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At Grameen Foundation, our goal is to spur innovation in the global movement to eliminate extreme poverty. Part of that work is to develop better solutions and share them with people like you.

On GF Insights, we share lessons learned from our leaders in the field, news about efforts to expand access to financial and information services for the poor, and how poverty-focused organizations are using data to improve the way they work.

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02/10/2011 by

Guest author Kathleen Odell is assistant professor of economics at Dominican University’s Brennan School of Business.

Full disclosure: Last spring, I authored the Grameen Foundation report, Measuring the Impact of Microfinance: Taking Another Look, which was released in June 2010. I was asked by Alex Counts and Todd Bernhardt of Grameen Foundation to comment on Tom Heinemann’s recent documentary, “Caught in Micro Debt,” based on my understanding of the existing impact-assessment literature.

I have just read with great interest the translated transcript of the Danish documentary “Caught in Micro Debt,” which aired on Norwegian television in November 2010. (I understand that there is an English-language version that has very recently become available, but I have not had the chance to watch it.) The documentary paints an unfavorable picture of the microfinance industry, making a number of criticisms. Reading the transcript, I find this film to be deeply biased and misleading on a number of important points.

I don’t have much to add to the discussion about the transfer of Norwegian aid money from Grameen Bank to Grameen Kaylan, and this has been settled elsewhere. Similarly, the question of Grameen Bank charging usurious interest rates has been commented on at length, by David Roodman (his posts can be found here and here), by Alex Counts, and in the definitive study of the bank’s rates by MicroFinance Transparency’s Chuck Waterfield.

I’ll focus here on a claim that the film makes in its introduction: “Tonight we ask if micro loans actually are helping the poor.” Now, here is a subject on which I feel fairly well-informed. For Taking Another Look – which was a follow-up to Nathaniel Goldberg’s 2005 report, Measuring the Impact of Microfinance – I read and summarized much of the recent literature estimating the impacts of various forms of microfinance on the lives of microfinance clients. Here’s what I learned over the course of that project.

If we combine the findings of the best available research, there is modest evidence that microfinance, including microloans, has positive effects on microbusinesses. As my conclusion states, “Various studies showed increases in business ownership, investment, and profits.” With respect to microsavings (admittedly not the subject of the documentary, but surely still relevant), a 2009 study found not only positive business effects, but also positive effects on food expenditures. (Full references are included in Taking Another Look). The microfinance community awaits the release of additional studies of impact, but what we know so far is this: Though some claims of microfinance’s effects have been overly enthusiastic, the academic research, where we trust it, is either inconclusive or points to moderately positive effects. Again from my conclusion: “Based on the studies in this survey, the overall effect on the incomes and poverty rates of microfinance clients is less clear, as are the effects of microfinance on measures of social well-being, such as education, health, and women’s empowerment.”

There is an important discussion to be had here about research methodologies and the nature of program evaluation. However, the point is that if you want to prove that microfinance isn’t helping the poor, the existing impact-assessment literature won’t help you.

02/08/2011 by

Eric Cantor has led Grameen Foundation’s AppLab efforts in Uganda for the past three years, and continues to serve as an advisor on the project.

Grameen Foundation takes outcome measurement seriously.  We want to make sure that our programs and services are effective, and that we can demonstrate their benefits before implementing programs or practices on a wider scale or urging others to replicate them.

With this in mind, we recently completed one of the first randomized control trials designed to assess the impact of a mobile phone-driven health service aimed at improving the lives of the poor.  The service we sought to measure was Health Tips, part of the Google SMS suite launched throughout Uganda in 2009 with our partners Google and MTN Uganda.  Our social impact partner Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) performed the study.

Preliminary findings from the study are substantial, supporting some of our initial hypotheses and refuting others, and informing our approach to building pro-poor, mobile phone-driven solutions going forward. In short, findings indicated that when people learn of such services, they use them. People also seem to learn from this particular text-message query-based product.  But we also found that, because of the limitations of human motivation and barriers like language and literacy, we have a lot more work to do.

The Health Tips study was conducted in Uganda over an 18-month period. Before the launch of Google SMS in June 2009, IPA conducted a baseline survey of 1,800 people in 60 rural communities, assessing demographic profiles, attitudes, and knowledge and behavior regarding sexual and reproductive health, and collecting data from local clinics.  When we launched the service, we initiated a marketing campaign that randomly targeted half of those communities (the “treatment” areas) and did not reach the other half (the “control” areas).

