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> Posted by Alex Counts

During my final years as President of Grameen Foundation and Co-Chair of the Microfinance CEO Working Group (MCWG), I advocated that two papers be written that I had neither the time nor the expertise to do justice to myself.

The first paper was a distillation of lessons for practice from recent studies on the impact of microcredit and microfinance. Many papers that set out to determine whether microfinance worked stumbled on important insights about how it could work better. Unfortunately, those discoveries were buried in papers that people barely read beyond summaries and extracts. A paper that presented these “lessons for practice” in a form that was accessible to busy practitioners could make a big impact, by removing friction from the maddeningly difficult process of using research to positively influence policy and practice.

The second paper I advocated for was one that made the case for how philanthropy and social/impact investing, and more broadly, subsidy, could play a positive role in the microfinance industry today. Such a paper would need to start with making the case that such social investments had any role to play, as the conventional wisdom was settling on the idea that it did not have any.

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> Posted by Ellen Metzger, CFI

Community savings groups are at the heart of successful rural banking

Before joining the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, I spent four years in rural East Africa managing an ultra-poor graduation program. At Village Enterprise, we focused on savings group creation and distributed conditional cash transfers rather than livestock (as is customary with graduation programs) in order to empower choice and facilitate ownership among our participants. Over years of traveling the bumpy back roads of Uganda and Western Kenya meeting with hundreds of savings group members, I met very few participants who went beyond their local savings groups to take loans from financial institutions such as MFIs. Those few who did created great success stories. In light of the recent article “Your Inflexible Friend” in The Economist, which offers a review of microlending’s history, I reflect on why we don’t see microlending in the rural areas of Uganda and Western Kenya and how that can change.

A good reputation is critical. In these areas, tragic stories of delinquencies and defaults travel faster and are remembered longer than stories of success. In Kenya especially, where there is more competition in rural areas among financial institutions than in Uganda, reputation precedes the products and services. These reputations can vary dramatically every 5 kilometers you travel. When groups are asked about being linked to a particular financial institution, one community will trust the organization, the next community a few kilometers away will cringe at the name. Microfinance institutions are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in trust, so it’s imperative for them to design trustworthy products and ensure adequate follow-through on their services every time.

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> Posted by Larry Reed, Director, Microcredit Summit Campaign

The following post was originally published on 100 Million Ideas.

Dignitaries who attended the 1997 Microcredit Summit

Twenty years ago Sam Daley-Harris came to our offices at Opportunity International — where I then worked — and told us of his plans to hold a Microcredit Summit. Working with Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank and John Hatch, founder of FINCA, he would gather leaders from around the world to inform them of the important role microcredit and other financial services could play in helping people living in poverty. At the time, neither the UN nor the World Bank nor any national governments had any policies related to microfinance. Sam wanted to change that.

We were intrigued by his idea, so we started asking more about his organization. He represented a grassroots lobbying group called RESULTS, which mobilized citizen volunteers to advocate for issues related to poverty and hunger to their representatives in Congress. He told us about how, in 1990, RESULTS volunteers had held 500 candlelight vigils around the country to support the World Summit for Children.

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Grameen Foundation Study, Measuring the Impact of Microfinance: Looking to the Future

> Posted by Kathleen Odell, Associate Professor of Economics at Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

Today we’re pleased to announce the release of Measuring the Impact of Microfinance: Looking to the Future, the third in a series of papers commissioned by Grameen Foundation. This series was initiated in 2005 to survey and contextualize the available evidence on the impact of microfinance. I got involved in the project in 2009, when I met Alex Counts, Grameen Foundation’s founder and then-CEO, at a conference in Chicago. We discussed the first Measuring the Impact paper, and the evidence on the impact of microfinance that had emerged in the intervening years. By the end of that conversation, I’d volunteered to write a second paper in the Measuring the Impact series, which was published in 2010. In early 2015, I was delighted to be asked to author the third paper in the series, Looking to the Future, as well. (For the record, my relationship with Grameen Foundation is limited to writing these two papers, which I do as a volunteer through the Bankers without Borders initiative, as part of my research agenda at Dominican University. I have complete editorial control over the content.)

When I returned to the microfinance literature last year, there were two key questions to sort out. First, what had happened in microfinance impact research since 2010? And second, what was going on with microfinance practice?

In answer to the first question, there was a lot of new research. The best-known papers were certainly the recent batch of microcredit randomized control trials that were published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, in early 2015. The results from these studies have been widely discussed and summarized (on NextBillion and in numerous other places), and I’ve included detailed summaries of each in Looking to the Future as well. The research has shown (repeatedly) that while loans do not lead a typical family directly out of poverty, access to a broad range of reliable financial services, including loans, has an array of positive impacts on clients. Although these are, admittedly, selected examples, recent research presents strong evidence that access to credit yields increases in business creation, investment and expansion. There also is good evidence that access to credit leads to increases in occupational choice and consumption choice, including reduced impulse spending on goods like cigarettes. (See the table below from the paper.) Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by Shameran Abed, Director, BRAC Microfinance Program

Shameran Abed, BRAC’s Director of Microfinance, joined the Microfinance CEO Working Group in January. He joins the Working Group’s efforts to support the positive development of the microfinance industry and brings tremendous insight into the discussion on pathways out of poverty.

This month, the results from six randomized control trials (RCTs), published in Science magazine highlighted a model of development that is an adaptable and exportable solution able to raise households from the worst forms of destitution and put them onto a pathway of self-reliance. The graduation approach – financial services integrated within a broader set of wrap-around services – is gaining steady recognition for its astonishing ability to transform the lives of the poorest.

