Journal of Microfinance / ESR Review


This article compares the performance of selected South African microcredit nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have a poverty-alleviation focus against various benchmarks drawn from the MicroBanking Bulletin. Donors, governments, and many analysts regard sustainability as the benchmark of microfinance institutions' (MFIs) performance. However, the most relevant question is whether microcredit NGOs are doing as well as they can in their context. Of particular contextual importance is income inequality in a society. South Africa has the world's second worst income inequality, after neighbouring Botswana. This creates a situation in which microcredit NGOs must recover "First World" costs, particularly salaries, from revenues based on clients who can only afford loans on a par with Third World countries. Compounding this situation are structural obstacles to microenterprise in South Africa, as well as obstacles to productivity in microcredit NGOs. Taken together, this creates a "salary burden" for South African microcredit NGOs, which is the highest in the world according to relevant benchmarks. South African MFI managers face significant obstacles to improving productivity to compensate for the divergence between staff and client living levels. These include an inadequate skills base, the small scale of the market, rapid labor turnover, and limited resources for capacity development. South African MFIs face the options of moving upmarket (which many have done), adopting methodological innovation or new product development, or closing. Of these, there is a strong argument to be made for supported savings and credit approaches as an alternative to NGO-based microcredit. Such an approach has the advantages of greater voluntary input and social capital formation.


Ted Baumann is Coordinator of the Community Finance Network (CMN) and Director of the Bay Research and Consultancy Services, Muizenberg, South Africa.



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Journal of Microfinance

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