Microcredit at a Crossroads: A Question of Principled Leadership

Wali I. Mondal and Mark R. Peters

Wali I. Mondal and Mark R. Peters

Mark R. Peters

Wali I. Mondal

The Bold Promise of Microcredit: Creating a World without Poverty

In is 2006 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Muhammad Yunus set forth a vision for creating a world without poverty, a world where people would need to go to a museum to experience what poverty was like (Yunus, 1). Such a bold vision is inspirational and it was unthinkable just a few generations ago. Yunus is not alone in believing that this generation is unique in its ability to eliminate lethal poverty, the kind of poverty that kills.  Microcredit has emerged in recent decades as an indispensable tool for fighting this kind of poverty.  Unfortunately, recent developments in the field of microfinance suggest that more effective leadership will be needed if this dream is to be realized.

Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University poignantly observes: “Currently, more than eight million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive. Our generation can choose to end that extreme poverty by 2025” (Sachs, 1).  The number of people threatened by lethal poverty constitutes a significant proportion of the world population. Fully one-sixth of the world finds themselves stuck in a poverty trap, unable to get a hold onto the first rung of the economic development ladder. Another 1.6 billion people live just above subsistence level, surviving on less than two dollars a day.  Together, these people represent about 40% of the world’s population (Sachs, 3).

In spite of a considerable gap between rich and poor and the many, complex forces that create this cycle of poverty that countries get mired in, Sachs confidently assures us that the inequities of the past can be corrected and lethal poverty can be eradicated. To do so requires a sustained commitment to those most in need. First, we must ensure that all people “enjoy basic standards of nutrition, health, water and sanitation, shelter, and other minimum needs for survival, wellbeing, and participation in society. Secondly, we must” ensure that all the world’s poor have a chance to climb the ladder of development” (Sachs, 24).   It is in this critical second point that microfinance has had its most dramatic impact, but also faces its greatest challenges.

The Evolution of Microcredit

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is best known as the Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. His contributions to Bengali literature as a novelist, a short-story writer and an essayist are well documented. He composed well over 2000 songs, known as Rabindra Sangeet, which remain immensely popular to this day. He is the author of the national anthems of two countries – Bangladesh and India. But poet Tagore was also a landlord (zamindar) and simultaneously a big time reformer and entrepreneur. The concept of collateral free microcredit to rural borrowers originated from his philanthropic act when he founded the Kaligram Krishi Bank in 1905 in north-eastern Bangladesh.

Tagore visited Europe a number of times starting at age 17 in 1878. He was impressed by the co-operative societies in England and their contributions to rural development. Ever the reformer, he became a big proponent of cooperative societies as a vehicle for agricutural development for rural areas of Bangladesh. The concepts of group formation for the purpose of development of rural areas and group-based borrowing from a financial institution owe their origin to him. In rural East Bengal, where agriculture was the only source of livelihood for his tenants, Tagore started an innovative scheme of co-operatives which he called “rural societies”. The following passage, from Tagore’s Palliprokriti (Biswabharati, 1962) elaborates his ideas of group formation for the purpose of creating “ideal rural societies”:

Main villages, rural areas or collection of rural areas of each district will form one or more rural societies. City, village or rural residents, all will belong to respective rural society. With the consent of village or rural area residents, no less than five members will be in charge of all actions of the rural societies. These members will discharge the responsibilities of rural societies with the consent and co-operation of the rural residents.

(Note: Tagore’s Bengali writing has been translated by Mondal).

Tagore family members were landlords in three regions of East Bengal – Shelaidah, Shajadpur and Patishar. The poet as a landlord first came to Patishar in 1891. Of the above-mentioned three regions, Patishar was the poorest. Accordingly, he drew up a plan for the development of the region. The plan is the best known village government plan of Tagore. According to this plan, he divided the Patishar region into three divisions: Patishar, Ratowal and Kamta. A cluster of village level organizations consisting of five members each was organized for each division. These organizations were called ”Divisional Welfare Association”. At the top of the three divisions was the central welfare association. The central welfare association consisted of five members nominated by the divisional welfare associations plus a nominee of the landlord. Once the plan was finalized, members of welfare associations could borrow from Kaligram Krishi Bank. Unlike other landlords, Tagore required no collateral for any loan; however, when the loan was to be repaid, each borrower was to pay a surcharge of three paisa per rupee (4.69 percent) for the smooth functioning of the divisional welfare association (Rafiq, 1998). It is commonly understood that 4.69 percent was the rate of interest charged for the microcredit scheme Tagore had devised.

