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«Published Annually Vol. 6, No. 1 ISBN 978-0-979-7593-3-8 CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS Sawyer School of Business, Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts ...»

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There is a certain amount of debate about whether impact assessment of microfinance projects is necessary or not according to Simanowitz (2001b). The argument is that if the market can provide adequate proxies for impact, showing that clients are happy to pay for a service, assessments are a waste of resources (ibid.). However, this is too simplistic a rationale as market proxies mask the range of client responses and benefits to the MFI (ibid.) Therefore, impact assessment of microfinance interventions is necessary, not just to demonstrate to donors that their interventions are having a positive impact, but to allow for learning within MFIs so that they can improve their services and the impact of their projects (Simanowitz, 2001b, p.11).

Poverty is more than just a lack of income. Wright (1999) highlights the shortcomings of focusing solely on increased income as a measure of the impact of microfinance on poverty. He states that there is a significant difference between increasing income and reducing poverty (1999). He argues that by increasing the income of the poor, MFIs are not necessarily reducing poverty. It depends what the poor do with this money, oftentimes it is gambled away or spent on alcohol (1999), so focusing solely on increasing incomes is not enough. The focus needs to be on helping the poor to “sustain a specified level of well-being” (Wright, 1999, p.40) by offering them a variety of financial services tailored to their needs so that their net wealth and income security can be improved. It is commonly asserted that MFIs are not reaching the poorest in society. However, despite some commentators’ scepticism of the impact of microfinance on poverty, studies have shown that microfinance has been successful in many situations. According to Littlefield, Murduch and Hashemi (2003, p.2) “various studies…document increases in income and assets, and decreases in vulnerability of microfinance clients”. They refer to projects in India, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Uganda which all show very positive impacts of microfinance in reducing poverty. For instance, a report on a SHARE project in India showed that three-quarters of clients saw “significant improvements in their economic well-being and that half of the clients graduated out of poverty” (2003, p.2). Dichter (1999, p.26) states that microfinance is a tool for poverty reduction and while arguing that the record of MFIs in microfinance is “generally well below expectation” he does concede that some positive impacts do take place. From a study of a number of MFIs he states that findings show that consumption smoothing effects, signs of redistribution of wealth and influence within the household are the most common impact of MFI programmes (ibid.). Hulme and Mosley (1996, p.109) in a comprehensive study on the use of microfinance to combat poverty, argue that well-designed programmes can improve the incomes of the poor and can move them out of poverty. They state that “there is clear evidence that the impact of a loan on a borrower’s income is related to the level of income” as those with higher incomes have a greater range of investment opportunities and so credit schemes are more likely to benefit the “middle and upper poor” (1996, pp109-112). However, they also show that when MFIs such as the Grameen Bank and BRAC provided credit to very poor households, those households were able to raise their incomes and their assets (1996, p.118). Mayoux (2001, p.52) states that while microfinance has much potential11 the main effects on poverty have been credit making a significant

Conference papers © Knowledge Globalization Institute, Pune, India, 2012

contribution to increasing incomes of the better-off poor, including women, microfinance services contributing to the smoothing out of peaks and troughs in income and expenditure thereby enabling the poor to cope with unpredictable shocks and emergencies. Hulme and Mosley (1996) show that when loans are associated with an increase in assets, when borrowers are encouraged to invest in low-risk income generating activities and when the very poor are encouraged to save; the vulnerability of the very poor is reduced and their poverty situation improves. Johnson and Rogaly (1997, p.12) also refer to examples whereby savings and credit schemes were able to meet the needs of the very poor. They state that microfinance specialists are beginning to view improvements in economic security, rather than income promotion, as the first step in poverty reduction (ibid.) as this reduces beneficiaries’ overall vulnerability. Therefore, while much debate remains about the impact of microfinance projects on poverty, we have seen that when MFIs understand the needs of the poor and try to meet these needs, projects can have a positive impact on reducing the vulnerability, not just of the poor, but also of the poorest in society.

Social impact analysis

Traditionally, the impact of microfinance projects was assessed by the changes in the income or well being of the clients.

Mansell-Carstens, cited in Rogaly (1996, p.103) argues that such a focus is flawed because respondents may give false information. It is also very difficult to ascertain all the sources of income of a client, so a causal effect is difficult to establish, and it is also difficult to establish what would have happened if the loan was not given. Therefore a broader analysis is needed that takes more than economic impact into consideration. We have seen that poverty and livelihood security consist of economic and social conditions, therefore, when analysing the impact of microfinance, social impact must be assessed. Kabeer (2003, p.106) states that wider social impact assessment is important for an organisation’s internal learning process, as an MFI should be aware of the “full range of changes associated with its efforts and uses these to improve its performance”. She considers social impact to relate to human capital such as nutrition, health and education, as well as social networks (2003).

