Microfinance products tend to be uniform across large geographic areas. For example, in Bangladesh most microfinance institutions (MFIs) offer some variant of the product pioneered by Grameen Bank—a loan with a term of about a year, repaid in frequent (usually weekly) installments, given in a group context, ostensibly for micro-enterprise use, and with a compulsory savings element. This contrasts with East Africa, where local MFIs have been influenced as much by the Village Bank model as by Grameen. There, many similar loans given under similar conditions are repaid in 16 or 24 weeks. In each case the approach has been adopted by most of the major MFIs in the area, so that a majority of MFI clients use the dominant local product type. Such dominance can be self-perpetuating: in Bangladesh, for example, PKSF (Polli Karma Shahayek Foundation), a government-supported wholesaler of microfinance funds, prefers its partners to use the dominant product. Some donors have also stipulated adherence to the model as a condition for receiving grants or loans.
Such dominance must affect our understanding of demand and provision of microfinance services. Undeniably, as the MFIs that offer these products point out, they have been extremely popular, a fact that suggests that clients like them. But to what extent are clients’ views influenced by the fact that there is very little else on offer? Do Bangladeshis really prefer to have a year of weekly repayment instalments, while similarly poor people in East Africa prefer a shorter term? It seems unlikely. Some people even express the view that Bangladeshis, by comparison with poor people elsewhere (for example in Indonesia), have a ‘natural preference’ for taking loans as against saving. That seems even more unlikely, but how are we to find out?