Very soon the poet found that the money coming from his tenants was not enough for the development schemes. Villagers actually needed cash for such necessities as seeds and fertilizers. As a result, whenever the villagers needed any extra fund, they went to the money lenders or the “mohajans” who used to charge very high interest rates. The high interest rates prohibited the borrowers from undertaking any meaningful investment activity. This actually led to the formation of Kaligram Krishi Bank. Ever the reformer and a phianthropist, Tagore was concerned about the welfare of the people of Patishar area, and sometime in 1905 he borrowed an unspecified sum of money from several of his friends with the intention of founding the bank. Since that money was not enough, he borrowed additional fund from the “mohajans” at a very high interest rate (Rafiq, 1998). Thus was born The Kaligram Krishi Bank in the village of Patishar. The estate of Tagore in Patishar known as the “Kanchari Bari” (hall room used by landlrod Tagore to conduct business) housed the Krishi Bank.

The cooperative societies that Tagore organized worked simultaneously with the Krishi Bank. One of the remarkable features of the rural societies was the number of members that Tagore had prescribed. In addition to being the basic unit of rural government, the societies served as creating harmony between Hindus and Moslems who were often killing each other in religious riots. A perceptive leader, Tagore prescribed that the composition of the five-member group would be such that two would be Hindus, two would be Moslems and the fifth person would be the “Principal” or the leader of the group. He did not specify whether the Principal would be a Hindu or a Moslem.

The Tagore model of rural development worked well. A social entrepreneur, Tagore had carefully incorporated all aspects of rural development including:

  • Congenial race relations and racial harmony,
  •  Formation of local judiciary,
  •  Formation of ideal farms,
  •  Establishment of cottage industries,
  •  Establishment of modern facilities for education and health,
  •  Water supply and sanitation,
  •  Building roads and bridges,
  •  Generating employment opportunities for poor women, and
  •  Practice of cultural activities.

In a letter to one of his students Monoranjan Chowdhury dated according to Bengali calendar, 13 Magh, 1322 (1914), Tagore provided a progress report of his plan.

I have been trying to build rural societies in Patishar so that the poor tenant-farmers can unite and eradicate poverty, ill health and illiteracy… I have a network of almost 600 villages. We contribute some money and the tenants raise some money… they then spend these monies through committees. They have done quite a bit of work by this time.

Source: Rafiq (1998), p 74 (Bengali quote translated by Mondal)

The poet realized that he needed his own representative to run the affairs of the estate. Accordingly, in 1906, he sent his 18-year old son Rathindranath Tagore (Rathi, as the poet used to call him affectionately) along with another young man named Santosh Majumder to study agriculture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. This is a remarkable decision on the part of a rich landlord like Rabindranath Tagore. In those days, it was customary for landlords of India to send their sons to England to study Law, so they would come back and protect the property their predecessors had left for them. Tagore was a philanthropist and deviated from this common practice. His act of philanthropy is further evidenced from a letter he wrote his son and his friend while they were studying in the the United States:

You have gone abroad to study agriculture by snatching a morsel of food of the famine-stricken tenants….Remember, a landlord’s money is the money of the farmers and these farmers have borne the cost of your education by eating half the meal or by not eating at all. It is upon you to pay their debts in full. This will be your primary responsibility more than your own material welfare.

Source: Rafiq (1998), p 64 (Bengali quote translated by Mondal)

Rathi graduated from the University of Illinois and returned home after three years to “serve the people of Patishar” as the poet had wanted. By all accounts, poet Tagore’s scheme of rural development and the Krishi Bank were functional until about the 1920s. Between 1922 and 1937 poet Tagore took a number of overseas trips and was busy with his writings and other activities and therefore did not return to Patishar.

