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In 2002 in the run-up to the USA’s second invasion of Iraq, when he was challenged about the allegations made by the Bush administration about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) arsenal, Donald Rumsfeld made a memorable logical statement: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. … Simply because you do not have evidence that something exists does not mean that you have evidence that it doesn’t exist.”

A parody of Rumsfeld from the (massively under-appreciated) comic series “The Boondocks”. Warning: coarse language.

In terms of twisted logic, Rumsfeld was right: the fact that intelligence couldn’t find conclusive proof for WMDs in Iraq didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t there; their available methods simply weren’t good enough to find them. But empirically, of course, he was wrong: as we now know, the reason why no proof was found for the WMDs was, they simply weren’t there.

Fast-forward to 2011, to a debate about the evidence for positive impacts of microfinance. Six British researchers recently published an exhaustive study (actually a Systematic Review, S.R.); as I explained on this blog, they pulled together all existing 2,643 publications about microfinance’s impact and looked in depth at the best 58.

Their conclusions – which are too complex and fine-grained to really present in a nutshell – effectively: (1) raised doubts about the research designs used so far, (2) re-iterated that the available evidence could “neither support nor deny the notion that microfinance is pro-poor and pro-women”, and (3) suggested that there has been an “inappropriate optimism towards microfinance”. And finally, they suggested that pursuing microfinance without proof that it works bears the risk of not running other programmes which could work better – opportunity cost. Read the rest of this entry »

What is the evidence of the impact
of microfinance on the well-being of
poor people?

Maren Duvendack, Richard Palmer-Jones, James G Copestake, Lee Hooper, Yoon Loke, Nitya Rao

August 2011

London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

A new systematic review of the evidence on microfinance, published last week, is dynamite for the world’s most popular development policy. Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian has already referred to it as “microfinance’s sober reckoning”, likening the findings to a “hangover after a big party”. Bangladeshi news calls it a “damning report”.

Being co-published by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), previously a strong microfinance supporter, this “study of studies” comes from deep within the policy community – a first for a truly critical study of microfinance. The authors (economists and medical researchers mainly based at the University of East Anglia) looked at thousands of existing studies on microfinance. Their conclusions are anything but minced words:

Our report shows that almost all impact evaluations of microfinance suffer from weak methodologies and
inadequate data, thus adversely affecting the reliability of impact estimates. Nevertheless authors often draw strong policy conclusions generally supportive of microfinance. This may have lead to misconceptions about the actual effects of programmes, thereby diverting attention from the search for perhaps more pro-poor interventions and more robust evaluations. (from the Policy Brief)

So, after 30-odd years and $ hundreds of billions of lending, there still is no proof that microfinance actually works. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
November 2019
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