Microfinance, which has become well known since its leading advocates Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh were awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate, has been helping millions of people in poverty around the world for three decades now. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. Despite its great popularity, knowledge about the mechanics of microfinance is not widespread. What exactly is microfinance, and why has it attracted so much publicity in recent years? In this exploratory essay, I will briefly discuss what the concept of microfinance means, its implications and benefits for the poor across the world, and the potential shortcomings of microfinance. In particular, I will discuss what the increased commercialization of microfinance implies and problems related to the overdependence on interest in the microfinance industry.
As defined by the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), microfinance is "the supply of loans, savings, and other basic financial services to the poor."1 Muhammad Yunus provides a much more detailed definition of microfinance to ensure its distinction from other kinds of credit. He gives the goal of microfinance credit as "creating self-employment for income-generating activities and housing for the poor, as opposed to consumption."2 Microfinance, as a concept, was first introduced in the late 1970s by Yunus in Bangladesh through Grameen Bank. To ensure the utilization of the idle capacity of skills among the poor, microfinance credits typically offer tiny loans to individuals ranging from $40–$50 to a couple of thousand dollars. The borrowers are asked to repay the loans within a brief period in order to secure future loans. According to Gary Gardner, worldwide the average microcredit size is $1,026.3 The credits usually come with a fairly high interest rate. At the lower end, we see annual interest rates of 20–30%; at the higher end, the rate can go as high as 60–70% per annum in certain cases.
Microfinance addresses, it appears, a moral necessity more than anything else. By empowering the poor through credit extension, this innovative idea of microfinance tackles a serious drawback of the contemporary economic system, that is, the exclusion of the poor from the financial system. The working of modern economies prevents people without assets from securing loans in commercial banks. The rationale is simple; the poor person does not have savings, assets for collateral, or a credit profile. For the lender, the risks associated with the loaned-out credit are disproportionately high in relation to the profit in the ongoing interest rates; the expense of conducting the high-risk financing of businesses run by poor people exceeds the potential returns. Yet, for underutilized or idle economic capacity to be realized, an economic agent needs to assume the risk associated with extending credit to people on low incomes.
Traditionally, poor people have developed informal mechanisms to address their credit needs, such as securing loans from their family networks. Yet, these mechanisms cannot always provide the amount and flexibility needed in dire economic conditions such as an emergency. According to some accounts, there are around 7,000 "microlenders," or microfinance institutions (MFIs), worldwide reaching out to more than 100 million borrowers.4 How did these institutions emerge? The answer is high interest rates. As mentioned above, there are many financial actors lending at rates well above current interest rates because of the higher default risk. Based on this new financing system, new business models developed throughout the world demonstrating that poor people did not necessarily mean risk-prone investment. An interesting aspect of microfinance is the predominance of women as borrowers rather than men. Almost 90% of actual borrowers are women, a fact attributed to the better "repayment performance" of women. This is a deliberate policy on the part of microcredit programs. This reliable repayment performance coupled with women's tendency to invest the additional income to the benefit of the family5 ensures the achievement of several positive outcomes which will be discussed in the following section.
Microfinancing theory has two broad goals. One of them is the realization of long-term economic development in less developed countries. Investigating and measuring the accomplishment of this goal is beyond the scope of this article; instead, I will focus on the second goal and the level of its achievement in order to evaluate the concept. The second goal, which is improvement in the daily lives of poor people, is also more directly related to the lives of individuals and may give us a better idea about the benefits of microfinancing. If the institution of microfinancing targets poor people and their economic prospects, then we should be able to see tangible evidence of improvement in that area. Proponents of the idea postulate that microfinancing benefits the immediate borrowers economically, but also has wider implications for the household as a whole. The eradication of poverty is one of the celebrated successes of microfinancing at the individual level. According to Littlefield et al., the project has recorded significant improvement in the earnings of microfinancing borrowers as opposed to non-borrowers. For example, in Bolivia two thirds of borrowers experienced an increase in their income. Similarly, in Indonesia the increase in income was about 13% for borrowers and a mere 3% for non-borrowers.6 Various studies demonstrate that among borrowers of microfinance loans about 50% have actually risen above the poverty threshold, an important statistic by any measure.7
Another success of the microfinancing program has been the improvement in children's education. According to the research, education is one of the areas where we can observe the spillover effects of the increased income; extra income is likely to be spent on the education of children. In Bangladesh, the educational achievement of children aged from 11–14 years (whose families took microfinance loans) has doubled to surpass the control group (the children of non-borrowers) by almost 80%. A different study finds that in 1996 the schooling rate among the daughters of borrowers was almost 100% as opposed 60% among the children of non-borrowers; similarly among boys, 81% of the children of microfinancing borrowers went to school as compared to 54% of the rest.8 In health care, Littlefield et al. also report noteworthy improvement in immunization, breast-feeding practices, and rehydration therapy for children with diarrhea in countries like Ghana, Bolivia, and Bangladesh.9 According to recent literature on economic development, better educational and health care opportunities as part of human development initiatives underlie the new, long-term economic development process. In this regard, it is important to recognize the great potential that microfinance can offer for the future of developing countries.10
