In the past, we've talked about peer effects and low adoption rates of mobile money banking accounts in Bangladesh. Our research exploring these issues (as well benefits for migrant workers) is in full swing! It is a randomized evaluation, which means that half of the sample is randomly assigned to a control group, while half of the sample is randomly assigned to the treatment group, which receives training and assistance with signing up for mobile money accounts. Read More
In this video, co-investigator Dr. Abu Shonchoy audits the training by re-interviewing a woman who was part of the treatment group to make sure that the training was thorough and made the service understandable to the participant . . .
Over at CGAP, Julie Zollman has a terrific post on M-Shwari, the Kenyan borrowing and saving platform built on M-Pesa, examining the underlying customer needs that have led to M-Shwari’s success. Here’s a key passage:
The appeal [of M-Shwari] was the possibility of being able to borrow on demand, in real time, to stretch families’ ability to make ends meet in the short term. M-Shwari offered liquidity bigger than credit from local shops; faster, more private, and more reliable than friends and family, and cheaper than moneylenders. Here was a product that … solved a very real financial need while also getting delivery right: being accessible, having simple rules… Read More
Given the mixed results of recent randomized evaluations of microfinance, an open question is whether there are broad limits to the benefits of microloans or whether programs can be tailored in specific ways to maximize impact. Two features of microfinance programs that may matter are targeting and product design. A recent working paper by Pushkar Maitra, Sandip Mitra, Dilip Mookherjee, Alberto Motta and Sujata Visaria investigates the role of these features by studying a microfinance program they term TRAIL, or Trader Agent Intermediated Lending.
The paper compares the impacts of a traditional group-based lending microfinance model to a more innovative and targeted model in the context of smallholder farming in West Bengal. The TRAIL model targets loans by incentivizing local traders to identify high potential borrowers for unsecured individual loans. The loans also have some innovative terms . . . Read More
Despite the long-awaited publication of six impact evaluations of microcredit, there are still many questions to be answered. But I worry about whether we will ever get answers. I don’t think that anyone involved in the impact evaluations would consider them to be the “final word” but that may be, de facto, what they are.
Back in 2011 the Development Impact blog published a survey of young academics which listed microfinance as the “least under-researched” topic in development. In other words, up-and-coming researchers were saying that enough work had been done on microfinance. You can be sure that ambitious economists looking to make their mark are not going to direct their limited energies toward a topic they think is well-covered. Indeed, while I haven’t done a thorough analysis of this, my impression is that there have been a declining number of papers devoted to credit in the last few years at NEUDC, one of the best places to see new academic work. Whether or not the impact studies are the final word on microcredit, they may be the final word in academic interest . . . Read More
Budgeting can be a daunting task for the poor. Poor families must stretch low, often-volatile income to meet basic consumption needs, and handle unforeseen expenses. Despite these challenges, the poor are able to save. They often do so in small amounts for short periods of time, adding to and spending down savings frequently. But short-term saving seldom results in long-term assets—it is not a tool for building up larger sums.
The poor have an acute need for savings tools to amass lump sums of money, yet the supply of useful products often falls short, in part because formal providers face barriers to entry in this market. Savings groups are (and have been) a traditional method used by households around the world to save. But what makes these groups effective? What value do they provide for members? Can lessons from savings groups inform the design of products that reduce cost, reduce risk, and help consumers save? Read More
In what seems to me an unfortunate conflation, the literature on women’s empowerment frequently relies on the same characterization as pornography: “you have trouble defining it but you know it when you see it.” If “empowerment” is hard to define, it is even harder to measure. This is a problem for researchers trying to establish a clear causal relationship between microfinance interventions and better outcomes for women.
In theory, microcredit could empower women through a number of different channels. For example, giving loans to women could increase their bargaining power within the family, and afford them greater control over household resources and decisions. The peer monitoring component of group-lending could provide protection against abuse, and deter domestic violence. Empirically, however, the picture is quite mixed . . . Read More
A new paper by Chris Blattman (Columbia) and co-authors provides optimistic new evidence on the returns to providing cash grants to impoverished women in northern Uganda. The new experiment varied whether the ultra-poor, largely women, were offered a business grant worth $150, training and supervision, and found dramatic impacts of the cash grant on entrepreneurship, hours worked, individual earnings, and household consumption.
