Enda inter-arabe: Making the Case for Micro-Finance

Feb 28, 2011
Current troubles in several Arab countries have led to serious job losses. Self-employment through micro-enterprise supported by micro-credit can provide one solution to this. But micro-credit itself is today under scrutiny.
The international NGO, Enda inter-arabe, has been operating in Tunisia since 1990. It began micro-credit in 1995 and has been specialised in supporting micro-entrepreneurs since 2001. Today, Enda inter-arabe has 60 branches throughout Tunisia and employs 770 people, of whom some 640 are young university graduates, a category desperately in need of jobs. With a portfolio of some 80 million Tunisian Dinars (41.11 million Euro), Enda currently serves 160 000 people, 73% of whom are women. With a growth rate of 30% per annum, it expects this number to rise to 300 000 by end-2012.

Having begun with grants from the European Union and the Spanish cooperation agency, Enda inter-arabe is today self-sufficient. Its income covers all costs and it is refinanced by commercial loans from Tunisian banks and international financial institutions.

Twenty-five per cent of Enda’s portfolio is now in rural areas and includes local shops, artisans and other categories, as well as agriculture. Enda plans to introduce loans for animal rearing and for agricultural production. There are also loans for home improvement and to assist with back-to-school expenses. These can also be used for adult training courses.
Since the “father” of micro-credit, Mohamed Yunus, won the Nobel Prize in 2006, the micro-credit industry has come under scrutiny and doubts have been raised about its ability to help the poor grow out of poverty. Many claim the cost of micro-credit is
exorbitant and this is certainly true in some cases.

So is micro-finance effective in helping the poor? Studies tend to show that access to credit at least allows the poor not to get poorer while the alternative - money lenders - costs much more. Yet there are many potential pitfalls in the microfinance industry. Serving tiny loans to multiple clients is very expensive, the risk is high, refinancing is costly, inflation eats away at capital... A lack of rigour in management and especially failing to ensure a repayment rate of at least 95% can lead to a culture of non-repayment that dilapidates capital. There is also the risk of providing loans that are too large, with the risk of over-indebtedness and, again, non-repayment.

There are, however, many examples of successful micro-credit initiatives and there is now the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater by lumping together the efficient with the inefficient providers.

Given the current questioning of the real impact of micro-credit on poor people, it is essential for the industry to respond. The focus must be on the many and real success stories to counterbalance the failures and weaknesses - and there are also many - that the press tends to focus on.
As Enda and many others have shown, properly managed, Micro-Finance Institutions that stress their social mission of providing the poor with access to financial services, do assist the poor and help them manage the poverty equation.

An important aspect of micro-entrepreneurship is empowerment of women. Once women generate even a small personal income, they gain a say in family affairs and in dignity. With rising unemployment, the female micro-entrepreneur sometimes even becomes the main family bread winner.
To conclude, it is unfair and unrealistic to expect too much from this single sector as a path out of poverty. It is most effective as a complement to efficient government poverty-relief policies. To the contrary, structural adjustment programmes, by severely reducing services to the poor, like health and education, have shown themselves to be the path into poverty.

The debate on micro-credit should be placed in context. Michael Cracknell is British. He co-founded enda inter-arabe in 1990 with his Tunisian wife, Essma Ben Hamida. He has degrees in Arts, in Political Science and in development studies, as well as a Doctorate of laws. He was Secretary General of the Paris-based International Federation of Agricultural Producers for 12 years ending in 1985 and has worked as a consultant for FAO, IFAD and other UN organisations.

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