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Poverty and Microcredit : New Realities and Strategic Issues 

Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed
Managing Director
Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF)

In recent years, in its wider dimension microcredit known as microfinance, has become a much favoured intervention for poverty alleviation in the developing countries and least development countries.  There is scarcely a poor country and development oriented donor agency (multilateral, bilateral and private) not involved in promotion (in one form or other) of a microfinance programme.  Many achievements are claimed about the impact of microfinance programmes, and an outside observer can not but wonder at the range of diversity of the benefits claimed.

With an estimated 1.3 billion people of the world (around 1/3 of the world's population) living on incomes of less than $1 a day, the governments of the poor countries face enormous challenge to reduce poverty.  This is particularly so in the countries of South and East Asia where the majority of the world's poor live. 

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Various studies demonstrate that rapid and sustainable poverty reduction depends on interaction of a wide range of policy measures and interventions at macro, meso and micro levels.  The availability of microfinance, broadly defined as the provision of financial services such as savings and credit to the poor household is necessary but not a sufficient condition for rapid poverty reduction.

Nevertheless, microfinance can play an important role.  One element of an effective strategy for poverty reduction is to promote the productive use of the poor's labour.  This can be done by creating opportunities for wage employment, by raising agricultural productivity among small and marginal farmers, and by increasing opportunities for self-employment.  Microfinance is particularly relevant to increasing the productivity of self-employment in the informal sector of the economy.  In an environment where economic growth is occurring, microfinance also has the capacity to transmit the benefits of growth more rapidly and more equitably through the informal sector.  It is well documented that for many microentrepreneurs, lack of access to financial services is a critical constraint to the establishment or expansion of viable microenterprises. Microfinance may also enable small and marginal farmers to purchase the inputs they need to increase their productivity, as well as financing a range of activities adding value to agricultural output and in the rural off-farm economy.  Access to savings facilities also plays a key part in enabling the poor to smooth their consumption expenditures, and in financing investments which improve productivity in agriculture and other economic activities.

In recent years MFIs have moved from the margins of the financial system towards the mainstream.  It is now more widely accepted that populations traditionally excluded by the formal financial sector can, in fact, be a profitable market niche for innovative banking services.  The 1997 Microcredit Summit launched a global movement to reach 100 million of the world's poorest families with credit for self-employment and other financial and business services by the year 2005.  Much remains to be done, however, to integrate microfinance fully into the mainstream of domestic financial systems, and for orthodox financial institutions, notably commercial banks, to recognise its full potential.

Despite recent records of favourable economic growth rates compared to many other countries, the current economic growth rate in Bangladesh is in decline at just over 5%, a long way short of the double digit figure assumed necessary by many to lift the country out of poverty. This is significantly attributed to a decline in the investment ratio. Part of the problem has been the assumption among many economists, especially within the international agencies, that such growth can only be led by those already established in purportedly dynamic sectors of the market, stimulated by various forms of public sector investment such as infrastructure. However the widespread rent-seeking in these sectors of the economy is consistent with investment strike, thus removing the intended trickle-down effects envisaged by conventional economics.

The alternative argument suggests that the poor themselves can positively contribute to economic growth rather than relying on trickle down from others. It is argued that the poor, still largely confined to the agricultural sector, broadly conceived, can themselves lead this dynamic sector with appropriate financial support through both larger scale trading and services activities, as well as through investment in higher return technologies in production, processing, transportation and marketing activities. There are also related prospects for the poor in leading the development of rural infrastructure and gaining much value-added from it. However to facilitate this approach to economic growth with equity, it is essential to remove the distortions in rural and urban financial markets which at present encourage both rent-seeking and allocative inefficiency, while functioning to exclude the enormous unmet demand from poorer classes for capital widening and deepening.

