Microlending Model
The international development community has both praised and vilified microlending as a means of poverty alleviation. Although the microlending model is not the apodictic poverty solution that some once believed, research on its impacts has shown that one should not easily dismiss or affirm it.

The History of Microlending

The modern-day microlending model comes from the Grameen Bank model that Muhammad Yunus created. Yunus won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006 for his microcredit operations.

While teaching at Chittagong University in Bangladesh, Yunus would visit the impoverished households in Jobra, a neighboring village. Yunus found that those suffering in poverty often could not gain access to even $1 in credit except under unfair terms.

Jonathan Wight, a professor of international economics at the University of Richmond, explained in an interview with The Borgen Project that this barrier to traditional credit markets often pushed the poor into borrowing on the black market or from payday lenders with astronomical interest rates.

Financial markets work through financial intermediaries that loan savings out to investors, such as banks. Investors is a loose term here – it could refer to someone taking out a loan to buy a car. To get access to credit, one must have collateral – assets to forfeit if the debtor becomes unable to pay off the loan.

The poor have little in the way of financial collateral making them unfit as borrowers in the eyes of traditional banks, so Yunus decided to create the Grameen Bank. This bank would require those in poverty to join the bank in self-formed groups. The bank would then give the group a loan with no collateral requirement.

By lending to a group, Yunus capitalized on social capital relying on the groups’ links and relationships as a form of collateral: if one member of the group did not pay the loan back, they risked the loans of the entire group.

This microlending model became fad-like in its popularity in the economic development field. By the 1990s, it became the most highly lauded and generously funded poverty alleviation policy in the international development community.

Critiques of Microlending

In theory, microcredit should boost income-generating activities, but the industry has seen a move toward the support of consumption spending. Rodrigo Peláez, who worked at the BBVA Microfinance Foundation in Spain for six years, explained to The Borgen Project that a lot of harm can occur when MFIs support consumption rather than productivity. Instead of generating income, MFIs can end up making people poorer.

The intention of loans is for people to invest them so that their investment can fund the repayment. For example, when a person takes out a car loan, they are investing in that car with the expectation that they will gain a return. Buying that car may mean that they now have the ability to get a higher paying job in a city where they need to commute.

If a person were to instead spend that loan on a television, they would not get any returns on that expenditure. They would then have to pay back a loan principal that they could not pay before purchase, in addition to interest. This would make the person poorer than when they started out.

This phenomenon has deteriorated the efficacy of the microlending model as a development tool and has caused some to go as far as labeling it an “”anti-developmental” intervention.” Another critique is that even when microcredits create productive investment, the business activities those investments support are not sustainable development drivers nor are they geared toward poverty reduction.

Studies by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, the 2019 Nobel Prize winners in economics, have found that microlending is not, in fact, a tool for creating transformative social or economic change in impoverished communities. Furthermore, in some cases, borrowers from MFIs end up saddled with too much debt having taken a loan without the income to sustain repayment or with the expectation of using the loan to create income. These borrowers then have to sell personal property or go further into debt to pay their loans.

Ben Blevins, the director of a developmental organization based in Latin America called the Highland Support Project, described first-hand accounts of exploitative microfinance to The Borgen Project. The microlending model, Blevins said, is a perpetuation of white settler colonialism policies. “The purpose of microlending is about a move to innocence for people in the Global North,” Blevins said. “It is also about extending and conditioning the entire world to the neoliberal model of debt servitude to the capital class.”

The Impact of Microlending

Some have believed that microcredit has numerous positive social, educational and economic outcomes, but empirical studies have shown mixed results. In a study by Banerjee with facilitation from Duflo, researchers found results suggesting that although microcredit does not necessarily lift communities from poverty, it can foster more freedom of choice and the capability for self-reliance. The study did not find sufficient evidence to support either the proponents of microcredit or the adversaries, although, this study and more targeted studies have shown the marginally positive impacts of microcredit in niche scenarios.

