Introduction to an ongoing debate
Supporters of micro finance and credit consist of a wide range of groups including international banks, intergovernmental organizations, NGO’s, charities and political parties, both to the left and rights of the centre. These are located all over the developed and developing world which link the poor to global finance. All share the basic view that micro loans give poor people a very good opportunity to solve their everyday problems.
The political left welcomes the focus micro finance gives to solving global poverty and gender inequality.
The political right meanwhile welcomes the opportunity micro finance gives to people to take control over their own affairs without government interference.
The growth of micro-credit optimism has nonetheless been shadowed by increasing criticisms directed at what in the last 10 years has become ‘a loan-allocation industry.' This has led to a heated debate developing, concerning if, how and under what circumstances micro credit actually leads to increased incomes, reduces poverty and/or leads to women's empowerment. The opponents state that micro finance focuses only on the economics of poverty while the actual politics of poverty are not being addressed. The rationale for lending mainly to women also lies in the global debate and discourse concerning women’s rights, and projects often make direct appeals to and are popular amongst left wing political movements, simply because their target group is women. Critics also point out that serious grassroots development would perhaps be more successful if it was directed at the household as a whole, instead of only the female members.
Micro finance is a global phenomenon that comprises thousands of different organizations that together distribute billions of dollars. Microfinance projects range from strictly profit maximizing institutions to organizations that balance between economic sustainability and poverty alleviation, from projects that are non-profit to projects that can be considered as cash handouts with few, if any, conditions regarding repayment or usage of monies allocated.
There are a very large number of micro finance and credit projects operating today all over the developing world, and it is neither intended nor possible to give here a comprehensive picture of their reach and impact on poverty reduction. The discussion points here are relevant only to the type of organisation that dominants the micro finance landscape; that is, those of the Grameen Bank style, that attempt to alleviate poverty and at the same time, endeavour to be economically sustainable. This means that they aim to be free from donor support and operate in a manner where the interest rates on loans cover all administration and operating costs.