I’m always amazed at how many students show up each year in the classrooms of the London School of Economics, where I teach, quivering with excitement about microfinance and other “bottom-of-the-pyramid” development strategies. Like eager young missionaries, they feel they’ve stumbled upon the One Idea that is sure to save the world.
Would that it were true. What’s so fascinating about the microfinance craze is that it persists in the face of one unfortunate fact: microfinance doesn’t work. Of course, there are some lovely anecdotes out there about the transformative power of micro-loans, but as David Roodman from the Centre for Global Development put it in his recent book, “The best estimate of the average impact of microcredit on the poverty of clients is zero.” This is not a fringe opinion. A comprehensive DFID-funded review of extant data comes to the same conclusion: the microfinance craze has been built on “foundations of sand” because “no clear evidence yet exists that microfinance programmes have positive impacts”.
In fact, it turns out that microfinance usually ends up making poverty worse. The reasons for this are fairly simple. Most microfinance loans are used to fund consumption — to help people buy the basic necessities they need to survive. In South Africa, for example, consumption accounts for 94% of microfinance use. As a result, borrowers don’t generate any new income that they can use to repay their loans, so they end up taking out new loans to repay the old ones, wrapping themselves in layers of debt.
When micro-loans are used to fund new businesses, budding entrepreneurs tend to encounter a lack of consumer demand. After all, their potential customers are poor and low on cash, and what little money they do have gets spent on basic goods that tend already to be available. In this context, new businesses end up displacing already-existing ones, yielding no net increase in employment and incomes. And that’s the best of the likely outcomes. The worst — and much more likely — is that the new businesses fail, which then leads, once again, to vicious cycles of over-indebtedness that drive borrowers even further into poverty.
This demand-side problem can be stated quite simply: poor people don’t have enough money. Apparently we need expensive research studies to point this out.
The only consistent winners in the microfinance game are the lenders, many of whom charge exorbitant interest rates that sometimes reach up to 200% per annum (as in the case of Compartamos Banco). In the past we would have called such people loan sharks, but today they’re called microfinance providers, and they crown themselves with the moral halo that this term carries. Microfinance has become a socially acceptable mechanism for extracting wealth and resources from poor people.
The failure of microfinance is recognised at even the highest levels, and yet for some reason it retains its staying power, like a zombie that refuses to die. Why is microfinance such a resilient idea? Because it promises an elegant, win-win solution to the problem of poverty. It assures us that we — the rich world — can eradicate poverty in the global South without any cost to us, and without any threat to existing arrangements of political and economic power. In other words, it promises revolution without the messiness of class struggle. And, what is more, it promises that we can help save the poor while making money from it. It’s an irresistible tale.
It’s also a very effective tool of political control. Milford Bateman, one of the most compelling critics of microfinance, points out that the movement had its roots in the US government’s “containment strategy” in Latin America. The idea was to prevent people from subscribing to leftist movements by reframing poverty not as a political problem, but as a private problem. Microfinance became a powerful way of casting the poor as responsible for bootstrapping themselves out of poverty: all you need is a bit of gumption and some credit, and you should do just fine — if you fail, you have no one to blame but yourself.
It’s the neoliberal development strategy par excellence. Forget about colonialism, structural adjustment, austerity, financial crises, land grabs, tax evasion, and climate change. Forget about challenging the concentration of power and wealth. And, above all, forget about collective mobilisation. Bankers shall be our new heroes, and debt our salvation. Debt, incidentally, is a great way to keep people docile.
If we expand our view to encompass the actual causes of poverty, it becomes clear that microfinance just won’t do. Structural problems require structural solutions. What might this look like? We could start by democratising the World Bank and the IMF, renegotiating trade agreements, clamping down on capital flight, rebuilding labour rights, and so on. If we want to eliminate poverty, rich countries and rich individuals are going to have to feel the pinch — there’s no way around it. Unfortunately, the missionaries of microfinance are unlikely to be happy about this.
This is not to say that we should abolish microfinance altogether, but simply that microfinance will never work until we address the background conditions that produce poverty in the first place. We also need to set up the right systems for small businesses to succeed, such as strong subsidies, state assistance, and welfare support to prop up entrepreneurs when they fail — the very systems that neoliberalism has convinced us to abandon.
There’s also a much more immediate solution we could try. Why not just give money to the poor, for free? A growing body of evidence suggests that direct cash transfers, with no strings attached, not only deliver success where microfinance fails, they appear to be the single most impactful anti-poverty intervention available. Experiments with basic income grants have been conducted in Namibia, Mexico, South Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere, all with astonishingly good results. They smooth out consumption deficits, improve health indicators, and allow people to start small businesses that are successful because they can take advantage of increased local demand.
The beauty of a basic, universal income is not just that it actually works; it also brings about a fundamental change of attitude toward the poor. It treats them not as hopeless victims to be pitied with charity, or as sources of potential value for a rapacious financial sector, but rather as human beings with an innate right to the wealth that we draw from our planet’s common resources.