Money begets money.  Adam Smith said "Money, says the proverb, makes money. When you have got a little, it is often easy to get more.  The great difficulty is to get that little" ("The Wealth of Nations" 1937, p. 93). It is very difficult for the poor to get small working capital from formal banking system for various reasons.  A collateral free working capital loan is the requirement at the door steps of the poor at the right time to help them facilitate and start feasible intended IGAs.  It is with this background that, microfinance is seen as one of the significant approaches to poverty alleviation

Among other factors, the basis of emergence of microfinance (specially in the semiformal sector) is the mismatch between, supply perspective (mostly formal sector) and the demand factors (need of microfinance) which may be summarised in the table 1 below:

Table 1:  Comparison/Mismatch between Demand and Supply

Demand Perspective  (Needs of the Poor) Supply Perspective  (Traditional Formal Sector)

Credit + : Savings, emergency needs, Consumption & Productive loans

Credit alone: Poor cannot save and  cannot repay loans.

Interest Rate is not a determinant factor for credit.  Subsidy welcomed

Poor cannot afford higher interest rates.  They avail loan primarily at subsidised rate.

Credit at door step

Cannot reach due to high Cost.

Empowerment leads to economic upliftment

Empowerment is not envisaged in the system.

Grassroots participatory organisations to address socio-economic issues

Co-operatives are meant for this purpose.

A favourable environment to facilitate economic decisions by the poor

The planners and executives know better as to what is in the best interest of the poor.

Government programmes are charity oriented

Political systems give wrong signals.

Two decades of development practice in Bangladesh have established that micrcredit, savings and other financial services are important tools to fight poverty. Although on-going research is yet to establish whether financial services to the poor actually eliminates poverty, it is clear that access to financial services does indeed alleviate poverty. On-going efforts to at least contain poverty is thus crucial alongside specific poverty eliminating strategies. There is an argument to be made therefore, that financial services should be made accessible to all kinds of poor in Bangladesh. These efforts should aim not only to address the needs of today's poor and the poorest, but also to address the needs of tomorrow's poor as well.

Studies have established that different groups of the poor need diverse financial services. For example, a strong case can be made for providing savings services to the poorest of the poor to include them in the financial system. It has been documented that the poorest of the poor may not have the debt capacity to be regular borrowers of microcredit programs; that they self-select themselves out of these programs or are intentionally excluded by the credit-providing institutions themselves. Comprehensive package of financial services with flexible mechanism is needed to reach the poorest of the poor. On the other hand, poor producers or marginal farmers may be in a position to effectively use loans to raise their income levels, and eventually be in a position to afford other financial services such as crop insurance, health insurance, consumer credit, housing improvement loans, mortgages, and educational loans. There is case therefore, for developing a financial system that will offer diversified and flexible financial services to the poor.

The global picture regarding the outreach of microcredit provides the contributions made by the programme.  Till December 31, 2001, a total of 2186 MFIs have reported reaching 54.9 million clients with a current loan, 26.8 million of whom were among the poorest when they started with the programme.  Out of the 2186 institutions that had reported to the Microcredit Summit Campaign, 1075 are in Asia, 740 are in Africa, 230 are in Latin America and the Carribean, 59 are in North America, 59 are in Europe and the NIS, and 23 of them are in the Middle East. Out of the total global clients of 54.9 million, 47.9 million are in Asia, 4.5 million are in Africa and 2 million are in Latin America and Carribean.  Asia can rightfully boast about a vibrant microcredit sector which stands high above all other achievements elsewhere on the globe.

The MFIs and other financial institutions providing microfinance services have expanded their outreach from a few thousand clients in the 1970s to over 23 million in the late 2000 in the Asia-Pacific region.  The developments in microfinance in the region have set in motion a process of change from an activity that was entirely subsidy dependent to one that can be a viable business.

Some of the salient features of the Asia-Pacific region are:

            MFIs mobilizing voluntary savings have shattered the myth that poor households cannot and do not save, and proved that savings can be successfully mobilized from poor households.  This is perhaps a more important achievement of microfinance in the region than the expanded outreach in access to credit.

(ii)          MFIs and their clients have shown that the poor are creditworthy (poor women, in particular) and financial services can be provided to and accessed by the poor on a profitable basis at low transaction costs without relying on physical collateral, if it is done with appropriate financial technology and a commitment to achieve efficiency.

(iii)         Microfinance services have triggered a process toward broadening and deepening of rural financial markets.

(iv)       Microfinance services have strengthened the social and human capital of the poor, particularly women, at the household, enterprise, and community level.

Sustainable delivery of microfinance services on a large scale in some countries has generated positive developments in microfinance policies and practices among all stakeholder: governments, central banks, microfinance service providers, and external funding agencies.

