Homework by streetlight: the photo behind the theory

A while back, I discussed why China had been so successful at poverty alleviation during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  I surmised that it had something to do with China’s embrace of “state capitalism.”  In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, one economist suggests that, actually, it is Britain is ultimately responsible for bringing more than 100 million Chinese out of poverty over a ten-year period.  By exporting the laissez-faire, business-friendly city model of Hong Kong to urban centers throughout China, the British created the seed that has grown into the China that exists as an economic and political powerhouse today.  Continue Reading »

An Envirofit cookstove - designed in Colorado.

I am in the process of researching an article about the impossibly complex topic of using carbon credits to finance small-scale energy ventures in the developing world.  The experience reminds me of a religion course I took in college on the Old Testament.  I was confident that my five years of Hebrew school (I graduated when I was 12) would be sufficient to land me a high grade without much effort.  Unfortunately, I found out (too late) that there are, in fact, six five books of the Old Testament and I was familiar with a very small part of one those books (Genesis).  Likewise, trying to learn more about this topic has led me to everything from arcane parts of the Kyoto Protocol to how the global market for carbon has fluctuated in the downturn.  I wish I had chosen an easier topic, but the damage is done and now, hundreds of articles later, I know something about it. Continue Reading »

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World Lives on $2 a Day has become one of the most talked-about book in the world of development.  It is an analysis of how poor – specifically, the poorest – people live.  The authors chronicle how people make and spend their money – tracking the inflows and outflows to better understand the daily routine.  The subjects keep detailed financial diaries of everything having to do with money in their lives.  The results are as illuminating as they are beneficial in the practice of development.  Here is the description from the website:

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day (Princeton University Press, 2009) tackles the fundamental question of how the poor make ends meet. Over 250 families in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa participated in this unprecedented study of the financial practices of the world’s poor.

These households were interviewed every two weeks over the course of a year, reporting on their most minute financial transactions. This book shows that many poor people have surprisingly sophisticated financial lives, saving and borrowing with an eye to the future and creating complex “financial portfolios” of formal and informal tools.

Indispensable for those in development studies, economics, and microfinance, Portfolios of the Poor will appeal to anyone interested in knowing more about poverty and what can be done about it.

The reason research like this is so useful and even groundbreaking is that it blows the doors off the misconception that the poor live on $1-2 a day, everything. Continue Reading »

A recurring theme in this journal is the amount of self-criticism within the development community.  There is no shortage of critics of an academic mind to point out the flaws in an approach to development without offering a reasonable alternative.  One common criticism is that microfinance doesn’t really offer a sustainable long-term economic solution to the problem of poverty.  It is too focused on the individual and not enough on the big picture – what is good for the population as a whole.  Most micro-businesses will never grow to a meaningful size because the capital provided by microfinance is not enough to bring them to scale.  So, the reasoning goes, poor people are destined to amble along without actually making their financial situation any better, while the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that actually create the jobs needed to move the needle on macroeconomic development and poverty alleviation are neglected.

This critique is too simplistic.  For one thing, the argument that microfinance institutions operate at the expense of SME financing is a straw man.  It is true that there are a limited number of aid dollars in the world and allocation is a zero-sum game, but that is irrelevant here since the largest microfinance institutions are financially sustainable, raising money through unsubsidized loans at commercial rates, public equity, and their own operations. The World Bank, the IMF, and NGOs around the world do provide a lot of money for research, seed capital for smaller MFIs, and pilot programs for non-financial services.  But, for the most part, there is not much diversion of aid funding as a result of microfinance.  This is more of a gripe with how some critics frame their arguments.  The more important point is that there is a tendency among critics on both sides of the debate to ignore the complexities of the issues and create false tradeoffs in order to simplify the debate.  It is easier to argue in black and white than deal with shades of gray. Continue Reading »

In this journal, I have discussed the different structural problems that a country faces in improving things like education, healthcare, and the economy overall.  A strong education system requires an adequate number of schools and teachers.  Likewise, good public health programs need to provide reasonable access to doctors and medical facilities.  Also, for healthcare in particular, people need to be educated about nutrition and preventive measures to avoid costly hospitalizations down the road.  But even with all of the components in place, not everyone will avail of these services.  Some people will choose to be the proverbial non-drinking horse, though usually out of necessity rather than willful ignorance.  That is because there is an opportunity cost to sending kids to school – if the child is working or watching his siblings while the parents work, going to school means lost income for the family.

Playin' with my my money is like playin' with my emotions.

So even if you have all the tools in place, it still might not be enough to effect the desired change.  One solution to this problem is conditional cash transfers (CCT).  In exchange for doing something, a person receives money.  In other words, you pay them to do the things you want, which happen to be the things that are ultimately in the best interest of them, their family, and country as a whole.  In this case, something means sending your child to school, immunizing your family, or any other behavior that will result in an improvement in “human capital.” Continue Reading »

One criticism of microfinance is its inability to produce meaningful poverty movement on a macro level. The belief is that providing credit for micro-entrepreneurs produces some incremental change on an individual basis, but doesn’t produce the substantive change needed to lift a community out of poverty. By substantive change, I mean employment, infrastructure, commerce, and improvements in healthcare and education. In this post I want to focus specifically on the idea of microfinance’s inability to produce businesses of adequate scale.

In theory, microcredit aids people starting or maintaining small businesses to generate extra income for the family. (In reality, recipients of microfinance loans spend the money on expenses unrelated to the business altogether, but this is a different topic). Where microfinance is deficient is in shepherding these small businesses to become something bigger than just a micro-enterprise. For any business to grow, it needs to do two things: reduce the amount it spends and increase the amount it brings in. But micro-entrepreneurs can get stuck in a trap created by a lack of resources. For many of the poor communities served by microfinance, the cards are stacked against them. Let me explain with an example.

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"I've got this thing and it's fucking golden!"

One of the reasons a lot of people find microfinance attractive is that it is a fundamentally capitalist approach to economic development.  Done right, it can be sustainable and even profitable.  By focusing on a social mission, successful microfinance institutions (MFIs) can reach more clients by leveraging capital, similar to commercial bank.  And just like the Ice Queen warns in Atlas Shrugged, government intervention in capitalist programs spells disaster.  Whether or not this is true for other industries (it’s not), it is most definitely the case in microfinance.  Successful government-run microfinance institutions are the exception, not the rule.  And not only are governments generally bad at administering loans, they can be destructive to the market as a whole.  On the CGAP website question 13 of the FAQ is “Do governments do a good job of delivering microfinance?”  The answer is thorough:

There are several highly successful government MFIs, such as Bank Rakyat Indonesia’s microfinance department. However, the vast majority government microfinance programs do a poor job of delivering retail credit. Such programs are usually subject to political influence, high default, continuing drain on national treasuries, and sometimes lending based more on the borrowers’ influence than their actual qualifications. Among government programs reporting to international databases, only 1/8 of clients are being served sustainably.

To begin thinking about why government microfinance doesn’t work, it is important to think about the types of governments serving microfinance communities and the nature of government in general. Continue Reading »