Microcredit in the Post-Tagore Era

Table 1 highlights the chronology of collateral free loans in rural areas of Bangladesh. Between 1905 and 1974, there was no financial institution sponsored by any individual or non-governmental organization providing non-collateralized loans to poor borrowers. In 1972, an NGO was established by the name of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, popularly known as BRAC. The focus of BRAC was rural development, including building of physical infrastructure and empowerment of women.


Individual / Organization


1905 Poet Rabindranath Tagore Founded Kaligram Krishi Bank in Patishar for group based small loans to rural farmers free of collateral
1974 BRAC Started program of microcredit program in Sullah, Sunamganj.
1976 Grameen Bank Project Experimental group-based collateral free loans to poor women in rural areas.
1983 Grameen Bank Started operation as a development bank for providing collateral free microcredit to poor people.
1983- NGOs/MFIs NGOs opened up microfinance section and started operation of collateral free microcredit.

 Table 1: Chronology of Collateral Free Loan in Bangladesh. Source: Mondal, 2002

In 1974 BRAC started a program of providing collateral free loans to the poor people of Sullah located in the district of Sunamganj. BRAC’s lending program in Sullah was the first model of “microcredit” offered to poor borrowers by any NGO after the demise of Kaligram Krishi Bank. Thereafter, the Grameen Bank project went into operation in 1976 under government sponsorship.

The Devolution of Microcredit

The founding of the Grameen Bank coincided with a burgeoning interest in microfinance.  In Bangladesh, most NGOs started a new wing to their organizations called Microfinance unit. Many of these NGOs, which were engaged in such activities as rural infrastructure building – a myriad of development activities – soon, transformed themselves into Microfinance Institutions (MFIs). In a poor society capital is scarce and the rate of return on investment is high. Hard working poor clients having no collateral to offer for a loan found the MFIs a better choice for borrowing money. Informal lenders charge astronomically high interest rates. In comparison, MFIs charge a lower rate of interest; however, the average effective rate of interest charged by MFIs in Bangladesh is still quite high at around 29 percent. Following the neo-classical profit-maximization model, the MFIs in Bangladesh and elsewhere determine the so-called market rate of interest as the one which would be considered high enough that a borrower would not refuse to accept. This is a far cry from Tagore model where the rate of interest was 4.69 per cent.

Grameen Bank, the leader in modern microfinance became popular in the development world for re-vitalizing the original model of microcredit. Muhammad Yunus shared the Nobel Prize with Grameen Bank for his pioneering work leading up to the replication of collateral-free small loans in other parts of the world. Yunus had an opportunity to revitalize the microcredit model for what it was envisioned by Tagore, namely, poverty alleviation and rural development. Yunus succeeded in a large part in the second aspect of the task; unfortunately, however, poverty alleviation remained an unfulfilled goal. Numerous studies have been conducted about the poverty alleviation role of microcredit; to date no study has been able to establish a positive impact of microcredit on poverty alleviation in any part of the world. While it is not the purpose of this article to address the economic aspects relating to the impact of microcredit on poverty alleviation, the leadership issue seems pertinent to analyze.

Yunus was in a unique position to provide leadership to the microfinance industry. The small size of the loan, often in the range of $25 to $400, caught the imagination of the developed world, which contributed generously to the growth and disbursement of funds. Unfortunately, however, the doctrine of “market rate of interest” is one the donors could not overcome. For Yunus, he could not overcome his cultural background. Son of a gold merchant, making profit was natural for him. Having been trained as an economist in the United States, he combined his inherited trait with the sophisticated theory of profit maximization. Today, there is a proliferation of MFIs in Bangladesh. The 29 percent interest rate is perceived to be high. As a consequence, nearly a Billion dollars worth of microcredit has remained unutilized. As if that is not enough, Yunus is embroiled in a big debate of ethical conduct. One allegation, yet to be proved, is Grameen Bank provided a controversial loan to the father and family members of Yunus for a packaging business.

