Systems of credit targeting the poor people have evolved tremendously over the past three decades inspired by the pioneering innovations from the Far East. Microfinance Institutions are nowadays viewed as a very important tool in fighting poverty in society. Microfinance institutions are continuously growing and innovating new products that attract the poor and the vulnerable in society. In the recent past, micro-financial institutions have been targeting women on the ground more than men.
The reason for this is because women have performed better as clients for these institutions and their participation has achieved more desirable results. This study focuses on the role of microfinance and women’s empowerment in poverty reduction. The study uses both quantitative and qualitative research to achieve its objectives.
Systems of credit targeting the poor people have evolved tremendously over the past three decades inspired by the pioneering innovations from the Far East (Armendáriz de Aghion & Morduch, 2005, p.14). Microfinance Institutions are nowadays viewed as a very important tool in fighting poverty in society (Armendáriz de Aghion & Morduch, 2005, p.15). These institutions have been continuously growing and innovating new products that attract the poor and the vulnerable in society (Copestake et al, 2005, p.65). In the recent past, micro-financial institutions have been targeting women on the ground more than men (Copestake, 2002, p.4). The reason for this is because women have performed better as clients for these institutions and their participation has achieved more desirable results (Adams & von Pischke, 1992, p.1666: UNDP, 1997, p.3-5; Coleman, 2006, p.1624).
Similarly, the focus on gender and development over the past 30 years has made significant progress globally. Economists have realized that failure to pay attention to different positions held by men and women in the society in making policies and designing projects has had adverse effects on the development (Alexander, 2001, p.25; Shah & Shankar, 2007, p.1360). This school of thought was endorsed by the International Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 (Todd, 1996, p.2). The main agenda of this conference was on gender equality as a necessity for poverty alleviation. In a summit held by African leaders and stakeholders in 2005, commitment to gender equality and women empowerment was reaffirmed. This was seen as essential for development, peace, and security in Africa (Higgins & Green, 2008, p.3; World Bank, 2001, p.1-2; UN, 2007, p.2).
This empowerment research explores the impact of microfinance on the empowerment of women in Sierra Leon. This study takes a strategic methodological orientation and poses a fundamental question on the ways and extent to which microfinance services help in the empowerment of women in Sierra Leon. This research question plays a major function in this study since some studies have rejected the above claim. These studies maintain that microfinance services only act as a channel for women clients to create for themselves suitable social space in a society that is gender-biased (Hamermesh, 2007, p.7; Fernando, 2006, pp.1-2).
In the Millennium Development Goals, the goal is the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of female gender. This goal is not only important to women but also vital for the realization of other goals (Gelb, 2003, p.24-26). There is empirical evidence that has proven that gender equality and women empowerment are key to achieving other Millennium Development Goals (Dichter & Harper, 2007, p.10). Gender equality and empowerment have played a major role in reducing mortality rates, HIV infections, poverty in general, improvement of agricultural production just to name but a few (Higgins & Green, 2008, p.2; Armendáriz de Aghion & Morduch, 2005, p.16).
Statement of the problem
The UNDP development report 2005 states that gender disparity is among the serious and most persistent forms of inequalities in our world today (UNDP,2010,p.61). Sierra Leon has a population of approximately 6 million, made of 20 ethnic groups and about a million households. Sierra Leon is among the countries with the lowest human development with economic growth slightly above 5%. This country suffered a long civil war. Since the war was declared over in 2002, large numbers of people in this country are still living below the poverty line (Government of Sierra Leone, 2000a, p.2; Government of Sierra Leone, 2001b, p.3; Rutherford, 2001, p.17).
The high rate of poverty not only harms the county’s GDP but also impacts negatively the people’s standard of living. Economic experts argue that the level of poverty and income currently experienced in Sierra Leon is far much below the levels experienced during the colonial era (Snodgrass & Sebstad, 2002, p.33). UNDP report 2010 ranks Sierra Leon at number 158 among the worlds poorest countries with widespread poverty, high child mortality rate, and the life expectancy of about 40 years; adult illiteracy of 30%, and only a third of the population had access to clean water (UNDP, 2010, p.90). Despite their population being slightly higher than men, women in Sierra Leon have limited opportunities (Government of Sierra Leone, 2000b, p.6; Government of Sierra Leone, 2001b, p2-3; Banerjee et al., 2009; Sen, 1999, p.98).
Objective of the study
The overall objective of this study is to find out the role of microfinance and women’s empowerment in poverty alleviation. However, the main objective is further subdivided to ensure the coherent achievement of the results. The first objective will be to identify the importance of gender mainstreaming. The next objective will be to find out whether microfinance benefits the poor in society. The study also examines the long-term impact of microfinance on household welfare. The last objective is to scope and characterize the qualitative study to encourage further exploration and debate on the same subject.