These findings can be contrasted with the results of six RCTs published in January by the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, which cited limited evidence of “microcredit” alone transforming the lives of the poor.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

Embed from Getty Images

While recent research indicates that access to and use of microcredit alone is not transformative for the average client served (see “Where Credit Is Due”), there has been very little discussion about the types of indicators being used to measure “transformation” in the ongoing debates. In fact, it seems that we all have accepted the general findings that microcredit has only had modest impacts on, along with other indicators of poverty and well-being, education, health, and social capital because the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have said so. There needs to be greater thought and debate about the choices of indicators used to support these conclusions.

Freedom from Hunger over the past 20-plus years has integrated health with microfinance and helped build a body of knowledge indicating that microfinance plus health services can enhance health outcomes. In an ongoing partnership with the Microcredit Summit Campaign, supported by Johnson and Johnson, we have pilot-tested a series of health indicators that financial service providers (FSPs) can use to track client health outcomes. This pilot test was built on years of experience of evaluating health outcomes with our FSP partners, as well as on similar experiences of developing common tracking indicators in the health sector. We created a list of criteria to assess the types of indicators we felt would be meaningful to track—for individuals with and without health services – which included dimensions of feasibility, usability, and reliability. Initial results have been shared in several webinars with SEEP and the Social Performance Task Force.

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

The following post was originally published on the Grameen Foundation blog and presented at the ‘Financial Services for the Poor: Lessons and Implications of the Latest Research on Credit’ event hosted by CGAP, IPA, J-PAL, and The World Bank on February 27, 2015.

I would like to start by congratulating the researchers involved in these six new studies, as they add to the body of knowledge about microcredit and microfinance that has been accumulating for several decades, and has made us a stronger industry as a result. I would also like to congratulate the organizers of this event, and thank them for inviting me to share my views, as a representative of Grameen Foundation and the Microfinance CEO Working Group, which I co-chair with Mary Ellen Iskendarian of Women’s World Banking.

I actually find these studies encouraging. The frame I use to digest them is this: what do they tell us about what microcredit is accomplishing, and about what it can accomplish. Somehow, the main frame people seem to be using to interpret these results is what microcredit does not do. I don’t think that frame is appropriate, nor helpful.

I think that we can all agree that while microcredit has been “transformative” for individual clients, it is not today “transformative” for the average client, especially in the time frames that are being studied. I presume we can all also agree that microcredit has not cured cancer, nor the common cold. But why use unrealistic standards to frame the discussion?

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

In his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the history of the fight against cancer. It’s a grand saga involving scientists, doctors, patients, and politics, all wielding their best tools to find better treatments and ultimately a cure. And of course, the tale is not over: the scourge continues, though much progress has been made, and an increasing number of bright spots are appearing.

As I read, I see parallels between the evolution of that medical “war” and the struggle against poverty waged by the international development community, or at least the part of that struggle I’m part of, the struggle to give people financial tools to better their lives. The more I read, the more I see, until in each corner of the cancer story I find parallels with our own sector and its searches for solutions.

In the early 20th Century, surgeons began to treat breast cancer with radical mastectomies in which not only breast but also lymph nodes and many of the neighboring chest muscles were taken. The more radical, the greater the chances of success, went the theory. By mid-century, chemotherapies appeared. They represented another radical approach in which patients were brought to the brink of death as chemicals attacked cancerous and normal cells alike. In both cases, Mukherjee argues, brute force substituted for the absence of a deep understanding of the causes and behavior of cancer. The medical profession simply applied the tools at hand, raising the intensity as high as patients could tolerate. The tools sometimes cured the patient, but more often postponed the inevitable recurrence, a partial success. According to Mukherjee, the surgeons and chemotherapists who wielded these instruments were so convinced of their efficacy that they closed their minds to alternatives (including each other’s solutions), scoffed at attempts to measure success through rigorous trials, and downplayed the suffering imposed on actual patients.

Maybe you’re already seeing parallels…

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, and Kathleen Stack, Vice President, Programs, Freedom from Hunger

Embed from Getty Images

Recently, Dean Karlan published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Next Stage of Financial Inclusion.” The key points of his article are that while non-profits led the way in developing microcredit for the poor and started the movement for financial inclusion, for-profit companies have increasingly found it worth their while to offer financial services for the base of the pyramid. The entrance of new players to the market, Karlan offers, is a testament to the success of the early microfinance-focused non-profits. However, Karlan suggests that non-profits still have an important role in continuing to innovate in the financial services space. We agree. This is particularly true for extending financial services to people that banks still consider unprofitable: “the too rural, the too poor and the too young.” We would add disabled populations and the “too old.”

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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microfinance CEO Working Group blog.

The American Economic Journal has published an issue dedicated to six new studies measuring the impact of microcredit. Through a series of randomized control trials (RCTs), researchers have identified some of the effects of expanded access to microcredit on borrowers and communities in Bosnia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Mongolia, and Morocco.

The researchers reported evidence of positive impacts of microcredit on occupational choice, business scale, consumption choice, female decision power, and improved risk management, but did not report clear evidence of reduction in poverty or substantial improvements in living standards. “These results,” conclude the authors, “suggest that although microcredit may not be transformative in the sense of lifting people or communities out of poverty, it does afford people more freedom in their choices… and the possibility of being self-reliant.”

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