A 2019 working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, with authors Banerjee and Duflo, found that “For talented but low-wealth entrepreneurs, short-term access to credit can indeed facilitate escape from a poverty trap.” Meanwhile, a study published in 2019 found that Haitian women who received health education training as part of the microfinance loan program, “were over 50% more likely to use condoms, over 50% more likely to have a recent HIV test, and over 60% less likely to report recent STI symptoms.” The degree of positive impacts from the model seems to depend largely upon the MFI itself and its priorities.

Some MFIs will remain in a village for years nurturing human development through financial management or other training programs, Alejandro Cañadas, associate professor of economics at Mount St. Mary’s University, explained in an interview with The Borgen Project. These institutions aim to create financially savvy citizens, foster economic growth and break poverty traps.

“These microfinance organizations, they have a different way: they go, they train, they show. They bring the training and education, and then they give the money to see it in practice,” Cañadas said. “And then people use what they learn, and they make mistakes and they fix those mistakes.” However, Peláez noted that not all MFIs have a social impact in mind. A lot hinges on the management of the institution and whether that institution cares about its social responsibility and staying true to its mission of poverty alleviation.

There is a thin line to walk between productive and nonproductive loans in the finance sector in general, Peláez said, “But microfinance is much more dangerous because it’s vulnerable people we’re talking about.”

Concluding Thoughts

The microcredit industry has proven over time, with large scandals erupting across the industry, that it holds great potential for exploitative practices.

“We wouldn’t expect that any solution as big as this one ­– microlending – as momentous as this is going to be all beautiful, all perfect,” Wight said. “There are bad apples who get in there and say ‘Hey, this is a chance to make some money. I’m going to prey on the ignorance, lack of education of a poor person. I’m going to get them to sign some contract.’”

The microcredit poverty solution is not all bad or all good. It has proven to have some positive impacts, but there are large failings in this microlending model that people need to address if they are to continue to use it in any form of development work.

– Olivia du Bois
Photo: Flickr

Randomized Control Testing
“It can often seem like the problems of global poverty are intractable, but over the course of my lifetime and career, the fraction of the world’s people living in poverty has dropped dramatically.” – Dr. Michael Kremer

In October 2019, Michael Kremer of Harvard and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee of MIT won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their extensive, randomized control testing-based research in tackling global poverty. At 46 years old, Duflo is the youngest economics laureate ever and only the second woman to receive the prize over its 50-year history.

Incorporating Scientific Studies

The trio set out to establish a more scientific approach to studying the effects of investment projects in the developing world. One of the ways they discovered that they could accomplish this is through randomized control testing. Commonly used in the medical field and made legitimate in the social sciences by the trio, this type of testing involves randomly selecting communities as beneficiaries of experimental projects. Randomly selecting the beneficiaries removes selection bias, providing more accurate and legitimate results.

Randomized Control Testing in India and Kenya

Duflo and Banerjee used randomized control testing experiments in schools in India in an effort to improve the quality of education. The authors discovered that simply getting students to school was not sufficient in improving test scores. Previous research also noted that additional resources, even additional teachers, had minimal impact on students’ performance.

The laureates discovered instead that providing support for an interventionist to work with students behind on their educational skills and making computer-assisted learning available so that all students could have additional math practice improved their scores. In the first year, the average test scores increased by 0.14 standard deviations and in the second year, they increased by 0.28 standard deviations. In the second year, the children initially in the bottom third improved by over 0.4 standard deviations. Those sent for remedial education with the interventionist saw 0.6 standard deviations increase and the computer-assisted learning improved math scores by 0.35 standard deviations in the first year and 0.47 in the second year for all students equally. These results provide clear and definite numbers on the success of the program and show that those who experienced the most benefits were the students in the greatest need of assistance.

Kremer completed a similar study in Kenya. Again, the research found that additional resources did little to improve the learning abilities of the weaker students and that much of the school policies and practices were helpful to the advancement of the already high achieving students. Another of Kremer’s studies in Kenya further showed the impact small interventions can have on student retention. His research found that by bringing deworming medication directly into the classroom, school absenteeism rates decreased by 25 percent, leading to higher secondary school attendance, higher wages and a higher standard of living.