H1: Microfinance services benefit the poor in the society
H2: Microfinance has a positive impact on households in the long run.
H2: Microfinance institutions empower women and help in alleviating poverty.
H3: Promotion of gender equality and women empowerment helps in achieving other development goals.
Definition of terms
Foreign Direct Investment:These are investments on foreign companies/shares as opposed to the local companies /shares. This is because of the globalization of the economic systems.
Government subsidies: This is the cost incurred by the government on behalf of the producers or consumers. This is done to encourage the production/ consumption of specific products and services.
Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): These are voluntary, non-profit making citizen organizations that operate locally, nationally or internationally. They perform numerous functions ranging from humanitarian services to mobilizing citizens to socio-political mobilization.
Poverty: Fundamentally, it is the lack of or state of not being able to access the basic human needs.
Community participation: Involving the community/ locals in socio-economic activities or programs.
Education level: It’s the literacy level of individuals in the household/community.
Number of Banks or Financial institutions: These are the figure of institutions offering financial services to the people. They include banks and microfinance institutions.
Family size: Number of people within a household.
Occupation: It’s one’s employment or profession.
Perception: It’s the common notion, idea or belief.
GDP/Head: This is the figure representing output per person. It allows for the comparison between economies.
Case Study of Sierra Leon
Sierra Leon is a West African Country that borders Guinea to the north, Liberia to the South East and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. This country’s population is estimated to be around 6 million and it covers an area of 71.1 km2. Sierra Leon experienced a decade long civil war that ended in 2002 after signing a peace accord; ever since, the government’s focus has been on the restoration of the economy (Government of Sierra Leone, 2000b, p.5; Government of Sierra Leone, 2002b, p.1-2; Roy, 2010, p.4-6; Hirsch, 2001, p.1).
A lot of emphases is put on the long-term provision of financial services to the poor and the vulnerable. This is because the country experiences the highest rate of unemployment and the only way to provide job opportunities for the unemployed is by expanding the informal sector (Robinson, 2001, p22). The main instrument used by the government and donors to encourage the growth of the informal sector is the microfinance institutions. The country adopted a policy framework that is very conducive for the development of microfinance institutions (Sebstad & Chen, 1996, pp.32-33).
The mainstream financial institutions for instance banks and insurance companies are still exclusive in Sierra Leon. They mostly serve the upper and the middle class excluding the poor and the low-income earners. The majority of the banks in Sierra Leon have heavily invested in government securities leaving them with scarce financial resources to lend to the public. The microfinance sector in Sierra Leon is still in the infancy stage. The microfinance sector consists of miscellaneous projects run by foreign NGOs with limited knowledge in microfinance, local NGOs, and other young enterprises trying their luck in microfinance (Government of Sierra Leone, 2002a, p.4-6; Hashemi, Schuler & Riley, 1996, pp.6-8).
The volume of the financial services present in Sierra Leon today to the small-scale businesses is less than 10% of the potential demand and less than 2% of the actual demand. The country estimates that the development of microfinance institutions and rationalization of the commercial banks to an all-inclusive financial sector will impact directly more than 20% of the country’s population in terms of income and job creation sustainably. Therefore, the government of Sierra Leon and the private sector has been working very closely to essential limitations and opportunities to optimally improve the development of the microfinance institutions (Government of Sierra Leone, 2001b, p.2; Government of Sierra Leone, 2002a, p.65).
Experience from ‘second world’ countries in developing a comprehensive microfinance sector has shown that a vibrant, business-oriented microfinance sector forces the rigid commercial banks to rationalize their operations to achieve their long-term objectives (Robinson, 2002, p.1-3). At the same time, integration of the commercial banks and microfinance institutions is fundamental to the development of an all-inclusive financial sector. The government thus views the microfinance institutions in Sierra Leon as an integral part of the overall financial sectors/system (Government of Sierra Leone, 2001a, p.2-3).
Microfinance institutions in Sierra Leon operate in a manner typical of the post-conflict nations. Their capacity is still limited and non-sustainable. The country can account for about 60 microfinance institutions operating within their border. Operations of these microfinance institutions are limited to less than 20 clients per each. Microfinance institutions with a large client base are Social Action and Poverty Alleviation Program (SAPA), World Hope International, Association of rural development (ARD), American Refugee Committee (ARC) and Prime (Government of Sierra Leone, 2000a, 13’ Government of Sierra Leone, 2001b, p.4).
There is extensive evidence in the developing and some less developed countries demonstrating the positive impact of microfinance institutions on the poor masses (Ledgerwood, White & Brand, 2006, pp.4-6). Most of the microfinance projects in many cases do not benefit the poor. However, there exist evidence signifying the benefits of microfinance on the poor and low-income earners in Sierra Leon such as increased incomes and decreased vulnerability. These microfinance institutions serving the poor and low-income earners often achieve sustainability (Coleman, 1999, p.22; Rodgers et al., 2009, pp.64-66).
