How Microfinance Really Works

About half of the world’s adults lack bank accounts. Most of these “unbanked” are deemed too expensive to serve, or not worth the hassle created by banking regulations. But what may be good business from a banker’s perspective isn’t necessarily what’s best for society. The inequalities that persist in financial access reinforce broader inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. This is the opening for microfinance – and also its challenge. 

From Credit to Savings

When the Gates Foundation started a programme to expand global ‘financial services for the poor’ (FSP), many in the field, myself included, saw this as an important complement to the foundation’s work in health and education.1 The evidence is piling up that the world’s poor face the twin problems of low incomes and difficulty managing their incomes without bank accounts or insurance. Finance, in this view, allows people to invest in the future and – importantly – to marshal resources to meet needs today. Access to finance, then, is a key tool for improving the lives of the poor. The Gates Foundation’s impact on finance for the poor has been most strongly felt in re-balancing attention between credit and savings. 

Reimagining the Unbanked: Perspectives from South Africa

Attempts to broaden financial access in poor communities usually take one of two directions. The first is providing credit to small- scale microenterprises, an idea pioneered by Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank. The second involves fostering long-term saving for education, housing, or other worthy goals. But low-income families usually have a more fundamental financial need, one that families often pay dearly for: basic, reliable ways to manage cash flow. 

Smart Subsidy for Sustainable Microfinance

“Smart subsidy” might seem like a contradiction in terms to many microfinance experts. Worries about the dangers of excessive subsidization have driven microfinance conversations since the movement first gained steam in the 1980s. From then on, the goal of serving the poor has been twinned with the goal of long-term financial self-sufficiency on the part of micro banks: aiming for profitability became part of what it means to practice good microfinance.