Is it April Fools’ Day, or ‘Groundhog Day’?

Pathways: financial inclusion to end extreme poverty | Find out what we heard from the industry in this year’s Listening Tour

We’ll be bringing you articles throughout April that reflect the results of this year’s Listening Tour Photo credit: by Geoff (originally posted to Flickr as Pilgrim’s path) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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>>Authored by Larry Reed, Director, Microcredit Summit Campaign

MoMF

April is the Month of Microfinance

We are capitalizing on the occasion of the Month of Microfinance to bring you articles throughout April on our 100 Million Ideas blog that reflect the results of this year’s Listening Tour. We received written feedback from 151 people and conducted 27 interviews with thought leaders like Beth Porter (UNCDF), Syed Hashemi (BRAC University), Essma Ben Hamida (enda inter arabe), and William Derban (Fidelity Bank). This feedback from the industry forms the basis of the Campaign’s theme for 2015 of financial inclusion to end extreme poverty and the six pathways that we think show promise in getting us there:

  • Mobile money linked with agent networks in low-income communities;
  • Agricultural value chains that reach to small scale producers;
  • Savings groups (aka village savings and loans associations);
  • Conditional cash transfers linked with mobile delivery and asset building;
  • Ultra-poor graduation programs; and
  • Microfinance savings and/or borrowing groups linked with health education, health financing, and health product delivery.

These six pathways will be reflected in the 2015 State of the Campaign Report, the 18th Microcredit Summit, and Campaign Commitments to be featured this year. From the start, the Microcredit Summit Campaign has advocated scaling up microcredit (and, by extension, “microfinance”) as just one part of a larger effort to end poverty. We have held up as paramount the continued innovation and client-focused development of financial tools, creative ideas for delivering these services to remote and hard-to-reach areas at affordable prices, and the promise that microfinance can help create positive and durable changes in the lives of those being served. These six pathways are a continuation of that promise.

Fazila Begum struggling Member of Grameen Bank Shakhaerchar branch

We met Fazila Begum in 2007. She was a struggling member of Grameen Bank, Shakhaerchar branch.

When will researchers catch up with microfinance leaders?

From the very first loan of $27 that Mohammad Yunus gave to 42 women in Bangladesh, the heart of microfinance has always been about getting to know the needs of people living in poverty and designing products and services that help them loose the bonds that keep them in poverty. The aim of Yunus and many other founders of the movement was not to build financial institutions, but to empower people women to create a better future for themselves and their children. To do this they had to get to know people living in poverty and their cash flows, needs and aspirations in order to develop combinations of helpful products and services.

So when our team listened to the presentations of academic researchers made at the World Bank covering six randomized control trials of microcredit programs, we came away more than a little underwhelmed. Their big conclusion, after spending several years and millions of dollars on research: “Understand clients.” (Watch a recording of the forum.)

Even more alarming was that many of the researchers and the audience seemed surprised by the news. We have been engaged with leading microfinance groups around the world and have seen how they have learned — on their own — the lessons that the researchers presented as well as how they adapted their programs to address them long ago.

Here are some examples of research findings presented at the World Bank gatherings and actions previously taken by leading MFIs:

“Credit alone, on average, has neither large positive or negative effects.”

Very few of the leading MFIs that have focused on reaching people in poverty and facilitating their movement out of poverty have ever offered only credit. Grameen, from the start, had group savings and the 16 Decisions. The Village Banks developed by FINCA offered group savings and a group insurance fund. Many also provide training in business, marketing, health, nutrition, and sanitation in their group meetings.

“When only credit is available, people may use it when what they really need is savings, or insurance or other financial products.”

Microfinance leader BRI in Indonesia has been offering individual voluntary savings accounts since the 1980s and now has over 35 million savings accounts and 8 million borrowers. While many of the group lending systems provided loans, savings, and insurance bundled into one package, many of the leading MFIs have begun unbundling those services in the last two decades.

Grameen II, instituted in 2001, provides a range of financial services to clients, including voluntary savings and micropensions, and it removed the group guarantee on loans. Opportunity International began providing microinsurance in 2002, expanding from life insurance to health, casualty, and crop insurance and then spinning off MicroEnsure as a subsidiary that now reaches over 10 million clients.

Nangolkot, Noakhali, Bangladesh

Villagers in Nangolkot, Noakhali, Bangladesh
Photo credit: ©Shamimur Rahman and Giorgia Bonaga

“For 5-10 percent of the clients, credit has a very large positive impact on business growth and income.”

