal financial intermediations; saving up (deposit collectors), saving down (the urban moneylenders) and saving through (the merry go round) (Rutherford, 2009).
Jyothi, from the city of Vijayawada in India, is used as an example of a saving up initiative. Her clients are given a simple card, divided into 220 cells, and every day she will collected a certain amount of money from her clients until the card is filled. Then she will return the lump sum of money back to her clients but with a small interest rate of 9 percent (Rutherford, 2009). The saving down basic personal financial intermediation is followed when a money lender gives loans to poor people without any collateral or securities and then takes his money back in regular installments over the next few weeks or months. He charges the service by deducting a percentage of the loan borrowed, in this case 15 percent (Rutherford, 2009). Finally, the saving through is an example described by a lady named Mary who with fifteen other members, would save 15 shillings a day, with a total of 1,500 shillings combined. Each member will take turns to receive that lump sum for a number of years (Rutherford, 2009).
Another important basic personal financial intermediation is called the saving up and down; Rabeya’s “fund” which takes place in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Basically, the funds and saving amounts can vary and it combines both saving up and saving down but all in one club. The fees charged are five percent for saving down, and this interest is paid out for saving up, so therefore there is a profit to be made with members who are saving up. For those members who save down, the interest rate is very low, more useful and flexible (Rutherford, 2009).
Microfinance debates and challenges
There are several key debates at the boundaries of microfinance.
One of the principal challenges of microfinance is providing small loans at an affordable cost. The global average interest and fee rate is estimated at 37%, with rates reaching as high as 70% in some markets. The reason for the high interest rates is not primarily cost of capital. Indeed, the local microfinance organizations that receive zero-interest loan capital from the online microlending platform Kiva charge average interest and fee rates of 35.21%. Rather, the main reason for the high cost of microfinance loans is the high transaction cost of traditional microfinance operations relative to loan size.
Microfinance practitioners have long argued that such high interest rates are simply unavoidable, because the cost of making each loan cannot be reduced below a certain level while still allowing the lender to cover costs such as offices and staff salaries. For example in Sub-Saharan Africa credit risk for microfinance institutes is very high, because customers need years to improve their livelihood and face many challenges during this time. Financial institutes often do not even have a system to check the person's identity. Additionally they are unable to design new products and enlarge their business to reduce the risk. The result is that the traditional approach to microfinance has made only limited progress in resolving the problem it purports to address: that the world's poorest people pay the world's highest cost for small business growth capital. The high costs of traditional microfinance loans limit their effectiveness as a poverty-fighting tool. Offering loans at interest and fee rates of 37% mean that borrowers who do not manage to earn at least a 37% rate of return may actually end up poorer as a result of accepting the loans.
According to a recent survey of microfinance borrowers in Ghana published by the Center for Financial Inclusion, more than one-third of borrowers surveyed reported struggling to repay their loans. Some resorted to measures such as reducing their food intake or taking children out of school in order to repay microfinance debts that had not proven sufficiently profitable.
In recent years, the microfinance industry has shifted its focus from the objective of increasing the volume of lending capital available, to address the challenge of providing microfinance loans more affordably. Microfinance analyst David Roodman contends that, in mature markets, the average interest and fee rates charged by microfinance institutions tend to fall over time. However, global average interest rates for microfinance loans are still well above 30%.
The answer to providing microfinance services at an affordable cost may lie in rethinking one of the fundamental assumptions underlying microfinance: that microfinance borrowers need extensive monitoring and interaction with loan officers in order to benefit from and repay their loans. The P2P microlending service Zidisha is based on this premise, facilitating direct interaction between individual lenders and borrowers via an internet community rather than physical offices. Zidisha has managed to bring the cost of microloans to below 10% for borrowers, including interest which is paid out to lenders. However, it remains to be seen whether such radical alternative models can reach the scale necessary to compete with traditional microfinance programs.
Use of loans
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.
Who should provide microfinance services?
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 also found 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 compilation edited by Adams, Graham & Von Pischke). Nevertheless, public officials in many countries hold a different view, and continue to intervene in microfinance markets.
