Vikas Bajaj: Microlenders, Honored with Nobel, Are Struggling

MUMBAI, India — Microcredit is losing its halo in many developing countries. Microcredit was once extolled by world leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair as a powerful tool that could help eliminate poverty, through loans as small as $50 to cowherds, basket weavers and other poor people for starting or expanding businesses. But now microloans have prompted political hostility in Bangladesh, India, Nicaragua and other developing countries.

In December, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina Wazed, who had championed microloans alongside President Clinton at talks in Washington in 1997, turned her back on them. She said microlenders were “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation,” and she ordered an investigation into Grameen Bank, which had pioneered microcredit and, with its founder, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Here in India, until recently home to the world’s fastest-growing microcredit businesses, lending has slowed sharply since the state with the most microloans adopted a strict law restricting lending. In Nicaragua, Pakistan and Bolivia, activists and politicians have urged borrowers not to repay their loans.

The hostility toward microfinance is a sharp reversal from the praise and good will that politicians, social workers and bankers showered on the sector in the last decade. Philanthropists and investors poured billions of dollars into nonprofit and profit-making microlenders, who were considered vital players in achieving the United Nations’ ambitious Millennium Development Goals for 2015 that world leaders set in 2000. One of the goals was to reduce by half the number of people in extreme poverty.

The attention lavished on microcredit helped the sector reach more than 91 million customers, most of them women, with loans totaling more than $70 billion by the end of 2009. India and Bangladesh together account for half of all borrowers. But as with other trumpeted development initiatives that have promised to lift hundreds of millions from poverty, microcredit has struggled to turn rhetoric into tangible success.

Done right, these loans have shown promise in allowing some borrowers to build sustainable livelihoods. But it has also become clear that the rapid growth of microcredit — in India some lending firms were growing at 60 percent to 100 percent a year — has made the loans much less effective.

Most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts “Credit is both the source of possibilities and it’s a bond,” said David Roodman, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a research organization in Washington. “Credit is often operating at this knife’s edge, and that gets forgotten.”

Even as the results for borrowers have been mixed, some lenders have minted profits that might make Wall Street bankers envious. For instance, investors in India’s largest microcredit firm, SKS Microfinance, sold shares last year for as much as 95 times what they paid for them a few years earlier. Meanwhile, politicians in developing nations, some of whom had long resented microlenders as competitors for the hearts and minds of the poor, have taken to depicting lenders as profiteering at the expense of borrowers.

Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, for example, supported “movimiento no pago,” or the no-pay movement, which was started in 2008 by farmers after some borrowers could not pay their debts. Partly as a result of that campaign, a judge recently ordered the liquidation of one of the country’s leading microlenders, Banco del Exito, or Success Bank.

In India, leaders in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which accounts for about a third of the country’s microloans, have accused lenders of impoverishing customers. Stories proliferated in the local news media about women who had amassed debts of $1,000 or more as loan officers cajoled them into borrowing more than they could afford and then browbeat them to repay. Many had used the money to pay for televisions or health care or to soften the blow of failed crops, rather than as seed money for businesses.

Microcredit firms in India were also accused of siphoning borrowers from government-run “self-help groups” — women’s organizations that can borrow small amounts at subsidized interest rates from government-owned banks.

Read on at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/business/global/06micro.html?_r=1&ref=general&src=me&pagewanted=print

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