Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Armchair Microfinancist Moves Home

A few weeks ago, the New York Times brought some disturbing news into the homes of armchair microfinancists across the country. Then, the Washington Post delivered another shock to the traditional microfinance narrative: Microfinance was coming to the United States.

Well, actually, the article reported on Grameen America expanding into the nation's capital on top of its operations in New York and Omaha. Also, Kiva started loaning to US entrepreneurs a few years ago and other person-to-person loaning sites have US options. One focuses exclusively on people form the US. And if you've read Muhammad Yunus' autobiography, Banker to the Poor, he talks about his partnership with Bill and Hillary Clinton back when Bill was governor of Arkansas.

So, this news isn't that shocking. Microfinance has been in the US for a long time. But even though microfinance has been proven to work domestically, there might still be some lingering questions for the armchair microfinancist.

Besides the person-to-person connection, microfinance is appealing because it doesn't  take a lot of resources on the donor side: Big change can be made from small amounts of money. This might not be the case back home, as $25 cannot go nearly as far in DC as it can in San Ramon, Nicaragua. You typically see about a $200-$800 figure for most loans on Kiva (with some exceptions, to be sure), but the US loans are significantly more, some reaching $10,000. And when comparing purchasing power parities for countries, it's clear that  money in the developing world goes a lot further. On top of this, the poverty in the US is not as extreme as those living on less than $2 a day in the developing world.

But chucking out domestic microfinance opportunities based on this reasoning alone ignores the fundamental purpose of microfinance: Giving credit (or savings) to people who don't have access to it. In a country like the US with a bank every few blocks or so, it may seem like there's a plethora of financial options, but people here are still left out of the domestic financial market.

While working with a microfinance institution in Iowa, I was shocked to learn the poverty levels in my immediate surrounding community. Poweshiek County, where the organization is based, has about a ten percent poverty rate and the state of Iowa overall has about a 11 percent poverty rate. Looking deeper into these numbers, myself and others from the MFI talked with community leaders and learned that people in the county suffered from loan sharking and pay day loans, sometimes paying exorbitant interest rates because they didn't have good enough credit to take out a traditional loan. Others were forced to rent their household appliances like a dishwasher or a dryer at high interest rates because they didn't have the money to buy it and couldn't find someone to make a small loan to help them with the purchase.

At the time, the MFI was focused only on making loans abroad and when this local issue was brought up to the membership, there was some hesitancy at first to expand domestically. Many people cited the issues I outlined above, among others, as a reason to stay focused internationally. (I also hesitated to fully commit to a domestic program for the same reasons.) But then when we were approached formally by several community organizations encouraging us to create a domestic loaning program, we decided to do it. We've already made our first few loans to local community members and the project has been met with great enthusiasm.

These issues of poverty are not limited to rural Iowa. In researching for this post, I learned that the US as a whole has a poverty rate of around 13 percent. I found this shocking. About one in ten Americans lives below the poverty line and many more hover around it. This is the reason that Yunus expanded operations into the US so early on and why other organizations like Accion have domestic programs as well. A focus on global poverty is a good strategy for all the armchair microfinancists out there, but I hope they won't forget the domestic poor in their decisions. The US is not excluded from that globe in "global poverty," after all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Profit From the Poor

No longer, it seems, is microfinance the go-to feel-good story for the news cycle. The New York Times, which first brought microfinance into the homes of millions Americans, has now torn it a new one.

The article, released last week, exposes the extremely high interest rates of some microfinance institutions. There have been a few deliberations over what this means (and even how accurate the end conclusion is), but the responses to this article, I think, miss the main question it brings up for the average armchair microfiancist: Is it ok to make money off the poor?

Before I get into that question, I will first tell a story. It takes place at a new student activities fair, where I was promoting a campus microfinance group. We had run out of candy, so no one was stopping by our table. I started calling out "Want to give loans to poor people?" to the passers-by, which didn't help the cause much. One bright young mind did wander over and I started to explain to him how microfinance worked. He put down a brochure he'd picked up and said: "I don't want to be a part of this, because I don't think we should put poor people into debt."

I thanked him for his time and moved on to the next potential customer.

While this incident may better highlight activism's general distrust of business and finance, it also raises the question begged by the Times article damning the high interests rates of microfinance institutions: Is it ethical to make profit off of poor people? And if so, how much?

