What Microloans Miss

Monday, March 10, 2008

Making loans and fighting poverty are normally two of the least glamorous pursuits around, but put the two together and you have an economic innovation that has become not just popular but downright chic. The innovation???microfinance???involves making small loans to poor entrepreneurs, usually in developing countries. It has been around since the nineteen-seventies, but in the past few years it has seized the imaginations of economists, activists, and bankers alike. The U.N. declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit, and the microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, while celebrities like Natalie Portman and companies like Benetton have become fervent microloan advocates. Even ordinary Americans can now get in on the act, at sites like Kiva.org, where you can make a microloan yourself. (Right now, a clothing vender in Cambodia needs seven hundred dollars to ?purchase more clothes to sell.?)

This vogue has translated into a flood of real dollars: institutional and individual investments in microfinance more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, to $4.4 billion, and the total volume of loans made has risen to $25 billion, according to Deutsche Bank. Unfortunately, it has also translated into a flood of hype. There?s no doubt that microfinance does a tremendous amount of good, yet there are also real limits to what it can accomplish. Microloans make poor borrowers better off. But, on their own, they often don?t do much to make poor countries richer.

This isn?t because microloans don?t work; it?s because of how they work. The idealized view of microfinance is that budding entrepreneurs use the loans to start and grow businesses?expanding operations, boosting inventory, and so on. The reality is more complicated. Microloans are often used to ?smooth consumption??tiding a borrower over in times of crisis. They?re also, as Karol Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen point out in a recent paper, often used for non-business expenses, such as a child?s education. It?s less common to find them used to fund major business expansions or to hire new employees. In part, this is because the loans can be very small?frequently as little as fifty or a hundred dollars?and generally come with very high interest rates, often above thirty or forty per cent. But it?s also because most microbusinesses aren?t looking to take on more workers. The vast majority have only one paid employee: the owner. As the economist Jonathan Morduch has put it, microfinance ?rarely generates new jobs for others.?

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