Reach versus depth of impact
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). Although 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.
Microfinance experts generally agree that women should be the primary focus of service delivery. Evidence shows that they are less likely to default on their loans than men. Industry data from 2006 for 704 MFIs reaching 52 million borrowers includes MFIs using the solidarity lending methodology (99.3% female clients) and MFIs using individual lending (51% female clients). The delinquency rate for solidarity lending was 0.9% after 30 days (individual lending—3.1%), while 0.3% of loans were written off (individual lending—0.9%). Because operating margins become tighter the smaller the loans delivered, many MFIs consider the risk of lending to men to be too high. This focus on women is questioned sometimes, however a recent study of microenterpreneurs from Sri Lanka published by the World Bank found that the return on capital for male-owned businesses (half of the sample) averaged 11%, whereas the return for women-owned businesses was 0% or slightly negative.
Benefits and Limitations
The benefits of microfinance are that it helps to manage the assets of the poor and generates income. Through microfinance institutions such as credit unions, financial non-governmental organizations and even commercial banks poor people can obtain small loans and safeguard their savings. The limitations of microfinance are that through this savings plan participants are losing money by having to pay a fee. The user can also pay back their loans whenever they chose therefore encouraging a borrower to have various outstanding loans. The lender is also vulnerable in that there is no guarantee of the loan being repaid in the given arranged timeframe, and the consequences to defaulting are not defined.
When looking at a micro-finance initiative, there are three main benefits and limitations for the model. These are based on a basic micro-finance initiative though they can be applied to many variations. When looking at the three benefits and limitations, they revolve around three key ideas, poverty, mistrust, and promoting change.
A micro-finance initiative wishes to address these issues in a positive way. For example, micro-finance can be an alternative program to address poverty reduction where the tools needed to raise an individual or a family out of poverty are given to them directly. In a micro-finance project these tools include money primarily, and may also be accompanied with a savings program, and financial help. Along with poverty reduction, a micro-finance initiative can aim to avoid a general sense of mistrust between the citizens and their national banks. The money in this case, is not coming from a bank, but rather within the community which allows those participating to foster social capital and community cohesion. Lastly, a microfinance initiative can promote larger poverty reduction movements by increasing the financial knowledge of the average citizen.
However, these initiatives are not without limitations. These limitations focus on the same issues as stated before, but the negative consequences that may occur. For example, while there may be mistrust in the national banking system, there can be microfinance initiatives where the outside creator takes advantage of those participating. The money may not end up in the right places, resulting in distrust to all who have interest in monetary programs, and could potentially ruin the chance of any further microfinance projects becoming successful. Secondly, when creating a microfinance project, time may be an issue. What happens when the program is finished and the people who were participating are still in poverty? In this case, it may be more beneficial for there to be an on-going program. To see what would be an appropriate choice in regards of time, the community must be assessed before the project is put in place. Lastly, in regards to limitations, someone is always going to be left out. Not everyone can be a part of the program, and therefore one must decide who is going to participate. Often, for a community development project to be sustainable, all must be affected positively.
There are two ways in which the needs of the poor are not being met by micro finance. Firstly, the poor need to store savings for the long run; such as for their retirement, widowhood or their heirs but the examples such as saving up, down and through do not directly meet these needs. Secondly, the poor’s ability to save fluctuates with time and so they may not be able to save the fixed rate of saving. These two shortcomings are difficult for the poor and they often get excluded or exclude themselves (Rutherford, 2009). Poor people have to take a risk to turn their savings in to large lump sum of money because there is no perfect system that would protect their deposits. For example, there is a lack of trust among the members and the organizer; most community micro finance projects only include family and close friends and do not reach beyond that. Also, there is no or very little growth in the amount of money that they save if saving up but if saving down, there is an interest rate that the members have to pay.
