Microfinance shouldn't do the government's job

It is a requirement of civil society that government obviate the need for payday lenders, writes Carl Packman.

There has been a recent interest in microfinance as a means to draw vulnerable people away from the scourge of payday lending – an industry which saw its inevitable growth over the Christmas period, with the number of enquiries about it at the Citizens Advice Bureau doubling from last year. 

The Financial Times recently ran an article headlined Microfinancier gives payday lenders run for money. Reporter Sarah O'Conner discusses to what extent this type of financial product offers a fairer deal for borrowing money, with more manageable prices attached to loans: £162 on a 52-week loan of £600 compares well with the £25-30 per month you can expect to pay for a loan of £100 with the average high cost credit seller. 

Although relatively rare in the UK, the microfinance movement is over 40 years old. It all began in the early 1970s in Bangladesh and Latin America and since then has seen small but effective support around the world. 

I spoke to Saloman Raydan Rivas, a microfinance expert, about Professor Mohammed Yunnus, the don of the microfinance movement. Rivas told me Yunnus wanted to develop a banking model which did not take advantage of the poor, but he was unsure of how to tap into existing local lending mechanisms, such as self-financed communities, to bring about change on a wider scale. 

Today there are many people trying to realise his dream, and Fair Finance, the case studied in the Financial Times' article, is one. In fact Faisal Rahman, the company’s director, is strongly influenced by the microfinance movement, and hopes to bring it to market in the UK.

But there is something rather rocky about relying on private equity funding, as Fair Finance does (a fact not discussed in the Financial Times article) that makes me worry, both in practice and on first principles. 

Fair Finance was declined investment money by Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland when it first started out, and they even had problems with Santander, which would not put up investment alone. When I asked Rahman about it, he admitted it was a setback, and one could argue this is hardly a surprise. Rahman wants funding from investors to sell loans ethically to people, charging low interest, and risking low returns, all to realise a dream of creating a banking model that undercuts usurers and rip-off merchants. 

For all the good he wants, many investors clearly see the words “low return” and run a mile. In short, we cannot rely on the good nature of profit-making big banks to finance ethical, non-profit, lending schemes. But should we expect any private business to do this? Since it is in the interest of the public purse to keep individuals' personal debt profiles down, should ethical lending not be a standard expectation of the government? 

It is surely a requirement of a civil society that the government allocate enough money – for instance, through a credit union – to ensure consumers aren't left with going to payday lenders as their only option.

Having said that, I understand Rahman’s motives. Recently it was reported that a loans company who target personnel in the armed forces with high cost credit at 3,300 per cent interest was sold advertising space in Defence Focus, the magazine of the Ministry of Defence. Is this perhaps a sign of how relaxed public bodies have become about payday lending?

High cost loans for the armed forces has become a big issue. A representative of Waterhouse Baker, who offer financial advice to any serving member of the forces, told me that payday loans is often a short-lived solution, “as many default as the monthly expenditure is too high for the income gained”. 

Problems like these need solving fast, because the problem of high personal debt is one which affects the whole economy and the whole society. For me, the buck stops with the government.

Given the enormity of the problem of debt, government should be in charge of reversing it. So while the aims of Fair Finance and other similar organisations are positive, pricing out payday lenders should be chiefly the preserve, not of microfinance, but of the state as part of its commitment to maintaining a civil society.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.