Microfinance is the provision of financial services such as loans, savings, insurance, and training to people living in poverty. It is one of the great success stories in the developing world in the last 30 years and is widely recognized as a just and sustainable solution in alleviating global poverty.
The industry began by providing small loans to emerging entrepreneurs to start or expand businesses. Opportunity International was one of the first nonprofit organizations to recognize the benefits of providing capital to people struggling to work their way out of poverty. Over the years, with Opportunity leading the way, the microfinance sector has expanded its financial service offerings to better meet client needs. Along with providing more flexible loan products and business and personal development training, Opportunity offers savings and insurance to help clients effectively navigate the daily hardships they face. Without these services, clients are continually at risk of slipping back into poverty because of unforeseen circumstances.
Microfinance organizations make it a priority to serve the particular needs of women, since a staggering 70 percent of all those living in extreme poverty are female. Women are often excluded from education, the workplace, owning property and equal participation in politics. They produce one half of the world’s food, but own just one percent of its farmland. Nearly 85 percent of Opportunity’s loan clients are women. While Opportunity gladly extends loans to men, the organization believes the greatest opportunity for interrupting cycles of extreme poverty come from microfinance programs that target female entrepreneurs. When women improve their circumstances, they also improve the lives of their children. By investing in nutrition and education, they help to create a better future for their children and their communities.
Despite the success of life-transforming microfinance services, the World Bank says that the industry is not close to meeting the demand. Five hundred million people living in poverty could benefit from a small business loan and only one-third of the world’s population has access to any kind of bank account. The lack of access is particularly severe in sub-Saharan Africa where the World Bank estimates that microfinance is reaching only a small percentage of the economically active population. In sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest countries, less than 10 percent of the population has an account with a financial institution. In response, Opportunity has committed to building scalable, sustainable and accessible banks throughout the developing world to provide loans, training, savings and insurance products tailored to the specific needs of each region.
As the microfinance industry continues to mature, there is a danger that it will drift toward a more secure client base. It is critical that microfinance organizations continue to focus on those with the greatest needs–those who have been displaced, those in rural areas, those who traditional institutions consider unbankable–the most marginalized people. Maintaining that focus, microfinance can help create a world in which the underserved have fair access to economic opportunities and the hope to move beyond poverty.