Microcredit was once extolled by world leaders as a powerful tool that could help eliminate poverty, through loans as small as $50 to cowherds, basket weavers and other poor people for starting or expanding businesses. But now microloans have prompted political hostility in Bangladesh, India, Nicaragua and other developing countries.
In December, the prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina Wazed, who had championed microloans alongside President Clinton at talks in Washington in 1997, turned her back on them. She said microlenders were “sucking blood from the poor in the name of poverty alleviation,” and she ordered an investigation into Grameen Bank, which had pioneered microcredit and, with its founder, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
In India, until recently home to the world’s fastest-growing microcredit businesses, lending has slowed sharply since the state with the most microloans adopted a strict law restricting lending. In Nicaragua, Pakistan and Bolivia, activists and politicians have urged borrowers not to repay their loans.
The hostility toward microfinance is a sharp reversal from the praise and good will that politicians, social workers and bankers showered on the sector in the last decade. But as with other trumpeted development initiatives that have promised to lift hundreds of millions from poverty, microcredit has struggled to turn rhetoric into tangible success.
Done right, these loans have shown promise in allowing some borrowers to build sustainable livelihoods. But it has also become clear that the rapid growth of microcredit has made the loans much less effective. Most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.