Also, there are complications associated with implementing micro-finance projects in Canada. For an example, inflation rates make it difficult to analyze interest rates across countries, so ASCA’s in high inflation would have to charge more interest on their loans which may result in their funds to decline in value themselves (Rutherford, 2009). In many countries, ASCA’s have become permanent institutions referred to as Credit Unions, Savings and Credit Co-operatives. Rutherford argues that credit unions are not owned by the poor because they require specialized skills and higher educated personals to regulate the operation of these institutions themselves (Rutherford, 2009). Although these institutions aim to benefit the poor, they are very different from neighborhood ASCA’s and issues arise when they purse collateral or securities for loans given. Similarly, there are language barriers between formal federal banks and credit unions that causes complications (McMillian,2010).
The major benefit of microfinance projects is that it allows low income families to save their money; most of the poor live day to day with the little money that they earn and cannot afford to save. Poor people need such alternatives in order to turn their savings in to large lump sums or receive large sums and pay monthly with low interest rates. Banks and other money lending institutions have high interest rates and simply won’t extend loans to poor people with little or no assets or employment. Microfinance helps the poor people get access or save funds over a period of time with low interest rates. Also, the poor could solve their own issues by working together as a community and this creates trust and social capital in their communities. It also leads to stability and growth in their households, as well as their communities.
History of microfinance
Over the past centuries, practical visionaries, from the Franciscan monks who founded the community-oriented pawnshops of the 15th century to the founders of the European credit union movement in the 19th century (such as Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen) and the founders of the microcredit movement in the 1970s (such as Muhammad Yunus and Al Whittaker), have tested practices and built institutions designed to bring the kinds of opportunities and risk-management tools that financial services can provide to the doorsteps of poor people. While the success of the Grameen Bank (which now serves over 7 million poor Bangladeshi women) has inspired the world, it has proved difficult to replicate this success. In nations with lower population densities, meeting the operating costs of a retail branch by serving nearby customers has proven considerably more challenging. Hans Dieter Seibel, board member of the European Microfinance Platform, is in favour of the group model. This particular model (used by many Microfinance institutions) makes financial sense, he says, because it reduces transaction costs. Microfinance programmes also need to be based on local funds. Local Roots
The history of microfinancing can be traced back as far as the middle of the 1800s, when the theorist Lysander Spooner was writing about the benefits of small credits to entrepreneurs and farmers as a way of getting the people out of poverty. Independently of Spooner, Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen founded the first cooperative lending banks to support farmers in rural Germany.
The modern use of the expression "microfinancing" has roots in the 1970s when organizations, such as Grameen Bank of Bangladesh with the microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus, were starting and shaping the modern industry of microfinancing. Another pioneer in this sector is Akhtar Hameed Khan.
Microfinance standards and principles
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 formal or informal remittance networks. It is not easy to distinguish microfinance from similar activities. It could be claimed 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. Ensuring financial services to poor people is best done by expanding the number of financial institutions available to them, as well as by strengthening the capacity of those institutions. In recent years there has also been increasing emphasis on expanding the diversity of institutions, since different institutions serve different needs.
- Poor people need not just loans but also savings, insurance and money transfer services.
- Microfinance must be useful to poor households: helping them raise income, build up assets and/or cushion themselves against external shocks.
- "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.
- Microfinance means building permanent local institutions.
- Microfinance also means integrating the financial needs of poor people into a country's mainstream financial system.
- "The job of government is to enable financial services, not to provide them."
- "Donor funds should complement private capital, not compete with it."
- "The key bottleneck is the shortage of strong institutions and managers." Donors should focus on capacity building.
- Interest rate ceilings hurt poor people by preventing microfinance institutions from covering their costs, which chokes off the supply of credit.
- Microfinance institutions should measure and disclose their performance—both financially and socially.
Microfinance is considered a tool for socio-economic development, and can be clearly distinguished from charity. Families who are destitute, or so poor they are unlikely to be able to generate the cash flow required to repay a loan, should be recipients of charity. Others are best served by financial institutions.
