Unreal Nature

July 29, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:19 am

There is a report, A Partial Marvel in The Economist (July 16, 2009) that really bothers me. It’s about microfinance:

… Measuring the impact of microcredit is complicated by the fact that the counterfactual — what would have happened to a person who borrowed from a microlender if he had not done so — cannot easily be tested.

Understood. But look what researchers did to get around these problems:

… The pervasiveness of these self-selection issues has led researchers to devise experiments that allow them to ensure that participation in a programme is determined essentially by chance. Two new papers apply this idea to measure the effect of access to microcredit. Researchers from the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked with an Indian microfinance firm to ensure that 52 randomly chosen slums in the city of Hyderabad were given access to microfinance, while 52 other slums, which were equally suitable and where the lender was also keen to expand, were denied it. This allowed the researchers to see clearly the effect of microcredit on an entire community. Dean Karlan of Yale University and Jonathan Zinman of Dartmouth College carried out a similar exercise in the Philippines, this time at the level of the individual borrower. They tweaked the credit-scoring software of a microfinance firm so that only a random subset of people with marginal credit histories were accepted as clients. These clients could then be compared with those who sought credit but were denied it.

How can they justify randomly denying people the opportunity they seek? I know that this is done in medical testing/research, but the difference in medical outcome is potentially clear. A bogus treatment may cost a patient their health or even their life — and outcome is simple. Micro loans are not like that. They are hope and opportunity. Failing to succeed in a financial endeavor is not comparable to failing to get a good medical outcome. One can derive tremendous experiential benefit from trying to succeed with a micro loan.

Here is how the researchers characterise the results of their observations:

Broadly speaking, neither study found that microcredit reduced poverty. There was no effect on average household consumption, at least within a year to 18 months of the experiment. The study in the Philippines also measured the probability of being under the poverty line and the quality of food that people ate, and again found no effects. Microcredit may not even be the most useful financial service for the majority of poor people. Only one in five loans in the Hyderabad study actually led to the creation of a new business. Providing people with safe places to store their (small) savings may help them more in the long run.

Consumption. That’s it. The value of the loans is measured according to consumption. Is that all they can see?

The Economist article does, at the end, concede that there may be  other benefits:

… That said, microcredit did have discernible effects. In India, people in the slums that had access to microcredit were more likely to cut down on things like tobacco and alcohol in favour of durable goods (particularly items such as pushcarts or cooking pans that are used heavily by traders and food-stall owners). One reason average consumption failed to increase may therefore be that more people were diverting some of their own income into starting or expanding their businesses. Microcredit clearly allowed more people to overcome the barrier posed by start-up costs. The MIT researchers found that as many as one-third more businesses had opened in slums which had a microcredit branch. This may mean that even though there was no measurable impact on poverty during the study period, there may well be some over a longer time-frame as these businesses prosper.

Tiny loans are unlikely to be enough to allow these businesses to grow to an efficient scale, of course. But the role of microcredit in allowing people to signal their creditworthiness is valuable, especially if their success makes banks more willing to lend them larger sums and leads to even more economic activity. By being willing to take a risk on entrepreneurial sorts who lack any other way to start a business, microcredit may help reduce poverty in the long run, even if its short-run effects are negligible.

Sometimes (often) I think social researchers miss most of what is right in front of their eyes. It’s not all about numbers — or “consumption.”



1 Comment

  1. “Tiny loans are unlikely to be enough to allow these businesses to grow to an efficient scale, of course.”

    This commentator is an idiot. There is a world of difference between no business and a tiny business. If not in monetary aspect, as you allude to, at least in the social aspect. The difference I see between this experiment and Mao’s experiment where people had backyard iron furnaces is that the iron furnace has to be to scale. We’ve lost most of our Mom and Pop shops in the United States, and that is a sadness. I suspect the 1/3 more of the people in the slum with businesses are happy as clams.

    Comment by Dr. C. — August 9, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

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