Tag Archives: PPI

The Movers vs. The Shakers: The Microfinance Debate

In the noisy echo chamber of the development community, there are a lot of arguments for (emphatically) and for (tentatively) microfinance as a tool of poverty.  The debate surrounds a series of experimental studies questioning the impact of microfinance in achieving its stated goals – specifically, empowerment of women and poverty alleviation.  The participants are the critics and the practitioners.  The practitioners tend to dismiss the critics as having blind faith in statistics and either ignoring or being ignorant to the realities on the ground, while the critics contend that the practitioners drank the Kool-Aid long ago and refuse to admit that, while microfinance is impactful, it is perhaps not to the extent they believed.  Those are both exaggerated overstatements and many people bridge the divide, but it is close enough.  The debate reached a fever pitch recently, with some of the biggest practitioners – Accion, Grameen Foundation, Finca, Opportunity International, Unitus, and Women’s World Banking – jointly issuing a statement defending the impact of their trade.  It is a short statement and worth a read, offering a distilled version of the practitioner argument.  The authors describe what they consider to be the major flaw in the critics’ argument:

Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult for studies to quantitatively demonstrate the impact of microfinance. Such studies face two fundamental challenges: their ability to capture and analyze all the benefits of microfinance, and the duration of the study itself.  To obtain quantifiable data, researchers have to ask narrow questions over relatively short periods of time–-14 to 18 months in one case–-which does not always allow the time necessary for impact to manifest itself. And because of the growing penetration of microfinance, researchers are finding it increasingly difficult to find homogenous geographical regions that contain both clients who have access to financial services and those who have none.

This is all true.  Statistics give an incomplete picture and do not pick up the nuanced effectiveness of microfinance, which is manifested in individual success stories rather than a large group of people moving out of poverty.  Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation is a good example of this principle at work.  It periodically measures the poverty level of its clientele using the Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI).  Over the last five years, 22% have moved upward, 19% have moved downward, and the remaining 59% have remained pretty much the same.  On balance, there is a net upward poverty movement, but not by much.  Also, the number of clients that moved downward might have been much higher had they not been receiving microfinance services. Continue reading

The Tradeoffs of Serving the Poorest

Groundhog's Day for a man of the torah.

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.

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Who is Poor? Defining Poverty

This was written for the Kiva Fellows blog.  Read the original here.

How do you define poverty?   A basic needs index looks at whether (and to what extent) fundamental needs are fulfilled – food, water, shelter, clothing – and whether people have access to critical services – education, information (newspapers, etc.), sanitation facilities, healthcare, financial services.  This is an absolute poverty calculation, which uses a standard threshold that can be compared across countries and continents.  Another method is to use a national poverty line, usually a percentage of median income.  For example, if the median income is $10,000 USD, and the poverty line is 60% of that, any family making below $6,000 is technically below the poverty line.  This is a relative poverty calculation, because it is country-specific.  Using this method, it doesn’t make sense to compare across countries, since the poverty line in wealthier countries with higher median incomes will allow for greater purchasing power than in much poorer countries.  In microfinance (and development in general), you often hear about the percentage of the population that lives on less than $1/day – the definition of extreme poverty – or $2/day, or some other defining statistic of poverty.

Statistics are important for microfinance institutions (MFIs).  When you know what you are dealing with, you can more effectively target the population with programs that are proven to work.  It is important for an MFI to understand its clients and where they exist on the spectrum of poverty.  This is actually more difficult to assess than you’d think.  It is not feasible to ask clients how many dollars a day they spend, or even try to determine their income relative to the rest of the population.   Instead, MFIs use social performance metrics – simple tools to help them to define exactly what they are as an organization and whom they are serving.  They are basically proxies, which, when examined in aggregate, give the MFIs a profile of the poverty level of their clients.

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