The paper stands out from previous studies in that it finds strong positive impacts for women, and that it does so among the most impoverished people in the village. Only those people identified by a local nonprofit as the poorest fifteen people in each village (86 percent of whom were women) were eligible for the study. Previous studies of cash and in-kind small enterprise grants delivered to women in Sri Lanka and in Ghana find more mixed effects. Grants to female-owned microenterprises had, on average, no impact in Sri Lanka, and in Ghana, only in-kind grants or grants made to initially more profitable female microenterprises appeared to benefit recipients . . . Read More
FAI Video: Economist Dean Karlan and Timothy Ogden Discuss Microfinance and Reaching the Ultra-Poor (Transcript)
Timothy Ogden : So, Dean one of the innovations in microfinance is trying to figure out a way to reach further down the poverty ladder—with programs generally referred to it as graduation or targeting the ultra-poor.
Would you tell us something about what those programs are and the process of figuring out how they work?
Dean Karlan: Sure. So, the first thing I think that’s important to note is the broad scope of the goals . . . Read More
There's a new piece in Foreign Policy magazine which takes a tough look at Jeff Sachs and the Millenium Villages Project--not in regard to results or interventions, but in regard to evaluation. The project was always pitched as a demonstration of a "different" approach to ending poverty that could provide a blueprint for addressing poverty globally.
As the piece explains--citing FAI's founder Jonathan Morduch, FAI Affiliate Michael Clemens, Ted Miguel from UC-Berkeley and Nancy Birdsall from CGD, among others--that is no longer a realistic option. The project wasn't structured to allow for the kind of rigorous evaluation that would give it credibility as a demonstration or a justification for scale-up. While it seems there is now an effort to do more rigorous evaluation, for most aspects of the project it is simply too late to establish the comparisons and baselines necessary for credible claims of impact . . . Read More
Cash is all the rage in development circles right now—whether it’s trying to drastically reduce the use of cash by the poor or drastically increase the use of cash by development agencies (both public and private). There isn’t an actual conflict here. In the first case, the idea is to reduce the use of the physical artifact of cash; the latter is all about increasing the direct transfer of money to the poor. So the two efforts are actually complementary: reducing the use of physical cash makes transferring money cheaper and more feasible.
The cost and risk of transporting, transferring and tracking physical cash has always been one of the major objections to cash transfer programs. Another is the idea that poor households won’t use cash well. At various times and places you can find someone arguing that the poor lack the training, education, sophistication, access to quality goods and services, impulse control, security, or moral sensibility to make cash transfers a good use of funds.
That position has always had little evidence on its side . . . Read More
A regular theme in our writing is about the need for the microfinance industry to learn from and adapt to the needs of poor households. A few weeks ago, a new paper appeared based on an interesting attempt to test whether MFIs are interested in generating and using rigorous evidence. The researchers sent emails to 1,419 MFIs inquiring about their interest in "a partnership to randomly evaluate their programs." There were three different emails sent however: 1) a neutral email, 2) an email that emphasized positive findings from other studies of microfinance, and 3) an email that emphasized "null" findings from other studies of microfinance.
Unsurprisingly, the positive emails had double the response rate of the negative emails. The authors interpret this finding as evidence of confirmation bias among MFIs--they are only intereted in good news that backs up their existing beliefs, and less interested in learning how to improve . . . Read More
From Dave Birch's review of Banking the World at The Enlightened Economist:
My favourite quote from the book was that “remittances may promote idleness on the part of recipients.” As the father of a teenage son, I can attest to this . . . Read More
What’s next? Jonathan Morduch says: Making RCTs more useful.
When you’re thirsty, that first gulp of water is really satisfying. But after months of just drinking water, you’ll likely start hoping for more from your beverages.
I think that’s where we are with RCTs of microfinance.
The first microfinance RCTs were refreshing. They quenched a thirst for any credible, rigorous evidence on microcredit impacts. No one was particularly hankering for data specifically on microfinance in Manila, Hyderabad, Morocco, or Bosnia. But that’s what we got. It didn’t particularly matter where the studies were from, or what the particular financial methodology was, or who exactly the customers were. Especially since the results were not only credible but surprising and provocative. Researchers were opportunistic choosing sites and partners , and who can blame them? Read More
Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world work in microenterprises. These businesses tend to be very small, often employing only a single operator, and they tend to have difficulty growing. Yet growing evidence suggests that such businesses could increase profits by increasing investment – a number of recent studies find that the marginal return to capital among small firms in developing countries tends to be very high (i.e. de Mel et al. 2008). If returns to capital are high, why don’t microenterprises borrow, invest and grow rapidly?