Impact vs. Performance Evaluations

The key to Kremer, Duflo and Banerjee’s success was not the result of pumping out positive statistics. Their success, and reason for winning the Nobel Prize, came from the rigorous scientific approach they took with their studies by using randomized control testing that led to not only positive results but also to meaningful impact where they were working and beyond. For instance, after the success in Kenya with the deworming, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) agreed to finance Kenyan scientists to travel to India to help expand the program. Soon, 150 million children were receiving treatments of deworming medication each year.

This example shows the lasting impact of the work of the laureates. When the fields of economics and politics use more rigorous and randomized studies, it becomes clearer what programs work and which do not, creating greater efficiency and enabling successful projects to expand. The work of the three professors has already led to the leaders of USAID to question the utility of performance evaluations over impact evaluations. In other words, the agency has started to see a shift from success defined as the generated output of the programs to success as the net gain or impact as a direct result of the programs.

Altogether, the work of Kremer, Duflo and Banerjee has raised the bar for economic and social research in the future. Their work has set new expectations that will force researchers to create more detailed and accurate studies that will continue to guide policy.

– Scott Boyce
Photo: Flickr

The Nobel Prize and Anti-Poverty Efforts
The Nobel Prize is an international award that many people recognize and shares its name with Alfred Nobel, innovator and inventor of dynamite, among other things. Somewhat ironically, the Peace Prize given in his name holds the most prestige of nearly any accolade an individual can receive in his or her lifetime, but only constitutes one of the fields in which the committee can award a Nobel Prize. The others, physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economic sciences, celebrate specific advancements or landmarks in their respective disciplines. The Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts have more in common than one might think. The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences emerged in 1968, making it the newest of the prizes, but nonetheless important. The 2019 edition went to a trio of Boston, Massachusetts-based economists, two from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one from Harvard University, two highly acclaimed and respected academic institutions with cutting edge research capabilities in multiple fields. Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer deservingly received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for their experimental approach in alleviating global poverty, closely tying the 2019 Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts. 

Groundbreaking Statistics

Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer form past and present leadership of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global research center with the goal of reducing poverty by advocating policy formation on the basis of scientific evidence. Beginning in 2003, J-PAL works with governments and non-government organizations to identify and carry out interventions where its data analysis deems them most effective. Using randomized control trials (RCTs) similar to ones used in medical fields as the core of its evaluation, its methods have become widely accepted by the global economic policy community. Over the course of the last 20 years, J-PAL linked 986 randomized evaluations across its affiliates in 83 countries to understand if interventions work or not and allow the numerous social sector organizations who use them to adjust policies and practices accordingly. These interventions focus on a wide variety of issues, such as education deficiency and child health. Its studies can have a profound impact, as over five million Indian children received tutoring as a result of one of the studies, the foundation of its Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts.

Economic Masterminds

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences attributes its efforts as integral to the evolution of development economics into a flourishing field. The academy, which annually awards each prize, notably made Duflo the youngest economic laureate in its history and only the second woman to receive the prize, making 2020’s Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts that much more significant. Just as a landmark, the committee deemed J-PAL’s focus on real-world solutions with economic applications extraordinary, whereas previous awards in the field of Economic Sciences boasted theoretical achievements. Rather than focusing on improving the developing world as a whole through economic theory or answers to macroeconomic questions, J-PAL addresses need at a localized level and introduces practical solutions to tangible problems. Beyond the tutoring in India example, J-PAL tested how eradicating parasitic worms affected school attendance among children, the placement of additional teachers in a classroom or monitoring teachers’ attendance with cameras, how access to bank or microfinance loans can improve living standards and even how voting behavior varies depending on specific appeals made by candidates in an election campaign.

J-PAL vs the World

However, despite objective advancements based on RCTs, people should not view them as unmitigated successes, argues Sanjay Reddy of Foreign Policy Magazine. He notes that these Randomized Control Trials promised to assess whether people benefitted from a change in circumstances simply because they had the motivation or better positioning to fare better from it. In reality, he says, one cannot tell whether these projects or initiatives worked because people took advantage of them or because they just work, though the link between these recipients of the 2019 Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts is undeniable.