According to the 2001 report by the State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, about 14 million of the global poorest women at the present can access financial services from Microfinance institutions and other private non-bank institutions. Majority of these women who access credit invest in their own businesses or businesses they operate. Despite the hardship these women face, most of them have outstanding repayment records. Women have proven the conventional thinking wrong that lending to the poor is not wise (Ledgerwood, White & Brand, 2006, p.10; UN, 2008, p.3; World Bank, 2000, p.15).
Microfinance services have the potential of transforming power relations and empowering a different class in society. Economists predict that in the long run, microfinance programs create a relationship between the service providers and the beneficiaries which empowers them intrinsically (Rogaly, 1996, p.11-13). This is realistic regardless of the approach used by the microfinance institutions to deliver their services. As a result, microfinance has become a fundamental component of many donor organizations and governments’ gender, poverty reduction, and overall development strategies. However, some studies have shown that the provision of microfinance services to poor women alone does not guarantee empowerment and improved welfare conditions (Mosley, 1996, p.15; World Bank, 2001, pp. 5-6).
Foreign donor organizations, government, and economic experts in Sierra Leon have paid much focus to microfinance as a strategy of reaching poor women in the grassroots and involving them in the development course. Globally, microfinance institutions have been quite creative in developing products and services that steer clear of the barriers that have customarily prevented women from accessing financial services (Coleman, 1999, p.115). Nonetheless, few countries in the developing and less developed countries have financial institutions that provide financial services to women under favorable terms and conditions (Copestake, 2002, p.76; Coleman, 2002, p.7).
Research studies conducted by UNDP, World Bank, and UNIFEM other international donor organizations show that lack of gender parity in developing countries is one of the main obstacles to economic growth and development. For instance, the World Bank report of 2001 confirmed that societies that discriminate against women and youths are paying the greater cost in terms of poverty, stagnating economic growth, poor governance, and low standard of living among its people (Pitt, 1998, p.956; World Bank, 2001, p.3). The study conducted by UNDP six years earlier establish a strong connection between gender empowerment measures and gender-related development indicators and its Human development indicator. In general, all these studies provide empirical evidence to show that gender parity is a vital component of any development strategy used by any country (World Bank, 2001, pp.3-4; Johnson & Rogaly, 1997, pp.2-3; pitt et al., 2003, pp.100-101).
Microfinance plays a big role in gender development strategies since it has a direct link to poverty alleviation and women. According to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) focus on gender parity is critical to sound development strategies and acts as the center of any economic and social progress. As part of its poverty alleviation policy, CIDA supports programs that offer access to productive assets to women in developing nations. Microfinance helps to reduce poverty and optimize economic growth by mobilizing women’s productive capacity through enhancing their access to working capital and training. Therefore, women’s access to financial services, development support, and gender equality lies mainly on their possible contribution to the society rather than on the inherent rights as humans and society members (Hulme, & Mosley, p.1996, 10; Bateman, 2010, p. 4).
According to the 2010 UNDP report over 70% of people living on less than a dollar a day are women. Similarly, World Bank’s gender statistics established that women have a higher unemployment rate than men in almost every country. Therefore, women make the majority of the low-income, disorganized informal sector workers in the developing economies. These statistics justify why women should be given higher priority when dealing with matters of the economy and the empowerment of the poor (Matin & Hulme, 2003, p. 23).
Even though many economic studies have established how poverty follows the feminine trend, measurement of its extent presents a lot of challenges. This is because most of these studies usually focus on the level of poverty in the household as a whole, thus poverty experienced by women due to prejudice in the household is normally underreported (Patten & Rosengard, 1991, p.77). Even though women are not always poorer than men as some studies do suggest, their vulnerability to poverty is very high than men. In other words, women who succumb to poverty often have fewer options to escape it. Therefore, access to financial services from microfinance institutions significantly reduces women’s susceptibility to poverty (World Bank, 2000, p.3-4; Pitt Khandker & Cartwright, 2006, p.7-8). Reduction of women’s vulnerability to a larger extent leads to empowerment especially when the greater financial security enables women to become more influential in the household and the community at large (Banerjee et al., 2007, p. 45).
Experiences from society have shown that women spend most of their income in their households; for that reason, upgrading a woman’s financial status means improved welfare of the family as a whole. UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) also explained that women’s success benefits many people in the family. Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Trust Fund (in Sierra Leon also reported that women’s income befits their children especially in matters concerning education, nutrition, health and clothing (Roodman & Morduch, 2009, p. 34).