My friend at the activities fair may think any amount of profit is too much, but I think most, when pressed, would disagree. In the case of microfinance, loans with interest may be more effective then no-strings-attached grants.

But there is a line. No one (I hope) wants to extort the poor. He Who Can Do No Harm, Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, said in the Times article that any MFI charging a interest rate that's more that 10-15% above the cost of raising the loan is too much. Seems fair.

But when analyzed, as Give Well did, this guideline becomes arbitrary. They say that no interest rate is too high, given that the reasoning behind the rates are transparent. Assuming all information is accessible, then loanees should have no problem making the best decision on where to get their money.

Selling necessary goods and services to the poor can only increase their quality of life. If you look at poverty as a deprivation of services or products (for more on this read Development as Freedom), there really should be no limit on how much can be offered to the poor, and therefore, how much profit one can gain from the poor. If the prices aren't affordable (such as in the case of loan sharks), another MFI can just come in and undercut the price, stealing away their customer base and helping out those people who were paying too much. Ah, the beauty of capitalism.

I think my friend at the activities fair still wouldn't buy this (or any) defense of capitalism, but for you, the armchair micofinancist, do not despair over your money-making endeavors. No consumer market should be exempt from profit. And it might even inspire you to get out of your chair and into the field to grab some of that money for your own profit-making, life-saving idea.

If you are interested in going a bit further beyond finance and applying the idea of making profit off the poor to products, I would suggest reading Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, which is essentially several case studies of companies that have successfully developed and sold products to the global poor that help improve their lives. (Edit: Whose author, I just learned, recently passed away.) One book I haven't read, but will when the DC Public Library gets its act together, is Africa Rising: How 900 million African consumers offer more than you think. Also, the Acumen Fund blog always has some feel-good stories on this topic.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Satire Roundup Part 2

Or: D.O.S. (Death of Satire)

Edit: Whoops!  I forgot this hilarious video. I don't know where it came from, but if anyone does, please let me know.

Since my last satire roundup, a lot as changed in the market for humorous blog pieces regarding effective philanthropy and aid. William Easterly was attacked for being too "mean spirited" with his satirical pokes at the aid industry. Easterly took the hint and toned down the snark. Because Easterly is the king of satire and I am merely a jester compiling his writings that fall to the ground, this feature may have limited content from here on out. But, fortunately for myself, some satire has gotten through recently and I thought I'd share it with all of you.  Please note that I am not trying to encourage personal attacks or hurt feelings; merely humor.
Needless to say, these were all given to me by Aid Watch. Again, Easterly is king and I but a jester.

*On a side note, this list pokes fun at one Kim Kardashian (I didn't know who that was either) for visiting a diamond mine in Botswana and stating: "I used to assume after watching the movie Blood Diamonds
that diamonds were not acceptable to buy from Africa. However, it is the complete opposite!"

While it is misguided of Ms. Kardashian to assume one diamond mine in Africa is as good as all the others, it is equally naive for Mother Jones, the compiler of the list, to imply that one diamond mine in Africa is as bad as all the others. I visited the same diamond mine as Ms. Kardashian and it was nothing like the stereotyped African diamond mine. Diamonds have done a lot to contribute to Botswana's "African Miracle" and people should not be discouraged from purchasing its diamonds. I only hope Ms. Kardashian realizes the difference between Botswana mines and others, and limits her purchases to conflict-free Botswana diamonds.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Kids and Their Science

I may be preempting the Acumen Fund here, but I wanted to pass along this very cool invention from a team of homeschooled kids from New Jersey. They've invented a treadmill-like sorghum and millet thresher for the world's poorest.

Typically, it would take a person (usually a woman) 3-4 hours to thresh the family's daily sorghum or millet consumption.  This extended labor can actually cost the food preparer more calories than she gains from consuming the food. The machine reduces the amount of time spent on threshing to about an hour, saving expended energy.

The kids say this machine can be made for around $100 USD, all from materials that can be found locally. Obviously, $100 USD is a lot for most of the people who will benefit from this, but the team of kids are looking for investors to bring the machine to production. If you have a pile of money around, or know someone who does, let them know.

Thanks to Tom for passing this along to me.