Development Economics

Expansion and a Poverty Trap

One criticism of microfinance is its inability to produce meaningful poverty movement on a macro level. The belief is that providing credit for micro-entrepreneurs produces some incremental change on an individual basis, but doesn’t produce the substantive change needed to lift a community out of poverty. By substantive change, I mean employment, infrastructure, commerce, and improvements in healthcare and education. In this post I want to focus specifically on the idea of microfinance’s inability to produce businesses of adequate scale.

In theory, microcredit aids people starting or maintaining small businesses to generate extra income for the family. (In reality, recipients of microfinance loans spend the money on expenses unrelated to the business altogether, but this is a different topic). Where microfinance is deficient is in shepherding these small businesses to become something bigger than just a micro-enterprise. For any business to grow, it needs to do two things: reduce the amount it spends and increase the amount it brings in. But micro-entrepreneurs can get stuck in a trap created by a lack of resources. For many of the poor communities served by microfinance, the cards are stacked against them. Let me explain with an example.

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