Scale of microfinance operations
No systematic effort to map the distribution of microfinance has yet been undertaken. A 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 America and the Caribbean (14 million accounts representing 3% of the total population) and Africa (27 million accounts representing 4% of the total population, with the highest rate of penetration in West Africa, and the highest growth rate in Eastern and Southern Africa  ). 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, which is published by Microfinance Information Exchange. At the end of 2009, it was tracking 1,084 MFIs that were serving 74 million borrowers ($38 billion in outstanding loans) and 67 million savers ($23 billion in deposits).
Another source of information regarding the environment of microfinance is the Global Microscope on the Microfinance Business Environment publication, prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the Inter-American Development Bank, and others. The 2011 report contains information on the environment of microfinance in 55 countries among two categories, Regulatory Framework and the Supporting Institutional Framework. This publication, also known as the Microscope, was first developed in 2007, focusing only on Latin America and the Caribbean, but by 2009, this report had become a global study.
As yet there are no studies that indicate the scale or distribution of 'informal' microfinance organizations like ROSCA's 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.
Help can come in the form of more and better-qualified staff, thus higher education is needed for microfinance institutions. This has begun in some universities, as Oliver Schmidt describes. Mind the management gap
Microfinance in the United States and Canada
In Canada and the US, microfinance organizations target marginalized populations unable to access mainstream bank financing. Close to 8% of Americans are unbanked, meaning around 9 million are without any kind of bank account or formal financial services. Most of these institutions are structured as nonprofit organizations. Microfinance in the U.S. context is defined as the extension of credit up to $35,000. In Canada, CRA guidelines restrict microfinance loans to a maximum of $25,000. The average microfinance loan size in the US is US$9,732, ten times the size of an average microfinance loan in developing countries (US$973).
While all microfinance institutions aim at increasing incomes and employment, in developing countries the empowerment of women, improved nutrition and improved education of the borrower’s children are frequently aims of microfinance institutions. In the US and Canada, aims of microfinance include the graduation of recipients from welfare programs and an improvement in their credit rating. In the US, microfinance has created jobs directly and indirectly, as 60% of borrowers were able to hire others. According to reports, every domestic microfinance loan creates 2.4 jobs. These entrepreneurs provide wages that are, on average, 25% higher than minimum wage. Small business loans eventually allow small business owners to make their businesses their primary source of income, with 67% of the borrowers showing a significant increase in their income as a result of their participation in certain micro-loan programs. In addition, these business owners are able to improve their housing situation, 70% indicating their housing has improved. Ultimately, many of the small business owners that use social funding are able to graduate from government funding.
In the late 1980s, microfinance institutions developed in the US. They served low-income and marginalized minority communities. By 2007, there were 500 microfinance organizations operating in the US with 200 lending capital.
There were three key factors that triggered the growth in domestic microfinance:
- Change in social welfare policies and focus on economic development and job creation at the macro level.
- Encouragement of employment, including self-employment, as a strategy for improving the lives of the poor.
- The increase in the proportion of Latin American and Asian immigrants who came from societies where microenterprises are prevalent.
These factors incentivized the public and private supports to have microlending activity in the United States.
Selected microfinance institutions in the United States are:
ACCION USA, an affiliate of ACCION International, offers microloans and other financial services to low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs for their small businesses who cannot get financial support through traditional means. Accion Chicago Accion Texas-Louisiana
Founded in 1997 in New York City, Project Enterprise provides support to entrepreneurs and small businesses in lower income communities through access to business loans, business development services, and networking opportunities.
Based in New York and founded by Muhammed Yunus, Grameen America provides micro-loans, savings programs, financial education, and credit establishment to low-income entrepreneurs.
An example of a Microfinance startup, this organization was founded by two Brown University students in 2009. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, CGF provides credit-building business and consumer loans, financial coaching, and free tax preparation.
Based in Los Angeles, this first public-private partnership of its kind provides micro-loans, SEED/expansion loans, high interest savings accounts, financial education & counseling to low and moderate income entrepreneurs and disinvested communities.