Adding to the current woes in the world of microfinance is the recent crisis in Andhra Pradesh, the state in Northern India which accounts for at least half of India’s total microfinance beneficiaries with more than 25 million borrowers.  Default rates have increased from nearly zero to 80% in some MFI’s, indicating not just incompetence but abuses in the industry.  Tagore’s vision for microfinance, elucidated earlier in this article, as a method of poverty alleviation seems to have been mitigated by some current trends, most recently culminating in the crisis in India.  Microfinance’s ability to serve the poor may be in jeopardy unless leadership within the microfinance industry recognizes and responds to the current crossroads.  Rather than a combative exercise in assigning blame, the current crises represent a genuine opportunity to return microfinance to the original purposes promoted by Tagore; namely, poverty alleviation and rural development.

Given the history of recent trouble in the industry, it may be a good time to revisit what the primary purposes of microfinance are all about. The current claims of impropriety highlight the need to evaluate the state of creative, principled leadership in the field of microfinance. This is where some creative application of leadership theory may be most useful. There are many forms and functions of leadership. This article is concerned with a values centered approach to leadership called leadership for the common good. Leadership for the common good connotes certain underlying values, guiding principles, and ethical processes. This article will explore what each of these areas may mean for a microfinance industry under fire and how each of these areas might offer some direction for leadership.

Principle based Leadership for Creating a World without Poverty

Burns promoted the idea of transformational, as distinct from transactional, leadership. In his landmark work entitled, Leadership, Burns (1978) describes the essence of transformational leadership in normative terms. “But the ultimate test of moral leadership is its capacity to transcend the claims and multiplicity of everyday wants and needs and expectations, to respond to higher levels of moral development, and to relate leadership behavior – its roles, choice, style, commitments – to a set of reasoned, relatively explicit, conscious values” (p. 46). Burns recognizes that leaders are weighed down by everyday demands put upon them, which ultimately distracts leaders from being attentive to “respond to higher levels of moral development”. Burns’ framework seems quite applicable to Yunus’ current difficulties and the debilitating impact it has upon Yunus’ ability to practice the transformational leadership that creating a world without poverty needs. While useful in its descriptive qualities, Burns’ theory can only take us so far. Heifetz’s (1994) Leadership without Easy Answers may offer more helpful prescriptive approaches to the crossroads currently faced by Yunus and the microfinance revolution.

Heifetz presents a model that defines leadership as the ability to mobilize people to engage in the adaptive work necessary to bridge the gap between the desired values and current circumstances (Heifetz, 1994). Yunus’ challenge to create a world without (lethal) poverty is certainly an adaptive one in that there is not an easily applied technical solution (or group of technical solutions) to the complex myriad of forces that conspire to keep millions of people mired in poverty. It requires that we expand society’s adaptive capabilities, the ability of a particular culture to bridge the gap “generated by bold aspirations amid challenging realities” (Heifetz, 2). As mentioned earlier, the gap is wide, i.e. more than a billion people stuck in a cycle of poverty spanning generations. The challenges are numerous and complex. In other words, creating a world without poverty requires leaders who can develop our adaptive capabilities. According to both Burns (1978) and Heifetz (1994, 2002), that leadership needs to stay connected to its original purposes, inspire people with those purposes, and take courageous action on behalf of the common good.

One of the first and most obvious guiding principles of the microfinance movement seems to be respect for the power and potential of market forces, when properly channeled, to be an indispensable ally in poverty alleviation. For this reason, the suggestions for renewed leadership are not prescriptive, e.g. providing a specific interest rate that MFI’s should charge, but rather descriptive in the trends for exercising effective and ethical (read: socially conscious and accountable) leadership in the field of microfinance. Cooperating with market mechanisms is at the heart of the principle of subsidiarity. ‘Subsidiarity’ is based on a view of society in which responsibilities are conditioned by the closeness of people’s relationships.  Subsidiarity is a leadership principle that encourages decision making at the grass roots level, empowering those most affected by the decision to make important decisions for themselves. The democratic sensibility of this principle is attractive in and of itself and harmonizes with microfinance’s respect for market mechanisms. But it also makes good economic sense, recognizing that small business, and especially microbusiness, is essentially local. Who is better informed to make local business decisions than local entrepreneurs