The study employs program impact assessment methodology. Program impact assessment methodology is usually subject to two sources of bias. These are program placement endogeneity and program participation endogeneity (Gaile & Foster, 1996, p.11). Past studies have shown that these two biases often lead to misleading results if overlooked. Social Action and Poverty Alleviation Program (SAPA) conducted a survey in Bo district, Sierra Leon to establish the impact of microfinance on, households, and gender and poverty alleviation (Odell, 2010, p.6). To establish the level of participation of different genders within the household in the microfinance programs the study used the following model:
Cijf = XijBcf Ucif + Ecijf…………………… (1)
Cijm = XijBcm Ucim + Ecijm…………………………… (2)
Where Cijf is the credit demand by women and Cijm is the credit demand of men of ith households in jth village of (f) females and (m) males. X is the vector of household characteristics (such as age and education level of the head); B is the vector of the unknown parameters. U is the unmeasured determinant of the demand for credit which is fixed; e is the error term (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, p.2007).
Regression analysis established that both middle-income households and poor households participated in the microfinance programs. However, there were more women than men in these programs. The level of education was also a major determinant of the level of participation of the household. Those who are educated are less participative; but if the household decides to participate, education of the male head increases the amount of borrowing. The study supports the opinion that microfinance services also reach the poor in Sierra Leon.
The higher the female education the lesser the participation while the reverse is true among their male counterparts. Poor households identified by the value of assets they own participated more in the microfinance programs. In other words, poor people participated more in microfinance programs. The question that remains here is whether they benefit from their participation in microfinance programs.
Both the short-run and the long-run impacts of microfinance are significant in economic analysis. Short-run impacts such as increased purchasing power help in alleviating poverty. On the other hand, the long-term impacts would be whether microfinance programs increase household income and their wealth sustainably. The overall impact of the microfinance programs is measured by the following model:
Yijt = XijtBy +Cijftdf + Cijmtdm+ uyj + eyijt……. (3)
Where Yijt represents per capita consumption and Cij represents credit demand; df and dm represent female and male credit respectively. Estimation of the cross-sectional data arises due to probable correlation between Ucif, Ucjm, and Uyj, and of ecij with eyij (Pitt and Khander, 1998, p.25; Noor, 2008, p.1603). This model correlates the household results and the demand for credit. Further differentiation of equation (3) yields the following equation.
∆Yij =∆Xij βy +∆Cijmδf +∆ Cijmδm +∆ eyij………. (4).
The result showed that those who participate in microfinance programs do better than those who do not participate in terms of per capita income, per capita expenditure, and household assets. The Bi-Variate correlation analysis showed that women had a positive impact on the above three subjects (per capita income, per capita expenditure and net worth) and a negative impact on poverty.
The response elasticity for female borrowing from the results was 0.03 for per capita consumption and a net worth of 0.06. Response elasticity for men was 0.05 and 0.11 respectively. A 10% rise increase in borrowing minimizes the probability of being above the poverty line by 0.2 and 0.3 for females and males respectively. This supports the notion that microfinance programs help in the alleviation of poverty in the long run, and help the poor to meet their short-term/ immediate needs.
The equation below was used to assess the aggregate impact of the program on a village level
Yijt = XijtBy +Cijftδf + Cijmtδm+ µyj + eyijt
Where Cijt and Cjmt represent the village aggregate amount of borrowing by female and male borrowers respectively
Unlike the household equation, the village aggregate model assumes each and every household receives the same amount of credit irrespective of their participation in the microfinance program. The village level, fixed-effect method is employed here to establish the program’s effect on the welfare of the households as a whole. With other village attributes controlled, the results showed that microfinance programs influence the indicators for the aggregate village level welfare which are the same as household indicators. Even though household net worth rises with female borrowing and increased income is common for both household level and aggregate village level.
Program evaluation is one of the most receptive methods used in impact assessment. In the study based on the cross-sectional data from Bo district, Sierra Leon, we have established that microfinance programs improve the lives of the poor households who are members of the Social Action and Poverty Alleviation Program (SAPA). However, the study assumed other external factors which may influence the results to be constant for instance infrastructure. Microfinance programs raise the per capita income, per capita consumption, and net worth of the households thus fulfills the goal of poverty alleviation. The welfare impact of the microfinance programs is also positive for the participating and non-participating households, meaning this program helps the poor beyond income.
Microfinance programs have spill-over effects on the local economy, but the impact is negligible.
No matter how negligible the overall impact, microfinance programs are very important in Sierra Leon especially in the rural economy and women empowerment. From the study, we have established that these programs overwhelmingly reach the poor especially women who have limited access to finance. However, with massive expenses accumulated as a result of reaching more people and recovering loans, microfinance programs experience difficulty in attaining fiscal independence despite their struggle to diversify their programs and integrate with the mainstream financial institutions.
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