The obvious answer is that these firms don’t have access to credit. But while credit constraints are likely part of the explanation for the puzzle, accumulating evidence suggests that it’s not just credit that limits investment . . . Read More
Whether the result of variable incomes, liquidity constraints or reduced access to formal financial services, poor households face unique financial constraints that undermine their ability to effectively guard against risk and accumulate meaningful savings. There’s been a lot of research into these questions in the last few years. Two important papers, “Barriers to Household Risk Management: Evidence from India” and “Savings Constraints and Microenterprise Development: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Kenya,” circulating for a few years have finally been published this month in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. Now that they’re “official” it’s worth revisiting them . . . Read More
After nearly 30 years of the microcredit movement, we've finally started seeing rigorous impact evaluations in the last few years. Randomized control trials of some variant of microcredit have been conducted in India, Morocco, Mongolia and the Philippines. Each of these trials adds to the evidence, but each is in a specific context, with differences in contracts, eligibility, loan size and structure, and most importantly among the borrowers. That’s why it’s still exciting to see new trials which provide evidence in a different context.
“Microfinance at the Margin: Experimental Evidence from Bosnia and Herzegovina,”a new working paper presented at the 2012 Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) Conference, gives us yet another different context to examine how households use microcredit and its impact on their lives. The authors of the study – Britta Augsburg, Ralph De Haas, Heike Harmgart and Costas Meghir – look at a group of randomly-selected loan applicants who normally would have been rejected during the loan screening process, in many cases because they lacked the necessary collateral to secure a loan . . . Read More
In microfinance circles, people tend to be fond of asking the question, “Does microfinance work?” Over the last decade, countless studies have attempted to answer this question by studying the net impact of microcredit on the lives of borrowers. Yet, these impact studies don’t necessarily tell us much about the nuances of how organization-level factors might influence the final impact of microcredit. NYU Economist Hunt Alcott and FAI Affiliate Sendhil Mullainathan have a recent paper that notes that the MFIs that participate in rigorous impact evaluation aren’t like MFIs in general. But there is a very important deeper level of analysis that is important. Little attention has been paid to how individual groups and actors shape the nature of microfinance services – that is, how the behaviors of funders, bank executives, and front-line loan officers might fundamentally alter the delivery and outcome of microlending.
Here at FAI, we’re not just interested in financial products but in how systems and people interact to make the right (or wrong) products available (or unavailable). For example, why do loan officers behave as they do? What incentives affect a loan officer’s job performance and how? How does the relationship between the loan officer and the client influence the borrowing and repayment process? Read More
David Roodman’s conversation with Jonathan Morduch is coming up tomorrow. If you haven’t read David’s book yet, you should. But we can be realists. You probably don’t have time to buy and read the whole book in the next 36 hours. So, here’s a quick cheat sheet of some highlights from David’s blog over the past few years. Reading these posts will get you up to speed (but you should still read the book!).
Perhaps David’s most famous post is an October 2009 post titled “Kiva is Not Quite What it Seems,” about the online microlender, Kiva. The post kicked off a wide-ranging debate about the role of transparency in the framing of NGOs’ operations and ultimately changed the way the organization presents itself. In the post Roodman explained there was significant divergence between Kiva’s rhetoric and marketing and how it actually did its work . . . Read More
On October 3rd, FAI will host a conversation with Jonathan Morduch and David Roodman, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD). The conversation will focus on Roodman’s new book, Due Diligence, which has been widely praised (but you should also check out some of the critiques) for its detailed, evidence-based look at the state of microfinance today.
Those familiar with Roodman from his work in microfinance may be unaware of his influential work in other areas of development. We thought we’d provide a quick overview to the other sides of David Roodman (though all of the sides feature an exceedingly careful attention to detail and data).
In addition to his work on microfinance for CGD, David also manages the Commitment to Development Index . . . Read More
The Curiosity rover’s Mars landing is only the most recent instance of the awe-inspiring advances made by the physical sciences. Our wonder at such achievements has even become codified in our language. “It’s not rocket science!” is the standard invocation to suggest a problem just requires common sense instead of the complex physics of, say, landing rovers on far-away planets. The phrase has been directed at everything from Social Security to healthcare, and yes, to poverty alleviation programs.
But, as I heard recently from researcher Duncan Watts, social science “is not rocket science—we’re actually pretty good at rocket science.” He proceeded to list a bunch of “hard” science things that humans have figured out quite well—vaccines for diseases, satellites in orbit, and any number of biological, chemical, and technological advances. The issues explored by “soft” science—how to get people vaccinated, prevent civil wars, and bring about gender equality—now that’s the hard stuff . . . Read More