Back during late 1970s, when the Jobra experiment was underway under Professor M. Yunus, the Dheki Rin Prokolpa was initiated by the Bangladesh Bank in collaboration with the Swanirvar Bangladesh, and several other pilot schemes were initiated by a handful of the NGOs who were active then. At that time, it was difficult then to conceive that these initiatives would lead to a major micro-credit movement, which would make Bangladesh known to the rest of the world. Even during the 1980s, in spite of Grameen Bank's success, the main discourse amongst development practitioners in Bangladesh centred around the desirability of micro-credit program as opposed to concientization. By 1990, unhindered experimentation in the fields led to a quiet resolution of the debate and the country experienced a massive expansion of micro-finance activities during the 1990s. This is borne out by the figures on the time path of MFI expansion (see Figure 1), as well as, by the expansion in membership in these MFIs (see Figure 2). This rapid expansion drew attention from all important quarters – policymakers, academia and development practitioners – each trying to grapple with the unfolding stream of issues and trying to shape the course of the social and economic dynamics initiated due to introduction of microcredit. With a view to meet the demand for fund for re-lending by the development partners (NGO/MFIs), and due to an urge to coordinate the flow of such fund to appropriate use, the Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) came into being in late 1990. Over the years, their share in the revolving loan fund of the MFIs increased – from 9 percent in 1996 to 24 percent in 1999 (see Table 2). It was therefore quite natural that PKSF took keen interest in initiating a study on monitoring and evaluation of the microcredit programs in Bangladesh and the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) undertook study during 1997-2000.

Figure 1

Note: This captures only those MFIs which responded to CDF query during their bi-annual surveys.

Source: Compiled from CDF data.

Figure 2

Note: Each unit along the horizontal axes is two years, except for the last unit (between 12 & 13), which captures the difference between 1996 and 1997.
Source: BIDS Census of 91 villages, October-December 1997.

Table 2: Source of Revolving Loan Fund of MFIs (percentages of total)

Source December, 1999 June, 2001
Member's savings



Service charge



Foreign donation



Local bank









Of which, own fund



               Local donation






Number borrowing from PKSF

122 (22.85)


Number of MFIs included



Number borrowing from PKSF

122 (22.85)


Note: Figures in parentheses in the last row are percentages.
Source: Compiled from CDF Statistics, different volumes.

Of the various employment activities (mainly self-employment), small-scale business/trade is the most important, accounting for more than 40% of fund disbursed by the MFIs. On the other hand agriculture, food processing, transport, housing and livestock sectors were getting relatively small portions of fund.  This is shown in Table-3 below.

Table 3 : Sub-sector-wise microfinance disbursement of NGO-MFIs

Sub-Sector % disbursed up to June 2000 (476 MFIs) % disbursed up to December 2000 (469 MFIs) % disbursed up to June 2001 (468 MFIs)









Food Processing




Small business




Cottage industries
































Sources : CDF Statistics, Various Volumes.

The table shows that a transformation is taking place in the economic activities of the poor households in the rural areas. In the initial years of microcredit operation during eighties, the traditional sector including fisheries and poultry accounted for a larger segment of self-employment activities of the poor. BIDS surveys conducted during 1997 to 2000 for PKSF funded MFIs, show the predominance of small-scale trade and lately medium and large-scale trading has assumed prominence.

The major objective of microcredit (MC) is to create income among poor households and thereby alleviate poverty.  In this respect the question can be asked at two levels, first, whether MC leads to an improvement in income and second whether the increase in income is sufficient to lift them above the poverty level.  There is also a third aspect related to the second, that is whether poverty alleviation takes place on a sustained basis.  Though most impact assessment studies examine the impact of MC on income, the analyses concentrated on mainly the first question.  It should be mentioned that most studies consider the total impact on growth of income and do not examine whether a redistribution of credit fund has a redistributive impact on poverty and income of households.

A summary of the findings of some impact assessment studies is presented in table 4.

