#tbt: There is No “Silver Bullet” by Jake Kendall

Delegates from the 2000 Microcredit Summit in Zimbabwe

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We are pleased to bring you this #ThursdayThrowback blog post, which was originally published in The State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Report, 2011. We hope this will encourage you to reflect on the idea that all new ideas are old.


>>Authored by Jake Kendall, Research Fellow, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The poor are diverse and so are their needs for financial tools

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Download the full 2011 State of the Campaign Report in our Resource Library

The past few years have seen the release of an initial round of results from randomized field trials looking into the impacts of various savings, credit and insurance services on the livelihoods of poor clients. They have been somewhat disappointing to those in the financial inclusion field who expected that they would provide clear marching orders.

Despite failure of many of these studies to find much of a poverty reduction impact on average, digging beneath the surface shows what appears to be a wide variation in both the rates of uptake of the products and in the impacts of the products on different segments of clients. This is not surprising. Financial services are primarily used to manage gaps in income or to generate lump sums for large purchases, investments or emergencies. Individuals will differ in their need to for these services. Thus, we would expect to see differences in uptake and impact. The early evidence seems to confirm that this is the case.

As examples, two recent studies of microfinance credit offerings — Banerjee, Duflo, Glennerster, and Kinnan (2009) studying Spandana in India and Karlan and Zinman (2009) studying First Macro Bank in Manila — do not show any improvement over 14-18 months in basic welfare indicators from providing credit to the general population. They do, however, show large changes in investment behavior or in other outcomes for specific subgroups — e.g. in the India study, entrepreneurs expanded their businesses and those who had similar traits to entrepreneurs launched new ones.

There have been a few studies of the impacts of savings accounts recently as well. Studying rural savings in Kenya, Dupas and Robinson (2009) found savings accounts had impacts when given to women. The study found that women who participated were investing 45 percent more, had 27 to 40 percent higher personal expenditures, and were less likely to take money out of their businesses to deal with health shocks than women who were not offered savings accounts. On the other hand, there were no impacts for the men. Studying Green Bank of Caraga in the Philippines, Ashraf, Karlan and Yin (2006, 2010), find that “commitment savings accounts” do increase average savings among women and increase feelings of empowerment relative to those with regular savings accounts. However, they also found that only 28 percent of those offered the accounts decided to accept them. Studying Opportunity International Bank of Malawi (OIBM) Brune, Gine, Goldberg, and Yang (2010) recently produced data showing that Malawian farmers with “commitment savings accounts” had significantly higher investments in farm inputs, but because the study group is only farmers, it is not at all clear how these impacts would play out in other livelihood groups offered similar accounts. Thus, in the savings studies as well there seem to be very different responses from different groups.

The conclusions we can draw from these studies are limited. It seems clear (and again, not very surprising) that demand for and impact of the different products is often correlated with differences in gender, education, wealth, livelihood segment, etc. That said, the studies to date do not give very fine-grained or particularly insightful segmentations of their study samples. It’s not always easy in academic studies to get sample sizes large enough to do this. There are fundamental limits as to what RCTs can tell us regarding how different individuals or groups respond to a single treatment. Nevertheless, it would appear that a rich direction for future research would be to frame the academic evaluations of financial products more along the lines of how marketers and practitioners would frame them, by focusing on distinct customer segments and assessing the uptake or impact among these different groups.

In a possible exception to the above trend, Jack and Suri (2010) document that, after its launch in 2007, the M-PESA money transfer and e-wallet product reached over 70 percent of all Kenyan households and over 50 percent of the poor, unbanked, and rural populations by 2009. New accounts have even grown by 40 percent since then. The researchers have preliminary results indicating that M-PESA users are better able to maintain the level of consumption expenditures, and in particular food consumption, in the face of negative income shocks. While it’s almost certainly true that, here again, different segments of clients have different uses for the product, clearly most Kenyan households have some financial need that M-PESA fulfills, and by connecting people with the ability to transfer funds, M-PESA may simply be allowing them to transact with a wider and more diverse set of counterparties who can help with whatever particular need they may have.