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The Uneven Development of the Microfinance Sector

Friday, 25 February, 2011 - 14:45
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Faculty: Social Sciences and Solvay Business School
Annabel Vanroose
phd defence

Microfinance relates to the provision, by specialized microfinance institutions (MFIs), of small-scale financial services - such as credit, savings, and insurance - to the poorer sections of the population. These sections have traditionally been excluded by the financial system. Microfinance is viewed as a system put into place in order to overcome market failures that are created by banks and that are omnipresent in the developing world. In development policy, microfinance has received considerable attention during the last twenty years, and the industry has grown substantially. Interestingly, the sector has been more successful in reaching out to people in some countries than in others. The sector has also developed in an unequal way within countries. The reasons why this happened are not directly apparent. This doctoral dissertation addresses the uneven development of the microfinance sector and aims at identifying factors that explain it.

The dissertation consists of three main parts. The first part, which consists of two papers, combines different datasets on the outreach of MFIs to assess in which countries MFIs have developed most. The papers indicate that the microfinance sector is more present in the richer countries of the developing world. It also reaches more clients in countries that receive more international aid. Population density also plays a stimulating role, which partially explains why the sector is still underdeveloped in rural areas.

The second part of the dissertation, which exists of one paper, explores in more depth the relationship between traditional financial sector development and microfinance institutions. The paper, co-authored with Bert D’Espallier, shows that MFIs reach more clients and are more profitable in countries where access to the traditional financial system is low. This is in line with the market-failure hypothesis. Along the same line, we find that MFIs serve poorer people in countries with well-developed financial systems. This observation is an important element to take into account in the debate on mission drift of the sector, where it is feared that MFIs drift away from serving the poor. The paper shows that MFIs in countries with well-developed banking sectors have less space to move up market and consequently to drift from the sector’s general mission.

The third and final part of the dissertation is a quantitative study on the spread and expansion process of MFIs in one Latin American country, Peru. The roles that district characteristics play in the decision to open an MFI branch are scrutinized. The paper finds that MFIs mainly increase financial access in districts with higher levels of development. Districts where banks are already present also have a higher probability that MFIs will open a branch there. This demonstrates that the two kinds of institutions co-exist in several districts, but most probably serve another clientele. Overall, although strategies differ between different types of Peruvian MFIs, the paper finds that they do not seem to be driven by a pure developmental logic that would push them towards the poorest or totally unbanked regions of the country.

On the whole, the main conclusions of the dissertation can be summarized as follows. First, the dissertation demonstrates that the outreach of the microfinance sector is influenced by a number of macro factors. Consequently, country-specific and macro-economic factors should be taken into account when evaluating MFI performance. Second, the dissertation shows that MFIs substitute the traditional banking sector. MFIs thus fulfill an important part of their mission, i.e. they have helped to increase financial access in the developing world. However, the study also suggests that MFIs still fail to serve a significant number of poor people. This leads to a third important observation, namely that MFIs may in fact not strive to serve the poor as such. Rather, it seems that they are currently focusing on the un-served market in general. The observation indicates that there is a need for a more thorough investigation on the issue of whom the unbanked in the developing countries are and whom MFIs actually strive to serve. Finally, since the outreach and performance of MFIs is dependent on the presence of a stimulating macro-environment, it remains a challenge to serve the financially excluded in the more remote areas of the developing countries and the people in the poorest ones.