A new experimental study, out June 10th of this year, examines how microcredit, or the lending of small amounts of money at low interest to new businesses in the developing world, may not help jump start poor populations’ financial growth as much as some may think.

The authors of the study, Bruno Crepon, Florencia Devoto, Esther Duflo, and William Pariente, randomly assigned 162 villages in rural Morocco to either receive microcredit (these villages would serve as the treatment group) or not to receive it (and these would serve as the control group).

The researchers, who are affiliated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (or J-PAL), found that microcredit does not lead to families and businesses exiting poverty in the long-run.

This is in opposition to a similar study conducted by Shahidur Khandker and Hussain Samad of the World Bank in March 2014 which found that microcredit increased personal expenditure, labour supply, household assets and schooling of children in impoverished communities of Bangladesh.

Furthermore, Bono, whose humanitarian work in developing nations is highly documented, has lauded microcredit as an effective means of alleviating poverty, stating, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Give a woman microcredit, she, her husband, her children and her extended family will eat for a lifetime.”

However, the researchers at J-PAL found that microcredit decreased the amount of time Moroccan laborers spent on work. The effect on investment was greatly offset by a reduction in income from wages. The researchers concluded that access to microcredit, at least in Morocco, did not result in income gains, personal consumption or education of the youth.

Writers at the Economist are attempting to analyze the conflicting results of these two studies, and learn why they produced such significant differences. One theory is that microcredit may only reduce poverty and increase income in the long run, making short term studies irrelevant and ineffective at gleaning a meaningful answer.

The two studies also took place in two very different countries on separate continents. One can reasonably conclude that there may be social, environmental, or political factors at play, as well. Economists refer to this issue as “external validity,” meaning the extent to which a study’s results are generalizable outside of its given context. The effects of microcredit may not be clear until researchers readily take place, setting, and social and political structures into account.

Further research is needed to know whether lending sums of money to businesses in poor areas of the developing world may actually be a beneficial policy. Crepon and his co-authors are currently planning a follow-up experiment to study the long term implications of microcredit. All involved hope to find some answers to these questionable methods of alleviating global poverty.

-Paige Frazier

Sources: The Economist, The World Bank, MIT Economics, Look to the Stars
Photo: African Microfinance Network