Reddy’s analysis may seem like splitting hairs, especially against the background of the broader perspective J-PAL’s studies bring. Karla Hoff of the Brookings Institute praises the Nobel Prize and anti-poverty efforts that J-PAL has undertaken for a fundamental shift in the culture of development economics and economic as a whole. In addition to directly helping people most in need, the nonprofit challenged deep assumptions about individuals and the decisions they make, questioning the essence of economic development. It altered many things about the field, including the ways, places and kinds of people economists work with.

Alex Myers
Photo: Flickr

Universities Fighting Global Poverty
In any global issue, college students are some of the most useful people in spreading awareness about global poverty. Throughout the years, many colleges have joined to spread awareness about impoverishment and the following five are just a few examples of the many domestic and international universities fighting global poverty.

5 Universities Fighting Global Poverty

  1. Manhattan College: This NYC liberal arts college joined the One Campus Challenge, an initiative for universities fighting global poverty, back around its conception in 2007. The college remains one of the over 2,000 participants in the challenge. In an article by Thomas Hallissey, the then leader, Kieran O’Shea, managed to recruit 66 students into the campus’ chapter of the challenge. O’Shea became inspired to join the initiative after he saw other colleges join.
  2. Ohio State University: Sally Miller, a plant pathologist and professor from OSU, has focused her research on the availability of food in developing countries. According to an article from 2014 and about Miller’s travel to the African nation of Senegal, Miller’s research focuses on pest control and agricultural development as a means of fighting global poverty. Her travel and research was part of the International Plant Diagnostic Network. The project was incredibly widespread involving scientists from several U.S. universities including Ohio State and partner institutions in the 12 member countries of the IPDN.
  3. The University of Chicago: With so many universities fighting global poverty head-on and coming up with solutions, it is important to have a view of the areas in need of attention. In October 2019, researchers from the University of Chicago created the Million Neighborhoods Map. According to UChicago’s article, this map is “a groundbreaking visual tool that provides the first comprehensive look at informal settlements across Africa, helping to identify communities most in need of roads, power, water, sanitation and other infrastructure.” People could use such technology to lay a foundation for future solutions, as it is difficult to come across a solution if one cannot view the problem on a widespread scale. Reports determine that this map shall receive updates to include other African regions as well as Asian areas as well.
  4. Harvard and MIT: It would make sense that profound solutions to global poverty would come from two of the most prestigious universities in the world. MIT professor Abhijit Banerjee and his wife, Esther Duflo, as well as Harvard professor Michael Kremer, received Nobel Prizes for their research on “how to improve school results in Kenya and India, studies on micro-financing, price sensitivity to health-care costs and lifting vaccination rates,” according to a Bloomberg article. These professors and economists take a different standpoint on the issue of global poverty, treating it from a scientific point of view. They also focus on the poor as people in need of help rather than mere numbers.

Whether students or professors lead these initiatives, one cannot doubt that universities fighting global poverty have and will continue to have a significant impact. The efforts to raise awareness about poverty, understand and improve agriculture in developing countries and map countries to determine infrastructure needs are just a few of the components that should help reduce poverty around the globe.

– Christian Moore
Photo: Flickr

MIT's J-PAL LabOn a busy street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an unassuming brick building houses the North American headquarters of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Inside MIT’s J-PAL Lab, researchers analyze the results of randomly-designed experiments and the generalizability of their findings. Their test subjects? Social programs.

J-PAL and its Research

Anti-poverty work can take many forms: vocational training, credit access, education and the list goes on. Programs of various types can be valuable and worth funding, but because donors and organizations have limited amounts of funding, the relevant question is often not whether to support anti-poverty work, but how to support it. What programs are making the biggest difference? Where will a donation do the most good?

