The credit crisis has provided a series of unpleasant lessons about the importance of financial services. The first lesson was about credit: we began to realise that it would not always be possible to extend our overdrafts or refinance our mortgages cheaply. The second lesson, as queues formed outside Northern Rock, was about savings: there is no iron law of economics that says that the money in your savings account is 100 per cent safe. Last September, those of us still peeping through our fingers at the financial news learnt a third lesson, about the payment system itself: it began to be conceivable that you might write a cheque and the cheque would bounce, not because you lacked the funds to honour it but because your bank did.
The same lessons are being learnt in a different context, that of financial services for the very poor. In the 1970s, pioneers in Latin America and Bangladesh – most famously Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank – demonstrated the importance of affordable credit for the poor, and discovered that poor borrowers could reliably repay loans. The early experiments grew into a worldwide microcredit movement.
But just as we were rudely reminded that there is more to our banking system than cheap mortgages, so microcredit experts have been realising that there is more to microfinance than loans for the poor: savings, insurance and payment systems matter too.
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