Microfinance?s Success Sets Off a Debate in Mexico

Monday, April 7, 2008

By Elizabeth Malkin

VILLA DE V?ZQUEZ, Mexico – Carlos Danel and Carlos Labarthe turned a nonprofit that lent money to Mexico’s poor into one of the country’s most profitable banks.

But not all of their colleagues in the world of microlending – so named for the tiny loans it grants – are heaping praise on the co-executives of Compartamos. Some are vilifying them as “pawnbrokers” and “money lenders.”

They are the center of a fractious debate: how far should microfinance go toward becoming big business?

At one end stand traditional microlenders, like the economist Muhammad Yunus, founder of the most famous microlender, the Grameen Bank, and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. At the other are the Two Carloses, as they are widely known in this tight-knit world that gave them their start as starry-eyed idealists.

Microlenders, the original and still the most common type of microfinance organization, help the poor start or expand businesses in places most banks shun, like the slums of Calcutta or these impoverished hills in Mexico’s sugar cane country, three hours south of Mexico City. Their efforts are widely considered successful in transforming the lives of developing-world entrepreneurs, particularly women, and their families.

Many microlending advocates, including Mr. Yunus, say that success is threatened by Mr. Danel and Mr. Labarthe’s market-oriented model, with its emphasis on investor returns.

“Microfinance started in the 1970s with a focus on using this breakthrough to help end poverty,” said Sam Daley-Harris, director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, a nonprofit endeavor that promotes microfinance for families earning less than $1 a day. “Now it is in great danger of being how well the investors and the microfinance institutions are doing and not about ending poverty.” He said the situation posed the danger of “mission drift.”

Mr. Danel and Mr. Labarthe say microfinance will help more poor people by tapping the boundless pool of investor capital rather than the limited pool of donor money.

“It’s marvelous to have one creditor but it’s marvelous to have one million creditors,” Mr. Labarthe said, “and that’s where we really start to change the face of opportunity.”

Compartamos (“let’s share” in Spanish) expects to reach one million borrowers this year. Its profits are healthy, some $80 million last year, and its portfolio has grown to almost $400 million. Since it went public nearly a year ago, return on equity has been more than 40 percent.

Both sides agree that there is a need for capital, too great to be met by the donor groups that initially financed microlending. Deutsche Bank estimates the global demand for microfinance loans at about $250 billion, 10 times the amount that has been lent.

But Compartamos’s decision to go public last April became a flashpoint in what had been a genteel debate over how microfinance could tap into the financial markets’ vast resources. The initial public offering gets special mention at every microfinance conference, and has been condemned by Mr. Yunus, the Nobel laureate.

Alex Counts, president of the Washington-based Grameen Foundation, said Compartamos’s poor clients “were generating the profits but they were excluded from them.”

Lynne Patterson, a founder of Pro Mujer, a nonprofit microfinance group with branches in several Latin American countries, agrees. “We use the profit to reinvest in the service of the clients,” she said, referring to loan repayment profits.

Since lack of access to credit is just one of the problems the poor face, Pro Mujer also offers services like breast cancer screenings, advice on dealing with domestic violence and financial education.

Still, in three decades microfinance has evolved – from small nongovernmental organizations lending $50 to women to buy sewing machines or fruit to sell at market to, in some cases, formal banks that cover costs and grow through profits, like any business.

On Wall Street, investment banks package microfinance loans to sell to institutional investors, many of them “socially responsible” and looking for steady returns rather than trading profits. A few equity funds have even taken stakes in microfinance institutions.

Critics say that Compartamos manages its business to benefit its investors, not its borrowers. The bank began as a nongovernmental organization in 1990, started by a Catholic social action group called Gente Nueva, whose inspiration was a visit by Mother Teresa to Mexico.

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Source: The New York Times (link opens in a new window)