Impact must be assessed on each of these issues if a true picture of the impact of microfinance is to be obtained. However, Kabeer moves beyond individual or household analysis to state that analysis should also be conducted at community, market/economy and national/state levels (2003). She refers to these as “domains of impact” because societies are comprised of different institutional domains each with their own rules, norms and practices which can be influenced by microfinance interventions in different ways (2003, p.109). Kabeer (2003, p.110) not only refers to domains of impact but also highlights dimensions of change that should be assessed. She lists cognitive change, behavioural change, material change, relational change15 and institutional change16 as dimensions of change that need to be taken into account if the wider effects of microfinance interventions are to be understood. Changes in the way in which people understand and make sense of the world around them The different types of actions that people undertake in order to achieve their goals. Changes in access to a variety of tangible resources. Zohir and Matin (2004, p.301) make a similar point when they state that the impact of microfinance interventions is being under-estimated by “conventional impact studies which do not take into account the possible positive externalities on spheres beyond households”. They propose that impact should be examined from cultural, economic, social and political domains at individual, enterprise and household levels (2004). McGregor et al. (2000, p.3) states that wider social and economic impacts can occur through the labour market, the capital market, the market for goods consumed by poor people, through production linkages and through clients participation in social and political processes. Chowdhury, Mosley and Simanowitz (2004) argue that if microfinance is to fulfill its social objectives of bringing financial services to the poor it is important to know the extent to which its wider impacts contribute to poverty reduction. In the following sections I will examine the findings from wider assessments of microfinance interventions at a household and community level, to show what learning can be gained when impact assessments have a broad scope of analysis.

Empowering Women

A key objective of many microfinance interventions is to empower women. Mosedale (2003, p.1) states that if we want to see people empowered it means we currently see them as being disempowered, disadvantaged by the way power relations shape their choices, opportunities and well-being. She states that empowerment cannot be bestowed by a third party but must be claimed by those seeking empowerment through an ongoing process of reflection, analysis and action (2003). Kabeer, quoted in Mosedale (2003, p.2) states that women need empowerment as they are constrained by “the norms, beliefs, customs and values through which societies differentiate between women and men”. She also states that empowerment refers to the “process by which those who have been denied the ability to make strategic life choices acquire such an ability”, where strategic choices are “critical for people to live the lives they want (such as choice of livelihood, whether and who to marry, whether to have children, etc)” (Kabeer, 1999, p.437). Therefore MFIs cannot empower women directly but can help them through training and awareness-raising to challenge the existing norms, cultures and values which place them at a disadvantage in relation to men, and to help them have greater control over resources and their lives. Littlefield, Murduch and Hashemi (2003, p.4) state that access to MFIs can empower women to become more confident, more assertive, more likely to take part in family and community decisions and better able to confront gender inequities. However, they also state that just because

Conference papers © Knowledge Globalization Institute, Pune, India, 2012

women are clients of MFIs does not mean they will automatically become empowered. Hulme and Mosley (1996, p.128) also make this point when they refer to the “naivety of the belief that every loan made to a woman contributes to the strengthening of the economic and social position of women”. However, with careful planning and design women’s position in the household and community can indeed be improved.

According to Littlefield, Murduch and Hashemi (2003), the Women’s Empowerment Program in Nepal found that 68% of its members were making decisions on buying and selling property, sending their daughters to school and planning their family, all decisions that in the past were made by husbands. They refer to studies in Ghana and Bolivia, which indicated that women involved in microfinance projects, had increased self-confidence and had an improved status in the community (ibid.). Hulme and Mosley (1996) state that microfinance projects can reduce the isolation of women as when they come together in groups they have an opportunity to share information and discuss ideas and develop a bond that wasn’t there previously. From studies of the Grameen Bank and BRAC they show that clients of these programmes suffered from significantly fewer beatings from their husbands than Increased income, improved women’s lives, control over fertility, sustainable environment, decreased mortality, decreased morbidity and increased nutritional status (Chowdhury and Bhuiya, 2004, p.377) they did before they joined the MFI (ibid.). However, in a separate study of a BRAC project Chowdhury and Bhuiya (2004, p.383) found that violence against women actually increased when women joined the programme, as not all men were ready to accept the change in power relations, and so resorted to violence to express their anger. This violence did decrease over time. The study found that when the violence did rise, the members, because of their increased awareness, reported back to the group on their martial life and got support from the group (ibid.). Jeffery Sachs (2005) in a visit to a BRAC project was amazed to find that women he spoke to had only one or two children, when he was expecting them to have five or six as he had become accustomed to for Bangladeshi women. When he asked those with no or one child how many children they’d like to have, the majority replied two. He calls this a “demonstration of a change of outlook” (2005, p.14). He refers to a new spirit of women’s rights, independence and empowerment among clients, showing the positive empowerment effects the project has had on the women (ibid.). Osmani (1998) analysed the impact of credit on the well being19 of Grameen Bank women clients.

The project was found to have increased their autonomy in that they were able to spend family income more freely than nonclients. They had greater control over family planning, but the project was not shown to have had an impact on clients’ control over other decision-making but they were found to have greater access to household resources than non-clients did. However, Johnson (2004, p.5) states that having women as key participants in microfinance projects does not automatically lead to empowerment; sometimes negative impacts can be witnessed. She refers to increased workloads, increased domestic violence and abuse. This leads her to ask a crucial question of whether targeting women is just an efficient way of getting credit into the household, since women are more likely than men to be available in the home, attend meetings, be manageable by field staff and take repayment more seriously, even if they do not invest or control the loan themselves? Or on the other hand, if such targeting is fully justified on the grounds of enhancing gender equity. She claims the answer is probably somewhere between the two alternatives (ibid.). She argues that MFIs must analyse both the positive and negative impacts their interventions are having on women, and that MFIs need to work with men to help pave the way for a change in attitudes to women’s enhanced contribution to the household.


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