After a review of multiple studies, the paper concludes that microfinance institutions (MFIs) are capable of contributing to health improvements by increasing knowledge that leads to behavioral changes, and enhancing access to health services through addressing financial, geographic and other barriers. The authors found evidence of positive health outcomes in nutrition, infectious disease, maternal and child health, domestic violence, and malaria.
Illness and poor health are widely recognized as important contributors to trapping families in poverty, sometimes despite their best efforts to start and sustain small businesses and other income-generating activity. Even one episode of a serious illness can cause a family to lose valuable assets and to slide back into grinding poverty. This paper is important because it highlights the important opportunity for health and microfinance to be combined as a more effective strategy towards greater economic security among the world’s poor. The poor need access to a coordinated set of financial and other development services to improve household resources and health. The studies analyzed provide promising evidence that MFIs offer a unique and underutilized opportunity that could be more widely deployed for the delivery of health-related services to those most in need.
As the number of studies on the practice grows and more microfinance practitioners learn of the potential benefits and low cost of integration, value-added microfinance is expanding and being adapted for application in new regions and settings.
The paper’s lead author, Sheila Leatherman, a professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, pointed out that, while the quality of some of the studies is uneven, the evidence of positive health benefits in diverse areas such as maternal and child health, malaria and other infectious disease, and domestic violence would indicate that the microfinance sector offers an underutilized opportunity for delivery of health-related services to many hard-to-reach populations.
The paper recommends that more rigorous research is needed to inform policy and guide program implementation, but useful evidence now exists to point towards a ”clear opportunity, perhaps even an imperative, for the microfinance and public health communities to engage with each other more actively and collaboratively.”
Ms. Leatherman is a member of Freedom from Hunger’s Board of Trustees. Her co-authors on the paper are Marcia Metcalfe, Director of Microfinance and Health Protection, Freedom from Hunger; Kimberley Geissler, PhD student and research assistant at University of North Carolina; and Christopher Dunford, PhD, President and CEO of Freedom from Hunger.
The PDF of the research report, “Integrating microfinance and health strategies: examining the evidence to inform policy and practice,” can be found at www.ffhtechnical.org/
Freedom from Hunger is a nonprofit international development organization that brings innovative and sustainable self-help solutions to the fight against chronic hunger and poverty. Our staff works with 112 local partner organizations in 17 countries to deliver microfinance, education and health protection services to more than 2.4 million women and families in Africa, Asia and Latin America. www.freedomfromhunger.org