The principle of subsidiarity and respect for market mechanisms urges leaders in the microfinance field to balance financial and operational sustainability with the more foundational principle at the heart of microfinance: empowering the poor. It has been noted many times that the poor themselves have the ability and initiative to provide for themselves.  What they lack are some of the resources, like access to capital, just to name one of many important aspects for sustainable development. Subsidiarity urges us not to do for someone what they can do themselves. So the role of leadership in microfinance and, indeed, in related development initiatives is to equip the poor to do for themselves by giving them the resources which have been historically deprived. To put a twist on an old maxim (since the large majority of microfinance loans are to women): Give a woman a fish and she eats for a day. Teach a woman to fish and she eats for a lifetime.

The brilliance of microfinance is that it is able to harmonize market mechanisms with lofty ideals of distributive justice, the notion that society has a responsibility to ensure at least a minimum standard of quality of life for all. These highest of aspirations are embodied in the 2000 Millennium Development Goals, with the first goal to reduce by half those living on less than two dollars a day by the year 2015. If we do realize this ambitious target, it will be primarily through the rapid economic advances made over the first decade of the 21st century in countries like China and India. However, as is often the case, the gains from this recent economic development in China and India are not equally distributed, leaving many rural dwellers in extreme poverty. When microfinance works and truly empowers the poor to improve their living conditions, economic gains accrue to the participants and their communities. Tagore saw microfinance as a method of both poverty alleviation and rural development. For countries, like Bangladesh, where two-thirds of the population still live in rural areas, microfinance can be a vehicle for rural development when the gains made by microbusiness are complemented with intelligent public investment, notably in health, education, and infrastructure. To expect microfinance to accomplish rural development on its own is not only naïve, it is potentially harmful to a movement that has helped so many but is being weighed down with perhaps too many hopes and hungers as the uninformed apply an all-or-none mindset as they assess the positive impacts (and externalities) created through microfinance.

In order, however, to maintain the public goodwill earned through the good work that the microfinance field has done with the poor, it must respond to the current scandals with moral sensitivity and transparency. Perhaps an ethical norm for the industry could be borrowed from the medical profession: the Latin motto of “nolo nocere” – do no harm. Microfinance will, rightfully, lose the public approval that has driven much of its notoriety and, it follows, capital investments from socially conscious investors. The field must avoid the exploitation and profiteering on the poor and vulnerable that has been the sad legacy of the colonial world and justified criticism of the capitalist ventures that profited from it. Intelligent, humanitarian application of business principles can distinguish MFI’s from purely profit driven enterprises that do not account for their organization’s environmental and humanitarian impacts. Value driven leadership focused upon social impact as well as financial viability may provide the redirection and reforms needed in the microfinance field.


A core value underpinning any initiative looking to serve the common good is respect for the dignity of every individual. Each person by virtue of their humanity has inherent value and inestimable worth. The Microfinance Revolution honors the dignity of each person by providing access to capital markets that are not currently provided by the market. When ethicists write about human rights, often they cite the right to food, shelter, health care, and even employment, but rarely access to collateral free credit. There is good reason for this. Access to collateral free credit is not traditionally seen as a human right but rather a means to more important ends, namely, self employment, meaningful participation in the life of the community, and a living wage. These foundational social values have galvanized political and financial support for the microfinance movement around the globe. However, current troubles in the field suggest humanitarian foundational values, such as empowering the poor, are becoming secondary to less altruistic concerns.

By giving those who are economically disadvantaged a collateral free loan, it liberates them from predatory practices of local moneylenders and gives them an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, while contributing their unique talents to the common good. Leadership focused upon these ends must take pains to safeguard the microfinance industry from interest rates that would unduly burden the beneficiary of the loan. Earlier in the article, we noted that Tagore set a very modest interest rate of 4.69%. While 4.69% may be too low an interest rate for an MFI to be financially and operationally sustainable for the current time, it seems that leadership in the field must be willing to discuss and incentivize MFI’s to keep their interest rates as low as possible, lest MFI’s just become a more socially acceptable and institutionalized form of the predatory lending practices that they were, ironically, set up to replace. Perhaps leadership in the microfinance field will be inspired by the Gates Foundation exemplary leadership for the common good in their conviction that “everyone deserves to live a healthy, productive life”. Such a moral vision is clearly grounded in the value of each person’s inherent dignity and, like the highest aspirations of the microfinance movement, seeks to ensure an individual’s right to contribute to society and develop their capacity to do so.