Table – 4 : A summary of the findings of IAS (Impact Assessment Studes)

Source Economic Indicators Type of Change Social Indicators Type of Change

Hossain 1985

Return on investment

Household income







Hossain 1988

Working Capital

Non-agricultural investment

Agricultural investment

Labour force participation rate







Social Investment


BIDS 1990




Land Purchase





Child woman ratio

School enrollment



IMEC 1995

Economic empowerment


Social empowerment


Pitt & Khandker 1995

Various labour supply

Men's labor supply

Household Expenditure




Girl's schooling

Contraceptive use

Women's non land asset




Rahman 1996

Household expenditure on consumption

Human Capital and fixed investment







Number of meals taken by men

Number of meals taken by woman

School enrolment rate

Attitude to education

pure drinking water









Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) commissioned a longitudinal Monitoring and Evaluation Study (MES) which was conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). Started in 1997, the studies were completed in 2001. The study covered 3026 sample households spread over 91 villages located in 13 of PKSF POs operational areas. A census was administered in late 1997, covering 19151 households in 91 villages. The first and the second round surveys under the study were administered in 1998 and 1999 and the third and final round survey was conducted in 2000. Some findings on the impacts of microcredit as presented here are gleaned from the reports and papers prepared by BIDS.

The summary of the PKSF-ME Study by BIDS is shown in the Table-5.

Table- 5 : Impacts of Microfinance (compared to non-participants)

Broad Category Indicatiors Type of Change Cause of Change

Economic Impact



Self employment activities

Food Security


Greater access to cultivable land through the rental market

Wage (land poor)


Transport and other non-agril activities sup. by MC

Employment (land poor)


better access to the land rental market

wage emoloyment in non-ag. sector

Assets (land poor)


av. low land size than non-participants

larger operational holding

impact of MF (poultry livestock, bi-cycles, rickshaw/van)

Social and other development impacts

Fertility and contraceptive use


program participation

female methods dominate

Health and Nutrition


program placement effect

Sanitation and drinking water


program participation

Literacy and school enrollment of children


program participation

Social mobility


do not vary significantly

Women participation and HH welfare


participation in a MC program

increasing women's income

          (a) Targeting the poorest versus Achieving Financial Sustainability: The dilema in Microcredit

Studies of microcredit programs show that these have been successful in improving the economic condition of the members.  Macro studies, however, show that there has not been any significant decline in the overall levels of poverty.  This apparent contradiction may be partially due to the fact that the microcredit programs have not been very successful in including the hard core poor, who constitute about half of the poor in Bangladesh.  The poorest may have been left out because quite often the destitute themselves feel they are not credit worthy and the microcredit programs also do not judge them to have the entrepreneurial ability necessary to invest the credit properly.  Perhaps microcredit, especially in the form that is currently in practice, is not the answer for the hard core poor.

          (b) Widening the Target Group: New Products and New Financial Technologies

Currently, MFIs cover approximately 35 percent of the target households in Bangladesh. This means that MFIs have the potential to expand horizontally—devising ways to include more people from the target group.  As older borrowers graduate to higher income brackets, new products need to be devised to meet their changing needs.  These new products may also help the MFIs to expand vertically by tapping borrowers outside the target group.  A possible way to expand horizontally is to include more men.  Research in Bangladesh and elsewhere show that men usually borrow larger amount.  However, their repayment record is not as good as women.  Including more men will allow MFIs to attain sustainability quickly, but it will also mean that the repayment performance of an institution will suffer as well.  As the microcredit movement matures it faces the varied requirements of the borrowers and the need to offer a larger package of products.

          (c)  Accessing non-Donor Source of Financing

It is fair to say that donor funding and enthusiasm for microcredit will diminish in the future.  This means that MFIs have to look for new avenues to fund their activities, potential source of fund will be to mobilize saving deposits of members and non-members.  Another alternative is to try to tap commercial source of funding such as commercial banks, the local stock market and financial market.  This option might be open only to large and well-established MFIs and may not be feasible for small MFIs.

          (d)  Internal and External Governance Issues

Research in Bangladesh and other places show that a crucial element for the success of a credit granting NGO-MFI is the quality of leadership.  Most successful NGO-MFIs were started by a charismatic leader or a group of energetic leaders.  This phenomenon has positive as well as negative consequence.  The positive aspect is that society is able to produce these innovators, but then it raises the issue of where is the next generation of leaders going to come from?

