Microfinance, one of the widely accepted instruments for poverty alleviation throughout the world, has been used in Sri Lanka spanning for over several decades. Despite the long history and the large number of institutions providing microfinance services particularly to the poor, there is limited knowledge on the impact of microfinance on poverty alleviation in Sri Lanka. This study fills this gap by studying some important issues related to the microfinance sector: outreach of microfinance, role of informal sources of finance and the impact on poverty and welfare of households.

Microfinance services in Sri Lanka have a wide geographical outreach but the extent of outreach of private operators including NGOs and commercial banks in rural areas is rather limited. Although the poor and the poorest groups have been reached by Microfinance Institutions (MFIs), a significant proportion of their clientele seems to be from the non-poor groups. Microfinance has helped households in middle quintiles to increase their income and assets; helped the very poor to increase consumption expenditure; has inculcated savings habits among the poor; has worked as an instrument of consumption smoothing among almost all income groups; and has helped women to increase their social status and improve the economic conditions. The study also finds that the informal financial market is pervasive across districts and among different income groups.

The study recognizes that financial services alone are not sufficient to raise the living conditions of the poor. To create sustainable micro-enterprise and other economic activities, it is important that MFIs facilitate or directly involve in providing ‘credit-plus’ services to their clients, particularly to those in low income categories. Development of rural infrastructure facilities is of prime importance to improve the outreach of MFIs in remote rural areas and encouraging the private and NGO sectors to involve more effectively in microfinance provision. The study also stresses the need to take into account the heterogeneity of microfinance clients and their needs in designing more effective microfinance instruments.

by Ganga Tilakaratna, Upali Wickramasinghe, Thusitha Kumara

Poverty and Social Welfare Series No. 7