J-PAL co-founder Abhijit Banerjee puts it best in an interview with The Wire: “you have to basically focus on: where is the lever? That’s what we do, try to help find the lever, and then if you push the lever you go fast. But what [policy-makers] do is often… just hit everything and then some things hit the lever, some things hit the wall.” The strategy of “hitting anything” is certainly not useless, but to maximize impact, a person should concentrate on the mechanisms that maximize impact. J-PAL’s work is in locating the policy levers that will make a difference and encouraging policy-makers to use them.

MIT professors Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Sendhil Mullainathan founded J-PAL in 2003 and it has grown quickly. As of 2019, J-PAL has a network of 181 affiliated professors around the world. A truly global organization, J-PAL has offices in Capetown, South Africa; Paris, France; Santiago, Chile; New Delhi, India; and Jakarta, India. J-PAL’s work focuses on researching the results of different cases of anti-poverty action to evaluate what is most effective and advise policymakers accordingly, and educating people about how and when to evaluate social programs.

J-PAL’s Approach

At its base, J-PAL’s approach is simple. Any case of policy-making has results, and by tracking actions and results in a large number of cases, one can determine which are successful and which are not, and therefore which to support in order to produce a maximum impact. Using this data, one can also attempt to predict the policies whose results could potentially be reproduced elsewhere. J-PAL’s methods also emphasize focusing on the mechanisms behind policies and not on specific details of a single scenario. Particular details vary from case to case, but human behavior does show certain patterns; in similar circumstances, policies that have worked before can work again.

J-PAL and its affiliated professors have performed over 900 evaluations and have developed a selection of case studies and other teaching resources to educate people about the analysis of social programs. Every year, J-PAL runs Evaluating Social Programs, a five-day course for policymakers, researchers and nonprofit workers that covers the basics of organizing scientifically sound evaluations and interpreting their results. Close to 50 people attended the 2018 course, which took place at MIT. J-PAL has also made the content of the course available online for free through the online education platform edX, allowing people around the globe to learn from J-PAL’s work. The case studies discussed in the course are also available on J-PAL’s website.

Moving Forward

MIT’s J-PAL Lab has encouraged the scaling up of policies ranging from remedial education in India, deworming in Kenya and community block grants in Indonesia. It also continues to study policy and advocate for effective social policies. The training that it provides for policy-makers allows them to maximize their impact in an economically efficient way. As J-PAL continues to grow, its affiliates will continue to find those levers.

– Meredith Charney
Photo: Flickr

The central problem of many anti-poverty efforts is a failure to actually reach the poor. Often, the programs themselves are faulty or broken. Much of the time, however, the problem is demand-side: The poor don’t trust the aid programs and don’t want to participate.

Two MIT researchers think they have found a solution, however. Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, co-founders of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), decided to measure an oft-overlooked factor in community development: social influence, or what they call “diffusion centrality.” Using their new metrics, they think they have found a key to motivating demand-side participation in charitable efforts.

In their recent paper, “The Diffusion of Microfinance,” they argue that finding the right “social injection points” is key to successful beneficial programs. They studied microfinance programs in 75 villages in southwestern India for five years, conducting extensive surveys to determine how participation in microfinance flowed along social networks. They paid especially close attention to social pressure points like village leaders, teachers, and business owners. What they found surprised them.

Although some of the typically well-connected socialites were excellent vehicles for transmitting participation in the programs, they were not as good as you would think. Many ranked low on their diffusion centrality index. Even people’s friends—the quintessential source of social pressure—had little effect on participation.

What they did find is that, barring any presumptions about connectedness, individuals who ranked in the 90th percentile of diffusion centrality were the gatekeepers to large-scale participation. When they were the first ones targeted by microfinance efforts, the programs ultimately reached 11% more people—from their perspective, a huge jump in participation.

“I think this work will lead to more innovative research on how social networks can be used more effectively in promoting poverty alleviation programs in poor countries,” says Lori Beaman, a professor of economics at Northwestern University and a J-PAL affiliate. “It significantly moves forward our understanding of how social networks influence people’s decision-making.”

– John Mahon

Sources: MIT, Stanford, New Yorker
Photo: MIT