Microfinance in Canada took shape through the development of credit unions. These credit unions provided financial services to the Canadians who could not get access to traditional financial means. Two separate branches of credit unions developed in Canada to serve the financially marginalized segment of the population. Alphonse Desjardins introduced the establishment of savings and credit services in late 1900 to the Quebecois who did not have financial access. Approximately 30 years later Father Moses Coady introduced credit unions to Nova Scotia. These were the models of the modern institutions still present in Canada today.
Selected microfinance institutions in Canada are:
Founded by Sandra Rotman in 2009, Rise is a Rotman and CAMH initiative that provides small business loans, leases, and lines of credit to entrepreneurs with mental health and/or addiction challenges.
Formed in 2005 through the merging of the Civil Service Savings and Loan Society and the Metro Credit Union, Alterna is a financial alternative to Canadians. Their banking policy is based on cooperative values and expert financial advising.
- Access Community Capital Fund
Based in Toronto, Ontario, ACCESS is a Canadian charity that helps entrepreneurs without collateral or credit history find affordable small loans.
- Montreal Community Loan Fund
Created to help eradicate poverty, Montreal Community Loan Fund provides accessible credit and technical support to entrepreneurs with low income or credit for start-ups or expansion of organizations that cannot access traditional forms of credit.
Using the community economic development approach, Momentum offers opportunities to people living in poverty in Calgary. Momentum provides individuals and families who want to better their financial situation take control of finances, become computer literate, secure employment, borrow and repay loans for business, and purchase homes.
Founded in 1946, Vancity is now the largest English speaking credit union in Canada.
Micro Finance in India
Loans to poor people by banks have many limitations including lack of security and high operating cost and so Microfinance was developed as an alternative to provide loans to poor people with the goal of creating financial inclusion and equality.
Muhammad Yunus a Nobel Prize winner, introduced the concept of Microfinance in Bangladesh in the form of the "Grameen Bank". NABARD took this idea and started concept of Micro Finance in India.In this concept, there exists a link between SHGs(Self-help group), NGOs and Banks. The SHGs are formed and nurtured by NGOs and only after accomplishing a certain level of maturity in terms of their internal thrift and credit operations.They are entitled to seek credit from the banks. There is an involvement of the concerned NGO before and even after the SHG-Bank linkage.The SHG-Bank linkage programme, which was undertaken since 1992 in India, had financed about 22.4 lakh SHGs by 2006. It involved commercial banks, Regional Rural Banks (RRBs) and cooperative banks in its operations.
Micro Finance is defined as, financial services such as Saving A/c, Insurance Fund & credit provided to poor & low income clients so as to help them to rise their income & there by improve their standard of living.
From this definition it is clear that main features of Micro Financing:
1) Loan are given without security
2) Loans to those people who live BPL (Below Poverty Line)
3) Even members of SHG enjoy Micro Finance
4) Maximum limit of loan under micro finance ₨25,000/-
5) The terms and conditions given to poor people are decided by NGOs
6) Micro Finance is different from Micro Credit- under Micro Credit, small amount of loans given to the borrower but under Micro Finance besides loans many other financial services are provided such as Savings A/c, Insurance etc. Therefore Micro Finance has wider concept as compared to Micro Credit.
"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.
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 other's financial circumstances and can offer convenience and flexibility. Grameen Bank is a member-owned organization. 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.
- The Microcredit Summit Campaign counted 3,316 of these MFIs and NGOs lending to about 133 million clients by the end of 2006. Led by Grameen Bank and BRAC in Bangladesh, Prodem in Bolivia, Opportunity International, and FINCA International, headquartered in Washington, DC, these NGOs have spread around the developing world in the past three decades; others, like the Gamelan Council, address larger regions. 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.
Microcredit and the web
Due to the unbalanced emphasis on credit at the expense of microsavings, as well as a desire to link Western investors to the sector, peer-to-peer platforms have developed to expand the availability of microcredit through individual lenders in the developed world. New platforms that connect lenders to micro-entrepreneurs are emerging on the Web, for example MYC4, Kiva, Zidisha, myELEN, Opportunity International and the Microloan Foundation. Another WWW-based microlender United Prosperity uses a variation on the usual microlending model; with United Prosperity the micro-lender provides a guarantee to a local bank which then lends back double that amount to the micro-entrpreneur. In 2009, the US-based nonprofit Zidisha became the first peer-to-peer microlending platform to link lenders and borrowers directly across international borders without local intermediaries.
