Princeton Weekly Bulletin   April 14, 2008, Vol. 97, No. 23   prev   next   current

Measuring the success of microfinance

by Hilary Parker

Princeton NJ — Just six months after being introduced to the idea of microfinance — providing the poor with extremely small loans to start businesses — senior Molly Jamieson traveled around the world to assess it in action, visiting lending organizations in seven countries on three continents.

Jamieson’s senior thesis project was inspired by a December 2006 New York Times profile of Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh, who shared the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for inventing microfinance with the Grameen Bank, which he founded 30 years ago. The goal of microfinance is simple: provide the poor with small loans, typically averaging around $345, to support their business endeavors and help them rise out of poverty.

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Molly Jamieson’s thesis project on microfinancing for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs took her to seven countries, where she met with both microfinance institutions and their borrowers. Here Jamieson (third from left) gathers with staff members of Step Ahead Micro Enterprise Development after a day of interviewing their clients in the Klong Toei slums of Bangkok. (photo: Courtesy of Molly Jamieson)

“I liked the idea that it wasn’t a handout,” said Jamieson, who is majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and pursuing a certificate in environmental studies. “This is about business, not charity. It’s about giving people capital and tools.”

Jamieson learned about a funding opportunity from the Circumnavigators Club Foundation shortly after reading the Times article. The organization provides support to rising college seniors to do research for 10 weeks on a subject of their choosing, as long as they literally circumnavigate the globe — crossing the appropriate meridians in the proper order — as they do so. 

Jamieson wrote one of four winning proposals in the nation, detailing her plan to assess the success of microfinance institutions by meeting with staff members and borrowers at a diverse group of organizations throughout the developing world. 

Though her thesis research took her all over the globe, Jamieson has lived in Princeton her entire life, save for her senior year in high school, when she moved with her family to Washington, D.C. 

Last summer, Jamieson traveled to Peru, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Bangladesh, Thailand and China. Staying in hostels, she spent between four days and two weeks in each country, meeting with microfinanciers and visiting their clients, many of whom live in sheer destitution.

But nothing compared to Khlong Toei, the largest slum in Bangkok, where 120,000 people live in a network of dark, lethargic alleyways and two-story buildings of plywood and tin sheeting. 

“Everyone argues about the definition of poverty, but I found it there,” Jamieson said.

She also found insight.

It came in the form of a conversation with one of Step Ahead Micro Enterprise Development’s borrowers, a woman by the name of Jai, who started a business with her husband to prepare and deliver meals. By all traditional measures, microfinance had been a stellar success for Jai. Her business had grown; she had paid back her loan, taken out a larger one and was depositing savings. But when Jamieson asked her if she would be leaving Khlong Toei, Jai looked at her quizzically and said she and her husband would never leave. 

“What struck me about that wasn’t that she should leave, but the fact that, according to traditional microfinance assessment, everything about her story would say that the organization was doing a great job,” Jamieson said. “But she was remaining in poverty. There needed to be a way to measure if people’s lives were actually changing.”

The experience prompted Jamieson to focus her thesis on the evaluation of tools used to assess the impact of microfinance institutions. She uses case studies such as Jai’s to illustrate her claim that social performance metrics need to be used in conjunction with traditional financial benchmarking tools to evaluate the success of microfinance institutions and prove their effectiveness to potential donors and investors.

“The field of microfinance holds great potential to promote more secure livelihoods for the poor and to reduce their vulnerability,” said Jamieson’s faculty adviser Karen McGuinness, assistant dean for graduate education in the Wilson School and lecturer in public and international affairs. “Molly is looking at the crucial question of how to measure and demonstrate the social performance of microfinance institutions. Of course, it’s not only reaching the poor that’s important, but also ensuring that this intervention helps them to move out of poverty. One of the features of Molly’s thesis that’s so distinctive is that she had the opportunity to observe many microfinance programs last summer in a number of countries.”

The proper assessment tools, Jamieson argues, will be able to address the two major critiques of microfinance as a means to end poverty: that it doesn’t serve the most destitute, and that it allows borrowers to persist in a life of poverty without ever really escaping it. In situations where microfinance institutions aren’t found to be improving people’s lives, the tools will help identify the need for changes in the services provided or alternatives to microfinance in general.

Increasingly, the microfinance world is becoming aware of the need to measure success in terms beyond the financial. In her thesis, Jamieson evaluates a variety of the social performance indices that have been proposed, ultimately recommending a series of low-cost assessment tools — known as poverty scorecards — that measure a small number of observable and verifiable indicators of poverty. Jamieson argues that these inexpensive and easily replicable tools have the most potential for quick and effective deployment to microfinance institutions around the world. She proposes that these tools could be used to assess a borrower’s status upon joining an organization and annually thereafter to assess change in the borrower’s living situation.

Jamieson plans to provide copies of her thesis to the organizations she worked with this summer in hopes that it may help them more accurately assess their success. After graduating, she will work in New York City as a Princeton Project 55 research fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation, analyzing programs to help guide the foundation’s investments.

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