Debate Stirs Over Tiny Loans for World’s Poorest

April 29, 2004 | New York Times


GORMA, Bangladesh — Nearly every woman in this village seems to have gotten tiny loans to invest in a miniature business.

None has made better use of the cash than Firoza Akhter, a shrewd, flinty young mother who put her profits from four loans into cows, goats, land, a sturdy house and private tutors for her daughter. “I can make money out of anything,” she boasted in her wheezy voice, a gold, flower-shaped stud glinting in her nose. Hers is a shining success story for microcredit.

But while she came from humble origins, she was not among the poorest of the poor. Like many of the 50 million people who take part in microcredit programs, she hovered at the upper fringe of poverty.

Today there is a growing push for the nonprofit groups and banks that run such programs to reach deeper into the ranks of the poor, though there is little rigorous evidence juding whether the very poor benefit from microcredit, economists say.

Since 1988, the United States Congress has appropriated $2 billion for such programs. In new rules to take effect next year, it has put teeth into a requirement that half of American aid for these loans — defined as $1,000 or less in Europe and Eurasia, $400 or less in Latin America and $300 or less in the rest of the world — go to the very poor living on less than $1 a day.

The new rules have stirred strong opposition from other donors and a range of microfinance institutions, which contend that the industry may grow faster and ultimately help more very poor people by aiming at a wider pool that ranges from people who are struggling but not poor to those much further down the economic ladder.

“This limbo dance to serve the poorest is a distraction from a much broader issue of trying to reach a billion people who have no access to credit or a safe place to save their money,” said Elizabeth Littlefield, a former managing director at J. P. Morgan who now heads the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, an association of donors.

Researchers for this country’s largest microlender, the Bangladesh Rural Action Committee, or BRAC, have found that people near the poverty line are the main users of microfinance and are more likely to get more and bigger loans and build successful microenterprises.

By contrast, BRAC has found that the very poor are more likely to drop out of microcredit programs.

But the group’s leaders say the microcredit industry needs to try new approaches to help the poorest people. They have coupled small loans with skills training and grants of food. And they are experimenting When the dynamic Ms. Akhter got her first loan, for $50, she said she already had $250 saved from working as a cook and raising chickens, the family trade. “I thought I could increase my capital by taking the loan,” she said. She invested it in a calf she later sold for $100. Her next $80 — borrowed at 27 percent interest — she loaned out at more than triple that rate.

Today her skillful investments have helped her become relatively prosperous, despite having left her husband in disgust after he took a fourth wife. “She was always enterprising,” said her father, who gave her chicks to tend when she was just a girl.

Since the 1980’s, wealthy nations and international organizations have provided billions of dollars for microcredit programs. The idea that small loans enable millions of poor people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps has captivated liberals and conservatives alike.

But there are still no stringent evaluations of microcredit programs generally viewed as credible by experts. “Energetic, entrepreneurial people do well with microcredit,” said Jonathan Morduch, an associate professor of public policy and economics at New York University. “But others who are less skilled and trained, how do they do? Can very poor households get decent returns or not? That’s the big question policy-wise.”

At a time when the United Nations is pursuing the eradication of extreme poverty as the world’s top development goal, advocates of the new congressional rules fear that the poorest people are too often neglected.

They have mobilized elected officials from the United States to Britain and Japan to petition the World Bank, the largest provider of microfinance funds, as well as the African, Asian and Inter-American development banks, to adhere to the same emphasis on the very poor that was adopted by the United States Congress.

“It’s a myth that you can’t reach the very poor,” said Sam Daley-Harris, a musician-turned-advocate who founded the Results Educational Fund, which lobbied Congress for the new rules. He points to Share Microfin, an Indian lender, as evidence that the very poor can be helped with microcredit.

In the village of Gorma, the experience of Bina and Kanu Sarkar, a gaunt couple with anxious eyes, illustrates the complexities of escaping poverty, even where microcredit is available.

Here, the paddy fields are alive with barefoot men delicately planting tender rice seedlings and oxen lazing in the sun. The landscape is a gentle, quilted patchwork of scratchy brown burlap and soft green silk, but the life it supports is hard.

Before microlenders arrived, the poor had little choice but to become deeply indebted to moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates of 120 percent or more a year. Microfinance institutions in Bangladesh generally charge from 20 to 50 percent.

Mrs. Sarkar last year became one of BRAC’s 3.5 million borrowers. She used the $50 to buy her husband a rickshaw, which will save him 35 cents on the daily rickshaw rental fee once the loan is paid off. But even with the extra earnings, the Sarkars, both illiterate, will be desperately poor.

They and their sons, Badal, 12, and Akash, 6, struggle to get by on the $1 a day that Mr. Sarkar earns pedaling his rickshaw. Now even that meager livelihood is threatened by an ulcer that doubles him over in agony.

“The choice is whether to see a doctor or buy food,” he said, laying out the pitiless arithmetic of poverty. “The government doctors don’t check us properly because we don’t pay them money. Even if they prescribe medicines, we can’t afford them.”

If his strength continues to seep away, the rickshaw will be no use to him, he explained. The evening before, after miles of hard pedaling, he was forced to forfeit a fare when his stomach pain grew unbearable. He had to ask his passengers to get down.

As he related the story, Akash clambered into the rickshaw and pedaled out of the dirt courtyard. His father leapt up to chase the boy in a panic, fearing a crash would destroy the one asset he needed to feed his family.

“If I can’t work for even a day, my wife and children go unfed,” he said, clutching his belly.

Some lenders here in Bangladesh, the heartland of the microcredit movement, are experimenting with new ways to reach the poorest of the poor. For years, BRAC has offered some poor women free wheat and training along with micro loans.

But now it has entirely dropped the use of loans in one pilot program for “ultrapoor” women. BRAC gives them goats or cows to raise, coupled with training and health care, rather than burdening them with debts they cannot repay.

None of the poverty-stricken women who sat under a palm tree in Mochahata village on a recent morning had ever dared to apply for a microloan. One woman’s pierced nose hole was empty because she had already been forced to sell her gold stud for money. Another’s 9-year-old son pedaled a rickshaw for 50 cents a day to keep the family fed.

But they eagerly joined BRAC’s new program — and were pleased to see their fast-breeding goats multiply. They were still so poor that their bodies seemed little more than collections of bones beneath worn saris, but their new assets offered hope.

“I had nothing, nobody,” said Mina, who worked as a maid for payment in rice after her husband abandoned her. “I was scared to become a member of BRAC. I was too poor to repay a loan. But now that I’m getting goats free, I’m interested.”

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