Aris Alip, founder of the CARD network of mutually reinforcing development institutions, saw this happening in the villages where CARD provided group-based savings and lending services. He also saw that those 5-10 percent that grew benefited the community by providing stable employment to others. In 2008, CARD created an SME bank to work specifically with fast growing microbusinesses and to see if, by providing appropriate products and services to this group, they could increase the percentage of growing businesses to 15 or 20 percent.

“For the ultra-poor, a gift of an asset has significant positive impact.”

REST Client photo_427x569

A woman client of Relief Society of Tigray (REST) in Ethiopia harvests her mango tree.
Photo credit: REST

This learning came directly from the work of BRAC and its ultra-poor graduation program. BRAC found that those who live on less than $.50 per day face so much vulnerability in their lives that they do not want to take on more debt. They developed a system of regular stipends of food or cash, a gift of an asset like an animal or a sewing machine, business training, savings, and regular mentoring. This program has now been replicated in several countries, and studies of these programs show strong positive impact.

The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) has combined this programs with the government’s Productive Safety Net Program so that the government provides the stipends and the assets, REST provides training and mentoring, and Dedebit Bank provides savings and lending facilities.


We are glad that these studies have proven out the innovations implemented by many leading MFIs. But if researchers want to get ahead of the learning curve, they could start to engage with some of these leading institutions on the questions that they are asking now. Here are some suggestions we have for new areas of research:

Research question 1: Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) seem to play an important role in providing some regularity in lives that are filled with unpredictability and vulnerability. How can these be linked with other services, like savings and insurance, to help beneficiaries move from resilience to asset building?

Research question 2: Are there some financial services that consistently provide benefits and rarely cause harmful effects so that they should be recommended for all? It looks like savings could fit this category, provided the savings mechanism is safe and the account maintains its value over time.

Research question 3: How do we refine our understanding of the situations in which credit is most likely to be helpful? And, what role do other services, such as group meetings, access to health care, insurance, and savings, improve the likelihood that a person will benefit from credit?

Research question 4: Graduation programs that start with a donated asset, group meetings, mentoring, and community involvement and lead to other financial service like savings and credit have proven to have a positive impact. Can we start to determine under what circumstances a person will need all of these services — and which people might need only one or two — to start moving from extreme poverty?

Instead of taking more time and money to prove that we need to understand clients, we suggest that researchers work with microfinance institutions that already listen to their clients and develop with them research agendas based on that growing understanding.

The same family from the top of the article has gone through the Stoplight process and now their situation is much improved.

A Fundación Paraguaya family has gone through the Poverty Stoplight process and now their situation is much improved. Read our blog post about the Poverty Stoplight.
Photo credit: Fundación Paraguaya


Relevant Resources

2013 State of the Campaign Report:Know Your Client

Social protection: innovative programs deliver financial services at scale

How families are creating step-by-step plans for poverty elimination


 

A few key takeaways from the World Bank forum on microcredit (video)

The diagnosis of the six randomized evaluations that spanned six countries on four continents, in both urban and rural areas with different borrower, lender, and loan characteristics, was that they showed no significant impact on the poverty level or living standards of the clients.

In some studies, it was concluded that the top 5-10 percent of clients did have some significant impact on their income and assets. One study showed some positive impact on women’s empowerment while another showed that depression seemed to go down for clients who had taken a loan, but their stress levels went up. Basically, it was all rather inconclusive, yet it also opened a transformative dialogue about how we can learn from our mistakes and what we need to do better to meet the needs of our clients.

On learning from what we know does work

The results of the randomized evaluations suggest that microcredit alone doesn’t have a transformative effect on the poor. However, despite its shortcomings, it is recognized that microcredit enhances the range of choices available to the poor and allows them to manage their circumstances as they consider appropriate.

Furthermore, microcredit still serves, in many cases, an important role as a risk absorption tool, acting as an insurance product that allows the clients to react to shocks and emergencies. In these instances, credit provides stability and prevents the clients from falling deeper into poverty. It has long been recognized that credit is not suited for many people, so insurance products should not be built around a credit product. In fact, several panelists said that microinsurance may be more needed than microloans particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,

For his part, Alex Counts (Grameen Foundation) invited the audience to focus on the five percent of clients — equivalent to millions of families — who moved out of poverty with microcredit. We should do this because we should want to understand (isn’t it our job to understand?) what it was that helped them compared to those less successful (or unsuccessful).

More research is needed to stimulate this conversation around what is working and what is not and to promote models that can serve as examples for adaptation and replication.