[caption id="attachment_1471" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Our studies have shown the value of "trusted intermediaries" -- such as the Mobile Midwife counselor in the photo above -- as a way to make mobile phone-based communications to the poor more effective. "]A Mobile Midwife counselor talks with a client[/caption]

Through randomization, IPA chose two sets of communities that were uniform in every relevant respect – except that one was exposed to the product through targeted marketing campaigns, while the other was not.  Nine months later, they began a follow-up survey of 2,400 people to detect changes.  They looked at data from surrounding clinics, conducted qualitative interviews and assessed the information provided to the communities. Because the targeted marketing in treatment villages was effective – we saw more than four times as much usage in the treatment areas as in the control – we were able to assess the effect of the service on attitudes, knowledge and behavior relating to sexual and reproductive health.

01/24/2011 by

Muhammad Awais is a guest blogger and the Regional Microfinance  Programme Specialist for Plan International in Asia.  Awais focuses on helping integrate social-performance metrics into Plan International’s work. He brings a great perspective as a microfinance institution (MFI) practitioner as well as someone who knows, at the network level, how to integrate SPM tools like the Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI) into operations. He is based in Bangkok.

As the Regional Microfinance Programme Specialist for Plan International in Asia, I have learned first-hand the top challenges faced by microfinance institutions in accepting — and implementing — the PPI as their poverty assessment tool. My observations led me to create the 10 challenges I outline here.

01/21/2011 by

Eric Cantor has led Grameen Foundation’s AppLab efforts in Uganda for the past three years, and continues to serve as an advisor on the project.

More than three years ago, I landed in Uganda to establish Grameen Foundation’s “Application Laboratory” – a program conceived to explore the potential of mobile phones to improve the lives of the poor.  In our quest to test, develop and expand mobile services that are useful for the most often-ignored people on the planet, our team spent (and spends) extensive time talking to our users, in the places they work and live, to hear about the good and the bad of the methods we are testing to empower them.

We sit under the mango tree at the rural health clinic, hearing about how people learn to avoid and treat common and devastating diseases like malaria and HIV.  We walk the banana plantations of farmers in the West, trying to gauge how they can best control banana wilt, using locally available resources and techniques.  We observe the effects of the rapidly growing “mobile money” phenomenon – essentially digital currency delivered through a mobile phone network – and assess how it can improve the lives of villagers.  We see how people interact with the Internet and other unfamiliar services available through the few laptops and smartphones in a community.  And we listen to farming groups, led by Community Knowledge Workers (CKWs), as they plan and prepare to bulk their crops for sale to the highest-paying buyers.  As white winter washes over the US, and the rains wind down and planting season approaches in Uganda, we share some lessons learned through this work in the hopes that our growing body of work, as well as that of other practitioners in this field, will benefit.

In AppLab’s early work, we tested a number of information services, leading up to our launch, with MTN (one of the primary mobile phone services providers in east Africa) and Google, of Google SMS Tips, the product that won the award for “Best use of Mobile for Social and Economic Development” at the 2010 GSM Mobile World Congress.  It was rewarding to sit on a farm and hear how making organic pesticides using local chemicals or even waste products found on the farm helped save a farmer money, and increase her yields and incomes.

[caption id="attachment_1451" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Community Knowledge Workers act as valuable local intermediaries, bridging the "last kilometer" to bring essential information to other rural farmers in Uganda. Here, a CKW uses her high-end mobile phone to check for information on banana wilt."]Community Knowledge Workers act as valuable local intermediaries, bridging the "last kilometer" to bring essential information to other rural farmers in Uganda. Here, a CKW uses her high-end mobile phone to check for information on banana wilt.[/caption]

But what became quickly apparent was that information alone is not a complete solution.  A reference pointer or a tip about maternal health techniques may be useful to an expectant mother, but creating deep, impactful behavior change – what information-driven development initiatives seek – requires a context in which that information has a value. People certainly have a hunger for knowledge and a willingness to embrace the mobile phone to search for answers, as shown by all the questions they asked from the beginning about family planning, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, which affect them directly and for which few reliable, anonymous sources are available.  But we require several things to make this information actionable and impactful: specific information, a context in which to make it useful, and relevant services and resources.

01/07/2011 by

Alex Counts is president, CEO and founder of Grameen Foundation, and author of several books, including Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World.