INTRODUCTION

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The micro-fi nance revolution has changed attitudes towards helping the

poor in many countries and in some has provided substantial fl ows of credit,

often to very low-income groups or households, who would normally be

excluded by conventional fi nancial institutions. Bangladesh is the starkest

example of a very poor country, where currently roughly one quarter of

rural households are direct benefi ciaries of these programs (Khandker,

2003). Much has been written on the range of institutional arrangements

pursued in different organizations and countries and in turn a vast number

of studies have attempted to assess the outreach and poverty impact of such

schemes. However, amongst the academic development community there

is a recognition that perhaps we know much less about the impact of these

programs than might be expected given the enthusiasm for these activities

in donor and policy-making circles. To quote a recent authoritative volume

on micro-fi nance:

MFI fi eld operations have far surpassed the research capacity to analyze them,

so excitement about the use of micro-fi nance for poverty alleviation is not backed

up with sound facts derived from rigorous research. Given the current state of

knowledge, it is diffi cult to allocate confi dently public resources to micro-fi nance

development. (Zeller and Meyer, 2002)

This is a very strong statement of doubt and in part refl ects lack of accurate

data, but also in part methodological diffi culties associated with assessing

exactly what proportion of income and other effects on the benefi ciaries

of micro-credit can actually be attributed to the programs themselves. In

recognition of this uncertainty this chapter aims to bring together some

of the recent evidence that has been accumulating on the impact of micro-

fi nance activities on poverty reduction. In particular we ask what the

evidence is on three specifi c issues:

• the extent to which micro-fi nance initiatives have made a lasting

difference in pulling households out of poverty on a permanent

basis;

• the extent to which micro-fi nance programs reach only the better-off

amongst the poor, leaving the ‘core poor’ unaffected;

• how far micro-fi nance is a cost-effective means of transferring income

to the poor.

These are very basic questions and the fact that they can still be posed

refl ects the extent of uncertainty in the literature.

The chapter is organized in four sections. The fi rst provides a brief

overview of some of the features of micro-fi nance activities in Asia, which

is our region of focus. The second discusses a few concepts from the poverty

literature and links these with micro-fi nance programs. The third surveys

the evidence from recent research studies on the fi rst two of the three

questions posed above. The fourth section addresses the third question.

Since a number of other surveys are also available we give most attention

to evidence produced in the last three or four years.1 Finally we draw some

brief conclusions.