On understanding your clients

The research presented at the World Bank forum showed us that we need further analysis on what poor people really want and in understanding the heterogeneity of needs. It is important to study the particular context of each country, region, and community. Different circumstances lead to heterogeneous needs, so we need to offer a variety of products and services that actually meet the specific needs of the clients.

In addition, we need much more work on tracking how the money is being used. Perhaps we should not only look at factors like change in profits, wages, or consumption to test the success of microcredit products. Clients sometimes use their loan for personal needs, like for health issues or for social obligations such as weddings and funerals, and in order to see the impact of microcredit on the overall quality of life for clients, we need to know where the money is going.

Knowing more about these two dimensions will enable better product design, promote innovation, and help microfinance evolve in a manner that is both sustainable and beneficial to the extreme poor. It comes back to what Dean Karlan said, “Understand your clients.”

On the implications of digital innovations

Innovations in financial technologies are increasing client outreach and reducing transaction costs (to nearly zero), but they are also creating new transparency challenges that could pose serious risks to the clients if they are not addressed.

The main concern is the lack of adequate regulation for digital financial services. Client protection measures need to be in place to raise awareness of the risks linked to loans and ensure that customers understand the terms and conditions of the loans they are taking out. This is particularly important when we consider the rapid pace of growth and expected outreach of the new digital services.

When looking at agent networks, serving 100,000 clients after five years was a big achievement; today, however, they are expected to reach 1,000,000 clients after only one year of implementing a digital service.

We need to carefully assess the risk of inflicting harm to a large number of people at the base of the pyramid to ensure that digital financial services are being provided in a responsible way that brings no harm to the clients. Keeping this in mind may inspire innovative ideas for consumer protection and improve the quality of existing products.

On their recommendations for further research

In the coming years, Abhijit Banerjee (J-PAL) stated that research should focus on answering the questions: Why is there a low demand for microcredit products? What do clients need? What are the right products to offer them and the right channels? Where does the money go if it doesn’t reduce poverty?

Esther Duflo talked specifically about the graduation pilot programs, which are targeting the ultra-poor and already show some positive results on poverty levels. The results of this research will buoy efforts to promote the adoption of graduation programs as a poverty alleviation tool and underscores the need to segment the poor for the purposes of understanding the impact of microcredit and designing adequate products.

Are we measuring the real story? Jaikishan Desai, one of the researchers of the RCTs, posed this question to the audience. This seemed to go beyond how do we interpret the data to what is the purpose of measuring the impact of microcredit? Is microcredit and microfinance supposed to be the cure of the world poor or should it be used as a tool to include ignored segments of the population and reduce risk to those most vulnerable? Are we looking for a change in poverty levels or should we be focusing on the impact credit has on maintaining stability?

Other questions that were not resolved included, was the length of the study a factor? Do we need more long-term or short-term assessments? What about the generational impact? Could it be that we won’t see the effects of microcredit on clients unless we track progress through the next generation?

What impact does an MFI’s staff incentives and governance have on its clients? Does this impact the type of loans they receive and the quality of the product?

Relevant resources


For those who are unfamiliar with the cultural references in the title

April Fools’ Day: April 1st is a day of pranks and practical jokes and has its roots in medieval Europe — or possibly even earlier — and is similar to (or may be related to) the Holi festival of India.

Groundhog Day: February 2nd is an American tradition brought over by our German ancestors and adopted by popular culture and the media; it consists of looking to a rodent (a groundhog) to find out if winter is over or not. However, our reference here refers to a fantastic movie of the same name where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again to hilarious effect.

5 thoughts on “Is it April Fools’ Day, or ‘Groundhog Day’?

  1. Pingback: #tbt: Lobbying the World Bank, Part I | 100 Million Ideas

  2. Pingback: The 2015 Listening Tour: Mapping pathways for ending extreme poverty | 100 Million Ideas

  3. Pingback: Measuring what’s important: client transformation | 100 Million Ideas

  4. Pingback: Social protection: innovative programs deliver financial services at scale | 100 Million Ideas

  5. Larry,
    Wonderful job of summarizing this debate. I will forward it to my microfinance class at Brandeis right away. I would like to add one more research question. What happens to savings groups after we leave on their own – from the 4th year on. Do they survive? Evolve? Self-Replicate? Launch their own initiatives? Link with government and NGO projects? Financial institutions? What are the pluses (and minuses) of these linkages?
    Thanks again,
    Jeff

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