These few lines came to my mind after one of our Board of Directors’ meetings devoted, among other things, to a new participation in an important microfinance institution in Morocco – a country famous for its involvement in the sector. I have, for a long time, been an avid supporter of microfinance. And I am particularly proud of the important increase in the amount of investments made in this sector by my organization, AFD, over the past 20 years: through 60 projects and nearly 300 million euros invested, we have helped more than 1.5 million people make their way out of poverty. We now want to go further, encouraged in this by GCAP’s very positive evaluation of our involvement. I see microfinance as a powerful tool against exclusion; it allows people who have been traditionally excluded from the financial systems to have access to credit. Great tribute must be paid to the pioneers of this revolutionary approach.
Microfinance has crucial objectives: it allows people to escape from the vicious circle of excessive interest rates, promotes equal rights for women, helps to overcome some of the failings in the traditional banking system and provides a financial safety net for those wishing to invest. Thus, for its 130 million beneficiaries throughout the world, it responds to a real need. Besides, it is the archetype of a large-scale and equally promising concept, that of “the bottom of the pyramid”, the issue of the “market of the poorest”.
Above all, it challenges conventional wisdom, demonstrating to even the most skeptical that the poor are able to repay their loans, sometimes more effectively than the rich. It also shows that a financial system based on social networks can work, particularly if it is based on the principle of joint surety.
This positive assessment of microfinance goals should, however, not dispense us of a critical analysis of their impact. And I believe it is time to engage in such an evaluation. This is crucial for AFD, considering our long involvement in the sector, which makes us ones of the biggest actors in that field. What lessons can we learn from our many years of experience?
There have been various development assistance trends in the past, which have created the illusion of magical formulas. When the trend disappears, the tendency is commonly to throw the baby out with the bath water. Today, microfinance is clearly trendy. Will it suffer the same fate, i.e. a phase of infatuation, before it is thrown out to the dustbins of development assistance history? Since the 1990s, microfinance has not stopped to capture large public interest. The number of stakeholders involved and tools proposed have multiplied, the number of loans granted increasing on average by 25% each year. Smart young financiers launch their careers in the microfinance sector and investment banks in the developed world rush to finance it. We hear that microfinance is the solution to urban poverty and rural isolation; it is meant to reveal every poor person’s entrepreneurial spirit. The decision to grant the Nobel Peace Prize to M. Yunus, who put the sector into the spotlight, seems to indicate that microfinance could even contribute to international peace.
Can all these benefits be attributed to microfinance? It is important to see microfinance for what it is: a tool that has proven its remarkable efficiency in reducing financial vulnerability but that cannot, on its own, eradicate poverty – and that is often used with a more social than purely productive end. It efficiently supports the sense of creativity and initiative of the poorest, women in particular, but cannot generate the conditions for this sense of initiative, offer opportunities for investments when those do not exist, nor overcome by its own the huge physical, political and cultural obstacles that development countries are facing in their quest for economic wealth. As Pr. Yunus advocates, microfinance can contribute to change the structures of capitalism. But it cannot be a substitute for investment in sectors such as education or health. It should therefore be used as part of a global public policy to develop finance, services, infrastructure and more broadly bring new opportunities for the poorest.
Our concern is to prevent microfinance from becoming a victim of its own success. Overestimating the impact of microfinance could lead to a situation where its real benefits are overlooked. Accurate assessment of the results produced by microfinance is therefore essential, and this is why my agency is currently evaluating the economic and social impact of the programs that we support in the isolated rural regions of Morocco.
The future development of microfinance requires such a balanced approach. Although it has been very successful, the sector is not yet fully developed, and still faces two major challenges.
The first is to improve the sustainability and quality of the financial services offered, in order to increase their social impact. This would require the institutionalization and professionalization of microfinance institutions. There is no ideal system of governance in this sector that is more complex and varied than is often thought; it should rather be tailored to fit the various contexts and cultures of the countries involved. The qualitative development of the sector would also require development of the local banking systems, and a suitable legislative and regulatory environment.
The second challenge involves extending these services to the poorest people and to the most isolated regions, particularly the rural areas. This goal is made all the more crucial by the food crisis that developing nations are encountering today. If we compare the 130 million people who benefit from microfinance to the 3 billion people living below the poverty line in the world, it is clear that the emphasis should be put on improved access to financial services, i.e., making them more “inclusive”.
Promising new projects are being developed, such as the “mobile banking” project in Kenya and South Africa, or micro-insurance systems (protection against climate risk for farmers, health coverage for the poorest groups). Any further growth should, however, imply better structuring and regulation of the sector, including the introduction of monitoring systems and effective guarantees against risks. Donors should steer microfinance institutions in this direction. Safeguarding and promoting the sustainability of microfinance structures ought to be a priority: it is our responsibility towards all those who have put their trust in this new service.
So does microfinance only have micro-impacts? Not only, since the long process of development is precisely made up of a series of micro-changes at the family and community level. But such would be the risk, if our vision of development came to be limited to the promotion of a tool that, as remarkable as it is, cannot, as any other, be a magic wand for development.