There is an understanding that the microcredit movement has evolved in a regulatory vacuum.  In particular, there is no regulatory framework that caters to the special nature of MFIs.  Given the current outreach of microcredit it may be necessary to develop a rational regulatory framework through consensus.

          (e) Service Charge

The issue of service charge (interest rate) that an MFI should charge on its loan given to the poor borrowers has received attention with mixed interpretations. Many think that it is too high and many think it is tolerable. In most of the countries the MFIs change at a flat rate ranging from 12% to 27% per annum. In Bangladesh, the predominant rate is 15% flat per annum. What should be the ideal or optimum rate, is a million dollar question. This has been bothering the MFIs, the academics, policy makers, the politicians and the other stakeholders in Bangladesh. For the sake of competitiveness and provision of quality services, I do not agree to cap the rate of service charge, but I think, a range or a band for the rate may be agreed upon by all concerned with the objective of maximizing benefit to poor people. Time has come to resolve this issue in Bangladesh.

          (f)  Regulatory Framework

This issues has come to the forefront because MFIs are providing financial services and products to the poor, outside the formal banking system.

In view of the history of MFIs (most of which are NGOs or self help groups), it can be argued that the conventional regulatory framework such as that of formal banks and financial institutions is not appropriate and hence not required under the circumstances prevailing in many countries.  This is particularly in view of the fact that many MFIs are not accepting deposits with checking facilities.  The unique features of MFIs in the field of social and financial services with the core objectives of poverty alleviation differentiate the industry from the formal financial sector and further justify this proposition.  However, that does not in any way downplay the importance of having some strategic monitoring measures that are compatible and appropriate to MFIs' objectives, institutional operation and development culture.  The measures should incorporate user-friendly prudential norms/indicative guidelines in the form of a concrete 'Code of Norms/Conduct' which would ensure sound and organized growth of MFIs on a sustainable basis.

A set of financial standards, reporting formats and performance standards may be an effective way to keep the MFIs on the right track.  There is a broad range of experiences to draw from in establishing appropriate standards, including the work being done by PKSF in Bangladesh.

In most of the countries around the world donors, business houses, private individuals and governments are providing fund to various domestic microfinance institutions (MFIs) to carry out microcredit programs (MCPs).  In order to fulfill the Microcredit Summit goal of reaching 100 million of the world's poorest families with microcredit by the year 2005, steps must be taken to ensure more resources to promote microcredit and to ensure that those resources are provided to MFIs in cost-effective ways.  The present mechanism of channeling funds to MFIs, especially government and donor funds, has proved to be inefficient.   The total cost of providing funds directly to microcredit programs (or "retailers") is usually high when the cost of feasibility studies, appraisal missions, monitoring, evaluation, reporting and so on are included.  This is particularly true in cases where the funding agency does not have a permanent office or adequately trained personnel near the MCP being funded.  MCPs require flexible, user-friendly, consultative and fast-moving processes located near their areas of operation.  As a result of the high cost involved in providing funds directly to MCPs, as well as the high costs incurred by many MCPs in receiving and administering these funds, a relatively small amount of these funds are actually provided as loans to the poorest.  It is very difficult to give figures on how much donor funds go to the poor.  Some estimates may be made.  About 51% of CGAP's core fund reached the poorest as direct lending in its first 3 years of operation and the rest was spent on capacity building, technical assistance, conferences, etc.  Another estimate made regarding USAID's fund: a maximum of 25% of the total funds reached the poorest.  About 10% to 25% of donor funds actually reach the poorest, while the rest is spent on administration, overhead, training, institution building and consultants (Yunus, 1999). Therefore, there is a need to create autonomous and cost-effective microcredit funds (MCFs).  In a large country or in a country where MCPs have great potential, national funds can be created.  In small countries where MCPs are not well developed, sub-regional funds can be created.

A major advantage of autonomous microcredit funds is their ability to screen and monitor microcredit programs (MCPs) according to standard criteria, compared to often inconsistent 'ad hoc' evaluations of individual MCPs by donor and government agencies.  Funding and support  based on uniform standards create a level playing field.  Standard monitoring requirements also contribute to more professional MCPs which may be converted to professional microfinance institutions for poverty eradication.  It may be worthwhile to recall how PKSF in Bangladesh played the role of both financial intermediary and market developer.

