A key argument for supporting microfinance is that “Millions of families are … without access” to financial services.
Families may often lack access to credit, but they don’t always – and microfinance institutions may not always be clear on which situation they’re dealing with.
A 1999 paper by Brett Coleman (PDF) aims to examine the impact of two microfinance nonprofits in Thailand. Prior to a recent wave of strong studies, this paper was one of the most rigorous impact evaluations available, and it found no positive effects (and some negative ones) for access to the nonprofits’ services. But to me, its most surprising finding was that
many households … have access to low-interest institutional credit, the most frequently used source being the state-run Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), which serves 4 million Thai farm households (84.5% of all farm households in the country) with subsidized low-interest … loans.
In other words, nonprofit lenders were working in an area where there was already an enormous, state-run source of credit. I used to be under the impression that microfinance charities wouldn’t possibly go into an area where a quality substitute was already available, but I’m no longer sure. And when we ask microfinance charities for information about what other sources of credit are available where they operate (and whether their clients are using them), they often have little (or no) such information.
There’s a parallel to the case of Village Phone. Unfortunately, just because a charity is selling something doesn’t mean they’ve established a true need for it.