Nonetheless, microfinancing raises important questions with respect to its application and the heavy burden it places on the borrowers. Microfinancing particularly faces two urgent issues undermining its popularity worldwide. The first of these issues concerns microfinance institutions (MFIs). In recent years, MFIs have begun to experience financial difficulties, in particular, high delinquency rates. In contrast to the high repayment rates of the early period of microfinancing, MFIs are having increasing difficulty in sustaining their financial solvency. The early 2000s saw Grameen Bank experiencing serious repayment problems; 19% of its overall loans are one year overdue and about 10% are delinquent as defined by the bank itself. In a similar vein, Nimal Fernando, a consultant for CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor), reports liquidity and delinquency problems Asian MFIs faced in the 1990s and 2000s.11 Because of high interest rates, borrowers fail to pay off the principal of the loan, and the accumulating interest. Taking the necessary steps to ensure financial sustainability of MFIs, however, comes with a trade-off; the borrowers will have to confront tighter measures on their loans in the form of higher interest rates, shorter due dates for repayment, or limited uses for the loan.12
The second problem facing microfinancing surfaced in the form of increased commercialization. MFIs have increasingly gained a commercial nature with investment banks obtaining a larger share of the microcredit sector. The justification for commercialization of microfinance is that increased capital allows financing to reach a larger pool of poor borrowers, enabling them to engage in a wider spectrum of economic activities. No doubt the increased pool of available funds has contributed to the increase in the number of borrowers in the last decade or so. However, this new interest in microfinancing poses problems in addition to its advantages. The surge in commercialization is in large part due to the potential for high returns in the sector. Higher returns for MFIs come at the expense of the poor borrowers across the world in the form of higher interest rates. This outcome is intimately related to the delinquency rates of MFIs. Higher interest rates imply lower repayment performance and longer repayment terms.13 The commercialization of microfinance is exemplified by the recent case of Compartamos, a microfinance institution in Mexico. In the words of Jonathan Lewis, "Compartamos is without question an impressive…bottom line success story, a veritable poster child for commercializing microfinance."14 But this focus on the lender's "bottom line" has not proved to be a guarantee of success or satisfaction for the borrower, as we shall see.
Both of these problems, the lack of financial sustainability of MFIs and the commercialization of microfinancing, point to a serious issue at the very foundation of microfinancing: interest-based credits. As we know too well from the current financial and economic crisis, an uncontrolled interest-based economic system is likely to harm the poor rather than the rich who actually own the financial assets. The major burden of "saving" the economic system falls on the shoulders of lower economic groups. Interest-based microfinancing, seen in this light, has a negative effect on the microfinancing system in two ways. Firstly, borrowers try to catch up with interest payments while at the same time putting in an effort to make the best use of the limited amount of credit. As Businessweek put it, the loans from MFIs rival traditional "pawnshops and loan sharks."15 In the case of Compartamos, for example, the effective interest rate paid by the borrowers goes as high as 100% annually. Unable to run their business as expected, borrowers defer payment of their loans, which results in higher interest payments. Particularly in a crisis environment, low business volumes are more likely to cause delays in repayments and increases in interest rates, a vicious cycle harmful for the poor. Under such circumstances, the possibility of added economic value is minimized.
Secondly, the interest-based mechanics of microfinancing, and by association its commercialization, have become an effective mechanism for integrating the poor into the global financial system. "Unbankable" until the 1970s, the poor have now been made de facto captives of the financial system. Although the original idea was to help the poor in ways unexplored so far and to make microfinancing "a tool of nonprofit economic development,"16 neither of these goals has been realized in the long term because of the heavy interest burden of microfinance formulation. In a slight reformulation, the question of the high interest rates is not whether they prevent microloans from working, but rather how they affect the working of the system. What happens is that the loans obtained by borrowers are directed to more urgent uses to "smooth consumption" in the short term, instead of being invested in potentially profitable business activities, which is stated as the chief goal of the microfinancing system. High interest rates change the pattern of loan consumption by borrowers; high interest rates preclude the chances of profitable entrepreneurial activity. Even if the loan is employed for business purposes, at the time of repayment the profits cannot match the interest17 and this eventually leads to the use of loans for consumption needs.
The contemporary capitalist global economic system has benefits and harms in proportion to the individual's wealth, usually favoring the rich over the poor. Microfinance began with the hope of offering a helping hand to those outside and on the margins of the global economic system. The goal is an exalted one, suggesting respect and increased economic opportunity for the poor. Yet, the practice of microfinance seems to set it far from its moral foundations. Increased commercialization accompanied by exorbitant interest rates only reinforces the working of the global economic system to benefit the wealthier and harm the poor. Unless the fundamentals of microfinancing are transformed to not-for-profit bases, in the long term we may see this potentially valuable institution simply withering away to another form of aggressive capitalism. I would like to conclude with a quotation from Bediüzzaman Said Nursi pointing to two fundamental problems of our contemporary society:
... [T]he following two attitudes or approaches are the causes of all revolutions and social upheavals, as well as the root of all moral failings: … "I do not care if others die of hunger so long as my stomach is full," and "You must bear the costs of my ease-you must work so that I may eat."18
Microfinancing in its current formulation stands strangely where these two problems meet. On the one hand, it is an effort at minimizing the suffering of others by the extension of finance opportunities. On the other hand, those others carry the burden of this help, making the wealthy wealthier. In this regard, Bediüzzaman's statement is intimately related to the way microfinancing, a potentially valuable initiative in itself, has become an instrument of the rich used against the poor through its dependence on commercialization and interest.