High transaction and contracting costs are often thought to create credit and savings market failures in developing countries. The microfinance movement grew largely out of business process innovations and subsidies that reduced these costs. We examine an alternative approach, one that infuses no external capital and introduces no change to formal contracts: an improved “technology” for managing informal, collaborative village‐based savings groups. Such groups allow, in theory, for more efficient and lower‐cost loans and informal savings, and in practice have been scaled up by international non‐profit organizations to millions of members. Individuals save together and then lend the accumulated funds back out to themselves. In a randomized evaluation in Mali, we find improvements in food security, consumption smoothing, and buffer stock savings. Although we do find suggestive evidence of higher agricultural output, we do not find overall higher income or expenditure. We also do not find downstream impacts on health, education, social capital, and female decision‐making power. Could this have happened before, without any external intervention? Yes. That is what makes the result striking, that indeed there were no resources provided nor legal institutional changes, yet the NGO‐guided, improved informal processes led to important changes for households.
We partnered with a micro‐lender in Mali to randomize credit offers at the village level. Then, in no‐loan control villages, we gave cash grants to randomly selected households. These grants led to higher agricultural investments and profits, thus showing that liquidity constraints bind with respect to agricultural investment. In loan‐villages, we gave grants to a random subset of farmers who (endogenously) did not borrow. These farmers have lower – in fact zero – marginal returns to the grants. Thus we find important heterogeneity in returns to investment and strong evidence that farmers with higher marginal returns to investment self‐select into lending programs.
Three-quarters of the world’s poorest people do not have a formal bank account. With few viable means to save, these individuals and their families are vulnerable to life-threatening hardships. Community-based savings groups are designed to provide a mechanism for resilience. Jointly, Oxfam America and Freedom from Hunger commissioned the largest study to date to evaluate the impact of community-based savings groups—using both a randomized controlled trial and in-depth qualitative research.
We conducted an experiment providing fertilizer grants to female rice farmers in Mali. We found that women who received fertilizer used both more fertilizer and more complementary inputs such as herbicides and hired labor. This shows that farmers respond to an increase in one input by re-optimizing other inputs. Second, while the increase in inputs led to a considerable increase in output, we found no evidence that profits increased. Our results suggest that fertilizer's impact on profits is small compared to other sources of variation. This may make it difficult for farmers to learn about the returns to fertilizer.