Mongolian Microfinance: Mercy or Menace

Microlending began with the innovation of currency. Friends and family would get together and pool their money to offer help in times of hardship. Mary Coyle, director of the International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, has found many such groups throughout history and around the globe, “In West Africa, they were known as ‘tontines;’ in Bolivia, ‘pasanaku;’ and across Mexico and Central America, ‘tandas.’”

The shift from microlending to modern day microfinance came about in the 1970s. Groups such as ACCION International in Venezuela and Yunus’s Grameen Bank in Bangladesh began to institutionalize the process. They formalized the loan process and expanded on already existing microlending practices. This enabled small businesses to generate capital instead of just paying for basic necessities.

With the initial success it has long been thought that microfinance was a long term solution to the problem of poverty. While it has brought some out of poverty, it has also kept others where they were financially before the loan and in some cases worse off.

In 2009 two studies were released on the use and impact of microfinance on those that were lent money, conducted by Karlan & Zinman in Manila and Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Rachel Glennerster and Cynthia Kinnan of J-PAL in Hyderabad, India. Neither study found that key factors of poverty had been directly impacted, though it was established that those in the Hyderabad study shifted their spending from temptation goods to durable goods. Another study in 2010 by Duflo and Co. in rural Morocco found similar results. There was no major change in poverty, but those that already had businesses did diversify.

These results have done little to curb the continued lending of XacBank in Mongolia. XacBank reported to the U.S.-based nonprofit Microfinance Information Exchange total assets of 594 million dollars and a gross loan portfolio of 393 million dollars with approximately 77,345 borrowers. The company helped a Mongolian baker turn a 100 dollar enterprise into a 75,000 dollar operation. The company and its investors have touted that many people across rural Mongolia have been helped in such ways.

This was put to the test by research done by Orazio Attanasio, Britta Augsburg, Ralph De Haas, Emla Fitzsimons and Heike Harmgart. All are affiliated with London-based institutions: the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London. The study was a random selection of three rural villages across Mongolia. Loans were explained, applicants were screened as individuals and groups and then finally money was offered. Only 50 percent of those offered loans took them.

The findings were in line with the three previous studies. “Although the loans provided under this experiment were originally intended to finance business creation, we find that in both the group—and in the individual-lending villages, about one half of all credit is used for household rather than business goals. Women who obtained access to microcredit often used the loans to purchase household assets, in particular large domestic appliances. Only among women that were offered group loans do we find an impact on business creation.”

With such little change in the poverty rate, some wonder why we would continue this trend of microlending. It has proven to help some, but the vast majority either can’t access the funds or are turned down due to credit issues.

Hope comes from the Norwegian Nobel Committee, when they spoke of Yunus and his work: “Yunus’s long-term vision is to eliminate poverty in the world. That vision cannot be realized by means of microcredit alone. But Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that in the continuing efforts to achieve it, microcredit must play a major part.”

Frederick Wood II

Sources: UNDP, NY Times, MicroCapital, The World Bank, Center for Global Development, NPR, PBS
Photo: Bloomberg Business Week