It is healthy and expected for any growing trend or endeavor to receive critique and microfinance is no exception. I’ve decided to do a mini-round up of some recent critiques for those of you who might not have seen them.
The New Yorker Article
The New Yorker recently published an article by James Surowiecki called What Microloans Miss. In this article, Surowiecki argues that while microloans definitely have positive impact they are not what poor countries need most in order to get richer. He observes that the majority of people in developed countries are salaried workers, not entrepreneurs, hence we need more new small/medium businesses which hire people (he calls the “missing middle”.) He also states that microloans are often used for non-business activities including providing consumption credit during lower income periods. He calls for more focus on equity investments vs. loans to small businesses in addition to loans. In summary, he says “for some people the best route out of poverty will be a bank loan. But for most it’s going to be something much simpler: a regular paycheck.”
Microfinance network Pro Mujer CEO, Ben Moyer posted a response where he argues that “the goal [of microloans] is not to make “poor countries richer”; it is to bring desperately poor people out of poverty by helping them to become self-sufficient.” He goes on to note that “For now, the impoverished semiliterate and illiterate women receiving microloans won’t benefit from investments in the ‘missing middle.’ Microcredit will continue to offer the best return on investment, because it eradicates poverty one person at a time.”
I think that this isn’t an either/or type of issue, but an AND … that is, we need to encourage the continued growth of microfinance and new growing enterprises which create income for families in poor countries.
Microfinance appears to be the best tool available to quickly grow the income of desparately poor families to the point which they can get above the poverty line. That is, they can become relatively stable in being able to provide for their basic needs. Microfinance requires relatively small amounts of capital and infrastructure which means that it can reach and serve large numbers of families very quickly. And you can start to see income improvements in terms of weeks, not years. So, while I agree that we should not over-hype and over-promise on how microfinance can reduce extreme poverty, I also think we should not underestimate the continued positive impact it is having. More importantly, there are many countries and regions where microfinance is almost non-existent, so we need to continue to encourage increased investment to bring this baseline financial service to these families.
There is indeed a dirth of financing options available for new small business … even high-potential ones … in emerging economies. I wrote previously about this “funding gap“. Also, there is a good article by Vinay Ganti which dives further into this topic. The reality though is that this is a medium to long term contributor to emerging market income due to the nature of starting and growing these businesses. It doesn’t mean we should not start investing now!
Also, to get perspective on the reality of timelines for dramatically changing systems, I recommend Hernando Desoto’s groundbreaking book on the history, state and importance of adequate property rights described in his book, The Mystery of Capital. Desoto reviews the history and complexity of the development of property rights in the USA (and other countries) not to discourage more acceleration in property rights in other countries, but on the contrary to help articulate the lessons learned in order to accelerate property rights in emerging countries. We want to deconstruct (in order to understand) the accelerated success of new business starts in certain Asian countries over the past 50 years in order to better encourage similar growth in countries which have not yet participated in poverty reduction growth.
Please post your thoughts in comments.