Microfinance in Zimbabwe: social performance and coping strategies
AffiliationUniversity of Derby
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AbstractThis study is an investigation into poverty coping strategies of microfinance and its social performance in crisis environments using empirical evidence from Zimbabwe. Microfinance has close association with informal microcredit, mainly self-help schemes and Government led rural agricultural credit, which was based on the idea of lending for the poor up to the 1960s through to the early 1970s. Whilst informal microcredit was viewed to be a success on many forms for some decades, it was clear that tailor-made changes were needed to respond specifically to the poor’s financial needs and help them fight poverty. Thus, it was seen as necessary to experiment on an institution based/formal financial service sector for the poor in the late 1970s through to the 1990s, which could perhaps tackle poverty reduction more systematically and effectively. In this, microcredit transformed into microfinance having incorporated more financial services on offer in addition to credit and was regarded as the new step forward and backed by several development agencies including the United Nations. In fact, microfinance was hailed as the most innovative poverty alleviation tool, able to deal with poverty whilst at the same time generating sufficient extra income to cover operating costs. Over four decades on since its inception, the microfinance sector has grown tremendously but, as is commonly acknowledged, the shackles of global poverty are just as visible as ever and in some cases are even stronger. This study critically explores and analyses the state of the microfinance sector in Zimbabwe following a recent political, economic and social crisis characterised by hyperinflation reaching six figure digits, which led to a revamp of the microfinance sector in 2009. The findings this study reflect a systematic departure of the original hopes and ideals of microfinance as a poverty-reduction centred programming to that of a profit-led business approach and the emergence of a new breed of microfinance institutions (MFIs). In this new world of “microfinance”, very poor social performance causing distressful situations for borrowers where in certain instances have been known to take their own lives (as In India) due to debt pressures has been witnessed. Ironically, also visible are the microfinance millionaires and successful MFI banks floating on the stock. Not surprisingly, as a result, microfinance has attracted a lot of public scrutiny particularly among academics and policy makers with its credibility as a poverty alleviation tool being seriously questioned. Consequently, both the supporters of microfinance wanting to prove that microfinance reduces poverty as well as the critics of microfinance wishing to discredit those results have carried out several randomised-control trials (RCT) impact studies. In some cases previous studies that had claimed that microfinance reduces poverty were revisited by opposing academics in an effort to refute findings. However, both supporters and critics each found just as much evidence for both positive impact in reducing poverty in some places as well as the negative impact on poverty elsewhere. Neither side could be conclusive about whether microfinance actually does help to reduce poverty. As discussed in the literature review, this resulted in a surge in the number of available studies on the subject of microfinance impact, prompting even more systematic reviews of such studies in an attempt to reconcile the critical question of the role of microfinance in poverty reduction. As before, the systematic reviews also confirmed just as much evidence in favour of microfinance positive impacts on poverty as those against in the negative impacts, thereby failing yet again to provide conclusive evidence on either side of the argument. Such arguments suggest that microfinance delivered in a certain way and under certain conditions can help reduce poverty, but may equally have little effect at all on poverty or can even worsen the poverty situation of individuals when delivered under certain conditions and in a certain way. To the best of my knowledge, no known previous studies have attempted to associate the model of microfinance delivery and conditions to ascertain whether different forms of microfinance operations can produce different impact on poverty even where conditions are similar in order to inform best practice for social performance and help poor individuals to cope with high income-risks. High income-risk is part of life for most people in Zimbabwe as in other developing countries. Zimbabwe was affected by frequent droughts, political turmoil, extreme economic challenges due to sanctions and questionable economic policies between 2000 and 2008, and finally the global financial crisis of 2007/8, creating extraordinarily harsh operating environment for microfinance institutions, characterised by depleted loan portfolio investment, skyrocketing inflation eroding the loan book value and growing default rates. The country’s GDP declined by about 40 percent during the period. Hyperinflation in 2007-2008 peaked at 500 billion percent leading to the collapse of the national currency in February 2009. The Zimbabwean dollar disappeared from circulation in instant literarily forcing MFIs and other financial institutions to freeze all balances in their books which was in local currency and raise new capital in the US dollar and South African Rand. The political and economic challenges negatively affected the Zimbabwean microfinance “industry,” causing the sector to suffer significantly. Both the number of microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the country and the quality and range of services were eroded. Capital, social performance, and viability concerns plagued the microfinance sector forcing the government to introduce sector specific regulation with immediate minimum capital requirement for MFIs resulting in small institutions leaving the market, increasing monopoly by large institutions. Within this uncertainty of the role and effectiveness of microfinance in poverty reduction, and the difficult political and economic circumstances that Zimbabweans have experienced recently, this study looked at the coping strategies of microfinance stakeholders including practitioners and regulators. It employed an exploratory inductive approach using mixed methods methodology. This included a survey questionnaire using both closed and open-ended questions randomly administered to 60 registered microfinance clients and potential clients collecting both qualitative and quantitative data. In addition, comprehensive case assessments were carried out on 3 MFIs. The assessments concluded that there exist two different approaches to microfinance: (1) the Capital Market Driven (CMD) approach characterised by private equity investments and (2) the Poverty Reduction Driven (PRD) approach characterised by emphasis on poverty alleviation and social performance. This thesis argues that the two approaches may have very different impact on poverty. Therefore, a clear distinction between the CMD and PRD are necessary in debates about microfinance impact, whether positive or negative.
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