The rational emphasis recently placed by many donors and governments to fund "institutions" rather than "ad hoc projects" is in line with the arguments put forward for creating autonomous microcredit funds.

Recent attempts to establish such microcredit funds (MCFs) in other countries (like PPAF in Pakistan, RMDC in Nepal, LID in Bosnia-Herzogovina, FONCAP in Argentina, MWF in Mexico etc.) are a move in the right direction, because, among other functions, MCFs will be an effective institutional option to fund startup microcredit programs within a poor/poorest friendly regulatory framework. An independent autonomous apex body outside the government's control may be formed to ensure that the 'code of conduct' and the microcredit standards are complied with by the MFIs which are essential aspects of a regulatory framework discussed in section 7(f).  Non-compliance by the MFIs may ultimately result in canceling the permission/registration of a defaulting MFI.

In this paper, we have discussed different facts and broad issues that we believe will be critical for the future success of the microcredit movement.  Microcredit has proven to be an effective tool of poverty alleviation.  As the microcredit movement matures, we get a clearer idea of what its strengths are and what are its limitations.  To move forward, we need to be more effective, and increase outreach, design products to include the poorest, and any other measure needed to spread the poverty alleviation net wider, so that significant decline in poverty takes place.  We also need to have transparency in the management systems of the MFIs and prepare for the eventuality of decreased donor funding and move towards sustainability.  The seminar, we hope, will be a suitable forum towards our moving forward.

(a)   Key Concerns for Future

1.          Moving beyond conventional impact assessment-more important is to contribute towards monitoring program variables.

2.          Overlapping, competition, encroachment problems.

3.          A different framework for understanding graduation.

4.          Deepening in lieu of widening – different needs, different products.

5.          Innovating risk-responsive financial products.

6.          Promoting the institutional capital: increase the impact of microcredit.

(b)   Strategic steps that need to be taken

1.      Provide capacity building support that will enable MFIs to achieve sustainability.

2.      Support the establishment of national apex bodies, e.g. PKSF-Bangladesh; PCFC Philippines; RMDC Nepal.

3.      Strengthen capacity of apex bodies to support savings mobilisation and microenterprise development, especially to enable microenterprises to link with market outlets and providers of technological resources.

4.      Help build database on requirements for strategic resources of MFI-financed enterprises; publish database in websites with links to other websites.  

Support networking of MFIs within and outside the country to share information, experience and expertise.

 (1) Ahmed, Salehuddin; 2000 : "State of the Microcredit Program in Bangladesh", Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), Dhaka.

(2) Ahmed, Salehuddin; 2000 : "Creating Autonomous National and Sub-Regional Microcredit Funds", Microcredit Summit Campaign paper (English, French, Spanish), Washington D.C.

(3) Ahmed, Salehuddin; 2002 : "Emerging and Strategic Issues and Concerns of Microfinance", Paper presented at the INAFI Asia Regional Workshop, Bangkok, January 16-18, 2002.

(4) Asif Ud Dowla and L.K. Mahmud; 1998 : "Future Issues in Microcredit : An Overview", paper at PRPA Workshop, Dhaka, June.

(5) Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) : "Census Report, Survey Reports and other Reports on PKSF-MES Study", Dhaka.

(6) Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS); 2001 : "Final Report on BIDS Study on PKSF's Monitoring and Evaluation System (MES)", October, Dhaka.

(7) Credit Development Forum (CDF); "CDF Statistics : Various Volumes", Dhaka.

(8) Microcredit Summit Campaign; 2002; "State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Report 2002", November, Washington D.C.

(9) Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF); "Annual Reports of various years", Dhaka.

(10) Sharif, Iffath and Geof Wood; 1998 : "Towards New Frontiers of Finance : Summary and Findings", Paper for final Session of the Workshop, Dhaka, July.

(11) Smith, Adam; 1937; "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations", Edwin Cannan (Ed.), The Modern Library/Random House Inc., New York.

(12)  Yunus, Muhammad; 1999; "How Donor Funds Could Better Reach and Support Grassroots Microcredit Programs Working Towards the Microcredit Summit's Goal and Core Themes", Abidjan, June.