Middle East loan experiment targets the poor
In rural Egyptian villages half a world away from the Baker Institute, researchers led by institute fellow Mahmoud El-Gamal are testing micro-loan (or small loan) systems designed to help the poor help themselves. The loan amounts are modest — anywhere from $5 to $100 — but could make a vast difference in the lives of villagers who might use the funds to grow vegetables or raise chickens for market, or perhaps buy a sewing machine. “The idea isn’t to tell them what to do with the loan, but to allow communities to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” said El-Gamal, who was recently named the institute's Will Clayton Fellow in International Economics.
Since last fall, El-Gamal and his team, funded by the institute’s Kelly Day Endowment on the Status of Women and Human Rights in the Middle East, have tested two lending models for the project: bank loans based on trust and accountability instead of collateral (such as those pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh); and credit union-style loans based on Rotating Savings and Credit Associations, which rotate interest-free credit among members and are therefore acceptable in all religions that forbid usury, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “The data so far confirms (participants) are more likely to accept the credit union model than the bank model,” El-Gamal said. This is not surprising, he added. Many poor Muslims reject interest-based loans on religious grounds. In addition, surveys have shown that a large percentage of the region’s population refuse bank loans, primarily because of lending rates that would be considered predatory in the United States.
El-Gamal, working closely with researchers from Yale and The University of Texas at Dallas, has begun to analyze the data collected from field experiments for an upcoming report. It could take 10 years to complete the study and put a concrete system into place. “This is a very long-term research program, but what we're trying to do is find the prototype for the poor to leverage their own resources to lift themselves out of poverty," he said.
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The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy is a nonpartisan public policy think tank located on the campus of Rice University in Houston, Texas. The institute's distinguished fellows and scholars research and collaborate with experts from academia, government, the media, business and private organizations on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy.