1. What is microfinance?

To most, microfinance means providing very poor families with very small loans (microcredit) to help them engage in productive activities or grow their tiny businesses. Over time, microfinance has come to include a broader range of services (credit, savings, insurance, etc.) as we have come to realize that the poor and the very poor who lack access to traditional formal financial institutions require a variety of financial products.

Microcredit came to prominence in the 1980s, although early experiments date back 30 years in Bangladesh, Brazil and a few other countries. The important difference of microcredit was that it avoided the pitfalls of an earlier generation of targeted development lending, by insisting on repayment, by charging interest rates that could cover the costs of credit delivery, and by focusing on client groups whose alternative source of credit was the informal sector.

Emphasis shifted from rapid disbursement of subsidized loans to prop up targeted sectors towards the building up of local, sustainable institutions to serve the poor. Microcredit has largely been a private (non-profit) sector initiative that avoided becoming overtly political, and as a consequence, has outperformed virtually all other forms of development lending

Traditionally microfinance was focused on providing a very standardized credit product. The poor, just like anyone else, need a diverse range of financial instruments to be able to build assets, stabilize consumption and protect themselves against risks. Thus, we see a broadening of the concept of microfinance--- our current challenge is to find efficient and reliable ways of providing a richer menu of microfinance products.The typical microfinance clients are low-income persons that do not have access to formal financial institutions. Microfinance clients are typically self-employed, often household-based entrepreneurs. In rural areas, they are usually small farmers and others who are engaged in small income-generating activities such as food processing and petty trade. In urban areas, microfinance activities are more diverse and include shopkeepers, service providers, artisans, street vendors, etc. Microfinance clients are poor and vulnerable non-poor who have a relatively stable source of income.

2. Who are the clients of microfinance?

Access to conventional formal financial institutions, for many reasons, is inversely related to income: the poorer you are, the less likely that you have access. On the other hand, the chances are that, the poorer you are, the more expensive or onerous informal financial arrangements. Moreover, informal arrangements may not suitably meet certain financial service needs or may exclude you anyway. Individuals in this excluded and under-served market segment are the clients of microfinance.

As we broaden the notion of the types of services microfinance encompasses, the potential market of microfinance clients also expands. For instance, microcredit might have a far more limited market scope than say a more diversified range of financial services which includes various types of savings products, payment and remittance services, and various insurance products. For example, many very poor farmers may not really wish to borrow, but rather, would like a safer place to save the proceeds from their harvest as these are consumed over several months by the requirements of daily living.

3. How does microfinance help the poor?

Experience shows that microfinance can help the poor to increase income, build viable businesses, and reduce their vulnerability to external shocks. It can also be a powerful instrument for self-empowerment by enabling the poor, especially women, to become economic agents of change.

Poverty is multi-dimensional. By providing access to financial services, microfinance plays an important role in the fight against the many aspects of poverty. For instance, income generation from a business helps not only the business activity expand but also contributes to household income and its attendant benefits on food security, children's education, etc. Moreover, for women who, in many contexts, are secluded from public space, transacting with formal institutions can also build confidence and empowerment.

Recent research has revealed the extent to which individuals around the poverty line are vulnerable to shocks such as illness of a wage earner, weather, theft, or other such events. These shocks produce a huge claim on the limited financial resources of the family unit, and, absent effective financial services, can drive a family so much deeper into poverty that it can

4. When is microfinance NOT an appropriate tool?

Microfinance increasingly refers to a host of financial services - savings, loans, insurance, remittances from abroad, and other products. It's hard to imagine that there would be any family in the world today for which some type of formal financial service couldn't be designed and made useful.

5. Why do MFIs charge such high interest rates to poor people?

Providing financial services to poor people is pretty expensive, especially in relation to the size of the transactions involved. This is one of the most important reasons why banks don't make small loans.

6. Aren't the poor too poor to save?

The poor already save in ways that we may not consider as "normal" savings - investing in assets, for example, that can be easily exchanged to cash in the future (gold jewelry, domestic animals, building materials, etc.). After all, they face the same series of sudden demands for cash we all face illness, school fees, need to expand the dwelling, and burial.

7. What is a Microfinance Institution (MFI)?

Quite simply, a microfinance institution is an organization that offers financial services to the very poor. Most MFIs are non-governmental organizations committed to assisting some sector of the low income population.

8. Can microfinance be profitable?

Yes it can. Data from the MicroBanking Bulletin reports that 63 of the world's top MFIs had an average rate of return of about 2.5% of total assets, after adjusting for inflation and after taking out subsidies programs might have received.

9. What is the government?s role in supporting microfinance?

Governments have a complicated role when it comes to microfinance. Until recently, governments generally felt that it was their responsibility to generate 'development finance', including credit programs for the disadvantaged.

10. What is the role of the financial regulator in supporting the development of microfinance?

Many feel that the most important role of a financial regulator in supporting the development of microfinance is to create an alternative institutional type that allows sound financial NGOs, credit unions, and other community-based intermediaries to obtain a license to offer deposit services to the general public and obtain funds through apex organizations. In a few countries, this may be an appropriate strategy.

Source: Microfinance Information eXchange (MIX)













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