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Due Diligence, by David Roodman, is an examination of the results of various microfinance efforts. Microfinance is a larger category that includes micro-lending. It also includes micro-insurance, micro-saving, etc. Roodman examines the widespread claim that micro-finance reduces poverty.
His results are:
- There is not sufficient evidence to claim that microfinance reduces or increases poverty levels. There are myriad anecdotes about the subject, but with millions of people involved it’s easy to find great anecdotes. When economic statistics are examined, the data does not show a reduction in poverty.
- Microfinance does meet a significant need of the poor. If instead of asking "does it reduce poverty" you ask "does it provide a financial service that is valued by the poor", the answer is yes. There are important regulatory requirements for microfinance to succeed. Without these, it will break down. With these, it is a valuable service for the poor.
- Microfinance can be one part of building an economic infrastructure for development and poverty reduction. On its own, it is insufficient. It is mostly an urban solution, due to the operational realities, and it needs other developmental elements to make a significant change.
The book is well written, easy to read, and appears to be very carefully sourced.
Microfinance has a much longer history than I realized. Jonathan Swift, writer of Gulliver’s Travels, was a major organizer of microfinance services to the poor in Ireland in the 1700’s. Swift is credited with starting the Irish Loan Funds (pdf), a major microlending operation that had widespread use and lasted about 200 years. It’s history is also informative regarding flaws and regulatory requirements. The Prudential Insurance company in the US began as a micro-insurance operation in the US during the 1800’s.
Micro-finance also exists in many more times and locations than the current press excitement would indicate. It is found all around the world. This means that there are enough examples to provide good statistical analysis and a variety of implementation variations.
The root of micro-finance is two-fold:
- The poor have the same needs for financial services as the rich and middle class. They need the same kinds of saving, borrowing, and insurance as the middle class and rich.
- The transaction sizes of the poor are tiny by comparison. Micro-finance radically restructures the transactions so that the administrative overhead is correspondingly small. Examples of what this means are scattered through the book.
Social factors, cash flow factors, and resource differences make micro-lending the easiest to simplify. A micro-loan can be structured and standardized to make the administrative cost tiny. For example, a loan can be standardized to a fixed amount, like ten dollars. This is the only available loan amount. A pre-printed index card with 40 boxes is filled out with the borrowers name, and the borrower is given nine dollars. Then every week, the lender visits the borrower, gets 25 cents, and checks one box. When all the boxes are checked, the loan is paid.
Note all the cost reductions. The total infrastructure requirement is a pre-printed piece of paper and an indelible pen. The infrastructure is auditable. There is no time spent negotiating amounts. The labor time needed for the lender remains significant. They must pay someone to visit each borrower every week. But each individual transaction time is very small, since it’s just collect a coin and check a box. In an urban environment, the travel time can be kept small.
When the interest per transaction is one cent, the collection cost must be kept to around a 100 millicents. This is done by employing staff who are also paid poverty level wages. When the tracking is simple check boxes, a minimally educated person can do the job.
There are many variations and adjustments to this approach for different cultures and economic environments.
Micro-lending has broken down and become severely abusive in some countries. Borrowers have been hounded into suicide or flight by abusive lenders. Local lenders have been known to break into borrowers homes and steal as needed to cover missed payments. Lenders have used violent enforcers to coerce borrowing.
In some countries the abuses have led to prohibitions on micro-lending. In others, there have been government takeovers, management replacement, etc. This is sometimes combined with intrusive local politics and corruption, where it’s unclear where the real abuse and corruption resides.
There is a strong pattern observed here:
- The worst abuses have been in countries where more than 50% of the lending funds are from outside the country. The correlation between percentage outside funds and abuse is strong. This has significant implications for foreign aid policies that try to encourage micro-lending.
- Appropriate regulation is crucial. Traditional banking regulations are far too expensive for the tiny transactions needed by micro-finance. But, absence of proper financial regulation has led to frauds, bankruptcy, and many other abuses. Designing appropriate regulatory structures requires considerable creativity.
There is lots of press about new technology. This is too new to be subject to analysis in this book. He does mention it, and early indications are that the changes will be important. Some of the systems mentioned are:
- M-PESA is radically revising all sorts of financial transactions in Kenya. This goes far beyond traditional micro-finance. The combination of cell phone transactions, micro-banking relationships between local shops and tradition banks, and regulatory changes has allowed the cell phone to be used to transfer money, pay bills, save money, etc. This has a bigger impact on the upper poor and lower middle class, but the transactional flexibility does flow through to the really poor who lack phones.
- Brazil has used satellite links to allow local post offices and corner stores to act as "correspondent banks" and provide services to thousands of small towns.
- South Africa and Namibia are using Net1 and an advanced smart card system for financial transactions. It is designed to operate despite erratic power and intermittent communications connections. This is a complex hybrid of dispersed and centralized control, so that financial integrity is preserved while providing access to small and remote locations.
The overall conclusion is that the various forms of micro-finance do meet important financial needs for the poor. They do not eliminate poverty, but that’s not a reason to deny the poor these services. These services do significantly improve their quality of life.
The proper regulation of micro-finances is a challenge, but it is needed. The long established banking regulations are much too burdensome for the tiny transactions involved, so substantial changes are needed. This challenge is one that can be met if regulators, politicians, and lenders can work together.
The impact of cheap communications (the mobile revolution) was not covered. It’s still very early. The impact can be large if the costs can be reduced to a level competitive with the highly cost optimized paper systems that are traditional.