GiveWell attended the Microfinance Innovation & Impact Conference via Board member Tim Ogden and part-time employee Stephanie Wykstra. (Our full-time staff could not attend as we are all in India). Our main takeaways:
- The people involved with this conference, and the nonprofits working with them, are producing a lot of promising, interesting, rigorous and informative work on how microfinance affects the poor and how these effects might be improved.
- While microlending is the form of microfinance that has been most funded, celebrated and scaled up over the decades, it appears to be the least proven and least-well understood in terms of its impact on the poor. In many ways it seems that good information on how (and to what extent) it’s helpful is just starting to become available.
The research has already been summarized in a large number of posts by others (see the roundup by GiveWell Board member Tim Ogden). Our quick take:
Microsavings, microinsurance, and “ultrapoor programs” are clearly promising. High-quality studies found significant improvements on metrics like income, food security, and children’s ability to attend school when these programs – which differ markedly from the loans most people associate with “microfinance” – were rolled out. Programs included accounts intended to help people pre-commit to saving (more); intensive promotion of difficult-to-sell insurance products (more), and “ultra-poor programs” that target people with extremely low incomes and offer direct benefits such as cash/asset transfers and education, rather than financial products (more).
Unfortunately, we know of no clear vehicles through which individual donors can fund these sorts of programs. We’ve written before about the frustrating situation of seeing a good program without a good funding vehicle, and called for major funders to consider this problem. There do appear to be similarities between the “ultrapoor program” and the work of GiveWell-recommended charity Village Enterprise Fund.
The impact of microlending is, at this point, not very well understood. A new high-quality study in Morocco found no positive social impact overall, though it did find that people with existing agricultural businesses appeared to invest more/differently in their businesses (more). These results were similar to those observed in the only previous high-quality study of traditional microlending, which took place in a very different environment (Hyderabad, India) and was summarized last year by David Roodman.
There was significant discussion of the risks that people might be overborrowing (something we are quite concerned about, and something that there is apparently still little information to assess). And new data from the Philippines reinforced a point we have emphasized in the past – that microloans are more likely to finance consumption, and less likely to finance entrepreneurial investment, than most donors suppose. From Philanthropy Action’s summary:
Around 46 percent of clients used new debt to pay down old debt, and 28 percent used funds for a single large household purchase. In all, 39 percent of the money goes unaccounted for, 15 percent is used to pay down other loans, 9 percent goes into the household and 37 percent is invested in the business. Curiously, Karlan’s study got at these results by asking clients the same questions in a number of different ways. Not surprisingly, when the banks ask clients why they want the funds only 2 percent of clients admit potential uses other than the business, even after the funds are given. Only when an independent surveyor asks indirectly do any relevant percentage of people admit to non-entrepreneurial uses for credit.
Studies are finding interesting potential ways to improve the impact of microlending. One possibility is better targeting (as discussed above, microlending appears to affect different people differently). Two other possibilities raised at the conference, both with encouraging preliminary evidence behind them, were the implementation of grace periods for repayment (more) and financial education focusing on “rules of thumb” rather than formal accounting (more).
My greatest fear about microfinance is that all (or nearly all) of that money is chasing a good story rather than a good program.
In this context, it’s hard for us to see how one can argue that good evaluation is too expensive. The total budget of Innovations for Poverty Action that year was just under $6 million (data from NCCS).