Another foundational value of the microfinance movement seems to be a profound sense of the value of work and dignity of workers. Work is not only a necessity and a moral obligation, but also a right, according to some ethical traditions. The right to work centers around the individual’s need (and right) to participate in society, for work is not just a way to earn a living, it is how we construct a meaningful life. Furthermore, in purely economic terms, an economy is operating at optimal efficiency when all of its resources (workers being the human resources) are being fully employed. The leadership lesson from this value may be that loans are not enough. The Microfinance Revolution, as it has been called by many, holds many hopes and hungers. Leadership in the field is already starting to recognize important synergies with other human development efforts such as education and basic health care. It may be that microfinance will thrive best when it partners with other movements for positive social change, most notably those working to improve health and education.

Works Cited

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Gailey, Robert Charles. “Social capital and economic empowerment: A longitudinal analysis of the relationship between changes in the value of accumulated assets and measures of social capital among rural South African women.” Dissertation Study, 2010.

Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership without Easy Answers. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 1994.

Heifetz, Ronald A. and Linsky, Marty. Leadership on the Line. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Mills, John Stuart. Principles of Political Economy. London: Macmillan Press, 1848.

Mondal, Wali I. 2009. Poverty Alleviation and Microcredit in Sub-Saharan Africa, International Business and Economics Research Journal, Vol 8, No 1, January 2009; pp 1-10

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About the Authors

Wali Mondal, PhD, teaches in the Department of Finance, Accounting and Economics at National University. He is the Program Lead of Economics and the Associate of Science in Business. He obtained his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, Master’s degree in Development Economics from Boston University and a Master’s and Bachelor’s degree with honors in Economics from Rajshahi University, Bangladesh. Professor Mondal has worked and consulted for many national and international organizations including the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, the State of Ohio and Duke Energy. He has taught in a number of universities in the United States, Bangladesh and New Zealand. During 1993-96, he was Chair of the Accounting, Economics and Business Education Department at Henderson State University in Arkansas. He served as the Interim Dean of the School of Business and Management of National University during March 2007 to June 2008.

Professor Mondal’s research areas include entrepreneurship, microentrepreneurship and economic development. He has published and presented approximately 100 papers in many national and international conferences and journals. In 2002, Professor Mondal published a book titled Microcredit and Microentrepreneurship – Collateral Free Loan at Work in Bangladesh. Professor Mondal is the editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Business and Behavioral Sciences, Journal of Business and Accounting and the Journal of Business and Educational Leadership. He is also a member of the Editorial Board of a number of journals. He is the Founder-President of the American Society of Business and Behavioral Sciences ( one of the largest interdisciplinary professional societies.

Mark Peters, PhD, received a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Georgetown University and then pursued a business career in New York City, working in a variety of business disciplines. Over the past twenty years of his professional life, Mark has worked and consulted for large corporations, professional organizations, hospitals, churches, and universities. He now owns and operates a leadership consulting firm which serves individuals and small businesses. Dr. Peters earned a Master’s Degree from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego. He has taught in a variety of disciplines including: Business and Management, Economics, and Leadership Studies, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Mark has been recognized by students and peers for his excellence in teaching, his passion for mentoring students, and his enthusiastic role as a faculty advisor. Mark has always integrated travel into his teaching, most recently designing study abroad courses in Latin America and Africa in sustainable development and social entrepreneurship. A few summers ago, Mark completed a world tour researching microfinance institutions and visiting universities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. During previous world travels, Mark has worked in Italy, Mexico, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, and spent a summer traveling through India. Dr. Peters’ post-doctoral research interests include: how to exercise more effective personal leadership; entrepreneurship and developing small businesses; and educating tomorrow’s leaders for meaning, purpose, and the common good. His most recent research combines leadership for social change with the struggle for economic justice.