The traditional thinking in microfinance is that it is a way to help people extricate themselves from the clutches of local moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest rates. As microfinance institutions, we believe, that by charging less we are doing great social service. Typically, when academics study the impact of microfinance, they look at people who have received microfinance compared to people who haven’t in order to see who is better off across various dimensions. Evidence suggests that even if individual borrowers are not actually making profits that exceed the interest charges, they might do better on other dimensions that relate to patterns of consumptions. Access to a lump sum of money at once, for instance, allows borrowers to afford goods and services they would otherwise not be able to that give them a better quality of life. However, if we really want to understand the social impact, looking at how some individuals compare to others is not sufficient. Rather we need to understand the flow of money more systemically. Here’s why:
In my view the goal is to seed systemic change. Which means the system as a whole should thrive and not just select individuals within it. If we take a village that has its own local economic ecosystem along with some bilateral trade links to the outside world and try to unravel the impact of a loan, it is not so simple. As a microfinance institution we lend urban acquired money into the village, but then we take back more than we lend in the form of interest. The money we take back goes back to the village in part as salaries to the people we employ there. The rest goes to other stuff in urban areas, maybe out to shareholders who will spend part of it in another country (like me for example - most of my money seems to go to Lufthansa). The local moneylender, on the other hand, may charge a higher interest rate, but being local will probably spend most of that income in the village supporting the overall village economy. So potentially, local lending at higher rates could be more beneficial to the village if the money is in turn spent in the village, compared to lower rates where the money leaves the village. So the impact of microfinance on the village has a lot to do with the dynamics of money flow and not just what happens to the borrower who took the loan. (See also my related post, ’Where does the money go’).