Development Economics

The "Entrepreneur Myth" Myth

Muhammad Yunus, the godfather of microfinance, contends that everyone is an entrepreneur.  And microfinance is about individual economic empowerment, built on the premise that credit is both a human right and a path to economic freedom.  This reading has been distorted by those who talk about the “entrepreneur myth,” which says that microfinance romanticizes the poor by pushing a false by-your-bootstraps narrative.  This narrative, in turn, undermines development by giving the poor something they don’t want – credit for a business – instead of something they need, which is steady employment.  This argument isn’t necessarily untrue, but it is irresponsibly oversimplified and demonstrates a lack of grounding in reality.   I want to discuss two articles that address this issue and use them to explain why this reading of microfinance is not only flawed, but is counterproductive in serving the poor. [caption id="attachment_1140" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Rational actors in the U.S."][/caption] The first one, titled “Romanticizing the Poor” from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is a bit more difficult to refute, in part because I agree with the premise but not the logic, and also because I am intimidated by the fact that the author, Aneel Karnani, is an economics professor of South Asian descent and, I would have to assume, intellectually superior to me.  But I'll try.  The article is less a refutation of microfinance as a poverty alleviation strategy as it is a caution against the merits of market-based solutions in general.  According to Mr. Karnani, the poor are not rational actors when it comes to economic decision-making.  Therefore, the argument goes, it is misguided and potentially harmful to try to apply free-market strategies – like microfinance – when the spending behavior of the poor is irrational.  He highlights the fact that the poor spend a disproportionate amount of money on booze and cigarettes at the expense of healthcare and education (Nicholas Kristof’s most recent article discusses the same issue).  The poor are more prone to impulse buying, so introducing more money and more material product choices will just drive them deeper into debt:

Many advocates of market-based solutions to poverty view poor people as rational consumers who, if given more options, would make better choices—that is, choices that would increase their economic welfare. They see no problem with encouraging the poor to spend their already meager incomes on low-priority products and services. They further argue that the poor have the right to determine how to spend their limited income and are in fact the best judges of what is in their best interests.
I don’t dispute the truth of these statements, mostly because I haven't read the research.  I would say it's not unreasonable to say that adults should be treated like adults when it comes to making decisions about how they spend their money.  Either way, they are irrelevant to an argument against microfinance.  (more…)

Development Economics

Competition, Saturation, Interest Rates, and Microfinance

CGAP, the World Bank’s microfinance arm, turns 15 this year, having been formed ten years prior to Muhammad Yunus winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  In commemoration, Alexis LaTortue, the CEO of CGAP, wrote a summary of the state of the industry and the key transformations that have occurred over the last decade and a half.  There is a lot of to unpack for a 500-word article, but I want address one point in particular that I found interesting:

More institutions are sustainable.  Very few institutions were at the beginning, and there was even disagreement about whether they could be or should be.  Yet, today, once you take away clients served by state banks, about three-quarters of total clients are served by sustainable institutions.  In a few markets, we are even approaching saturation or real competition.
When I think about this statement, it leads to ask more questions about the implications of market saturation and sustainability for the microfinance community – the providers, the clients, the funders, everyone.    I had always assumed that saturated markets already existed, but the fact that, by CGAP’s own estimate, there are only 100-150 million microfinance clients globally and a potential market of billions.  It makes sense that, while some countries have relatively mature microfinance markets – Bolivia, Kenya, Bangladesh – most are far from being saturated in the way that, say, Boston is saturated with pizza shops.  But in the same way that Boston has damn good pizza, when microfinance markets mature and become saturated with sustainable institutions, they begin to offer damn good financial services to the poor. (more…)