The volume channeled through Kiva's peer-to-peer platform is about $100 million as of November 2009 (Kiva facilitates approximately $5M in loans each month). In comparison, the needs for microcredit are estimated about 250 bn USD as of end 2006. Most experts agree that these funds must be sourced locally in countries that are originating microcredit, to reduce transaction costs and exchange rate risks.
There have been problems with disclosure on peer-to-peer sites, with some reporting interest rates of borrowers using the flat rate methodology instead of the familiar banking Annual Percentage Rate. The use of flat rates, which has been outlawed among regulated financial institutions in developed countries, can confuse individual lenders into believing their borrower is paying a lower interest rate than, in fact, they are.
There are currently a few social interventions that have been combined with micro financing to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS. Such interventions like the "Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity" (IMAGE) which incorporates microfinancing with "The Sisters-for-Life" program a participatory program that educates on different gender roles, gender-based violence, and HIV/AIDS infections to strengthen the communication skills and leadership of women  "The Sisters-for-Life" program has two phases where phase one consists of ten one-hour training programs with a facilitator with phase two consisting of identifying a leader amongst the group, train them further, and allow them to implement an Action Plan to their respective centres.
Microfinance has also been combined with business education and with other packages of health interventions. A project undertaken in Peru by Innovations for Poverty Action found that those borrowers randomly selected to receive financial training as part of their borrowing group meetings had higher profits, although there was not a reduction in "the proportion who reported having problems in their business". Pro Mujer, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with operations in five Latin American countries, combines microfinance and healthcare. This approach shows, that microfinance can not only help businesses to prosper; it can also foster human development and social security. Pro Mujer uses a “one-stop shop” approach, which means in one building, the clients find financial services, business training, empowerment advice and healthcare services combined.
Impact and criticism
Most criticisms of microfinance have actually been criticisms of microcredit. Criticism focuses on the impact on poverty, the level of interest rates, high profits, overindebtedness and suicides. Other criticism include the role of foreign donors and working conditions in companies affiliated to microfinance institutions, particularly in Bangladesh.
The impact of microcredit is a subject of much controversy. Proponents state that it reduces poverty through higher employment and higher incomes. This is expected to lead to improved nutrition and improved education of the borrowers' children. Some argue that microcredit empowers women. In the US and Canada, it is argued that microcredit helps recipients to graduate from welfare programs.
Critics say that microcredit has not increased incomes, but has driven poor households into a debt trap, in some cases even leading to suicide. They add that the money from loans is often used for durable consumer goods or consumption instead of being used for productive investments, that it fails to empower women, and that it has not improved health or education.
The available evidence indicates that in many cases microcredit has facilitated the creation and the growth of businesses. It has often generated self-employment, but it has not necessarily increased incomes after interest payments. In some cases it has driven borrowers into debt traps. There is no evidence that microcredit has empowered women. In short, microcredit has achieved much less than what its proponents said it would achieve, but its negative impacts have not been as drastic as some critics have argued. Microcredit is just one factor influencing the success of small businesses, whose success is influenced to a much larger extent by how much an economy or a particular market grows.
Role of foreign donors
The role of donors has also been questioned. 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."
Working conditions in enterprises affiliated to MFIs
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.
- Robert Peck Christen, Richard Rosenberg & Veena Jayadeva. Financial institutions with a double-bottom line: implications for the future of microfinance. CGAP Occasional Paper, July 2004, pp. 2-3.
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- See for example Joachim de Weerdt, Stefan Dercon, Tessa Bold and Alula Pankhurst, Membership-based indigenous insurance associations in Ethiopia and Tanzania[dead link] For other cases see ROSCA.
- FDIC: 2011 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households
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- See for example Cheryl Frankiewicz Calmeadow Metrofund: a Canadian experiment in sustainable microfinance, Calmeadow Foundation, 2001.
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