Soundbites from Nancy Barry, former President and CEO of Women’s World Banking

Last night I had the good fortune of sitting in on a talk given by Nancy Barry, a pioneer in the field of creating private, market-based solutions to poverty alleviation for women across the globe. Her talk was very powerful and on many points, spot on accurate in my opinion.

A veteran of the World Bank, she was the second president of of Women’s World Banking from 1990 to 2006. In the fall of 2006, Nancy started launched Nancy Barry Associates–Enterprise Solutions to Poverty, which works with major corporations, emerging entrepreneurs, and leading business schools to build business models that engage low income producers as suppliers, distributors and consumers of products that build income and assets. Simply put, her views come from a career of practice knowledge and her points should be taken with great seriousness.

Below are some highlights from her speech, which was titled “Microfinance and Beyond: Enterprise Solutions to Poverty,” and some of my own disagreements.

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MFIs tend to lose focus as they ‘evolve’

A new report released by the Women’s World Banking (WWB) observes that as many microfinance institutions transform from non-profits to traditional financial intermediaries, they tend to shift away from their original focus on helping poor women and instead focus on making larger loans a la a traditional financial institution. The results were disheartening as the report found that:

… five years after “transformation” for 27 organizations and compared them to 25 that had not commercialized. On average, it found the proportion of women served by transformed institutions dropped from 88 percent to 60 percent. It also found that average loan sizes were two to three times greater than those of non-commercialized outfits.

Written by Christina Frank, the report also highlighted the possible benefits of such a transition.

Transformed institutions tend to extend their borrower reach and diversify their product offerings. The study reveals that the number of active borrowers increased by 30 percent a year on average for commercialized MFIs, compared to 25 percent for the non-profits. Also, since many countries do not allow non-profits to take deposits, savings accounts are more widely available with transformed MFIs. The number of savings accounts grew by an average of 45 percent annually for the commercialized institutions, while those in the non-commercialized group that were already able to offer such accounts only saw 28 percent average growth.

This phenomenon is something that needs to be closely monitored, but as can be seen by the report there are arguments for both sides. Theoretically as long as new MFIs come in to serve the now abandoned population, this evolutionary cycle may not be that disastrous, but one must then question the sustainability of the microfinance growth model generally then.