Why Finance Matters

Science  10 Jun 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6035, pp. 1271-1272
DOI: 10.1126/science.1208113

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Roughly one-half of the world's adults, about 2.5 billion people, have neither a bank account nor access to semiformal financial services such as “microcredit,” the growing practice in developing nations of providing small loans, typically less than US$500, to self-employed people (1). But what if they did? Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, a pioneering microcredit institution, argues that this lack of financial access means that the poor, especially poor women, can't obtain the loans they need to build their businesses and get on a path out of poverty (2). The idea has taken hold: In 2009, for instance, Grameen Bank served 8 million customers; its average loan balance was just $127 (3). Worldwide, microcredit advocates now claim more than 190 million customers (4). Proof of concept, however, is not proof of impact. Recent studies have found that some efforts to provide small loans have produced surprisingly weak results, and on page 1278 of this issue, Karlan and Zinman (5) provide more evidence that we need to rethink microcredit. Their findings, from a randomized evaluation of microcredit lending in the Philippines, add to a handful of recent results (68) that suggest that microcredit's effectiveness has been overstated by studies that selectively focus on success stories.