Microfinance

Microenterprise to SME: A Thought Exercise pt. I

This is the third post of a three-part series on small- and medium enterprises.  It is a two-part post. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Z66wVo7uNw] A month ago, I attended a conference in Manila sponsored by the Microfinance Council of the Philippine Islands.  I wrote briefly about the level of cooperation among the participants, but have yet to share what I learned.  The conference – titled “Operationalizing Social Performance Monitoring (SPM)” – brought together a dozen microfinance institutions (MFIs) and lenders from across the country to discuss best practices for focusing on the social mission.  In the microfinance world, theoretical solutions to problems, like how to focus on the poor and remain financially sustainable, are often incompatible with the nuanced realities on the ground.  This gathering offered a chance for MFIs to share what has worked and what has not, so that the microfinance community at large can be more effective at addressing poverty alleviation in the Philippines. The keynote speaker, Prof. Ron Chua, functioned more as a facilitator and moderator than a lecturer.  He asked the MFIs to present a specific social goal and discuss the measures each would take to achieve it.  One nameless participant set an organizational goal of transitioning 30% of existing clients from micro-enterprises to SME (small- to medium enterprise) within five years.  They presented a laundry list of programs designed to aid in this process.  The underlying assumption behind each of these measures is that financial services (microcredit) must be complemented by the provision of non-financial services, including business development and support services and integrated community development.  Provision of financial services alone is not enough to bring people out of poverty.  This exhaustive list addresses all of the key issues in moving a client out of poverty.  I will present the first six here, and the remained six in the next post. (more…)

Microfinance

The Tradeoffs of Serving the Poorest

[caption id="attachment_767" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Groundhog's Day for a man of the torah."][/caption] This past weekend I went with four coworkers and a lecturer at Ateneo University Business School to a province called Aklan.  I woke up at 5:00 AM Friday morning in order to catch the ferry to Iloilo at 8:00.  We drove five and a half hours north to Kalibo, where we stayed in Sampiguita Resort, “where it’s Christmas everyday.”  It is the vision of Sam Butcher, the American founder and creative genius behind the Precious Moments dolls – a collectible item so sweet it will make your teeth rot. (more…)

Microfinance

What I Do: Borrower Interviews

As a Kiva Fellow, I go to the field to interview borrowers about the status of their loan and talk about the business, the family, and their dreams for the future.  Usually I do a short write-up to update the Kiva lenders, but sometimes I go overboard and write an essay.  This is not representative of most journal entries, but I found her to be such an interesting client that I wanted to share it.  I titled this journal update "Glenda's Business and the Economics of a Half-Hectare Farm."  It only went out to 13 people, so I'm hoping for a larger audience here*: (more…)

Development Economics

SMEs in the Philippines

This is the second post in a three-part series on SMEs. In an earlier post, I discussed another area of development – SMEs – that is both important for creating sustained growth, and has recently attracted interest from investors.  The Philippines is also placing a lot of emphasis on this area of development. The Philippines is actually in good shape regarding SMEs, as it has an abundant labor pool.  The country has 800,000 registered businesses, of which ~7% are classified as either small (10-99 employees, $60K to $300K in assets) or medium (100-199 employees, $300K to $2M in assets).  Only 0.4% of the business earn above the $2M mark.  The remaining 92% are microenterprises, which have between 1 and 9 employees and earn less than $60K in assets.  These MSMEs (including microenterprises) account for 70% of the labor force and 30% of the output of the country. (more…)

Development Economics

Helping Haiti: Microfinance and Natural Disasters

What is the role of microfinance in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster?   The short answer is that, under the circumstances, microcredit is less effective.  A prerequisite for microcredit is a functioning economy.  Goods and services need to be worth money for capital infusions to make a difference.  For example, an MFI lends money to a woman for the purpose of opening a general store.  The woman uses the loan to buy soap from one retailer and soft drinks from another.  She hires a local contractor to build the addition on her home, or at least purchases the materials.  The money flows around community, and everyone becomes wealthier.  But in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the communities served by microfinance are so devastated that the system doesn't work.  There is no electricity, no fuel, no food, no water, and no shelter.  Homes have been destroyed and people are starving.  A sack of rice becomes invaluable – to a starving person, no amount of money would lead them to part with food.    So it becomes a barter economy, if there is anything to barter at all.  As with everything, these points are best illuminated by example.  The most obvious is the recent earthquake in Haiti.  In reality, Haiti needs aid money, and it needs aid workers to deliver services.  Microfinance - microcredit, in particular - cannot immediately help during the relief period because there is no economy to stimulate. (more…)