Just a week ago, I had the opportunity to visit a rural village near Trichy, Tamil Nadu to assist with the pilot of an upcoming study that CMF is conducting with Access Development Services (Delhi). It was a great opportunity to put theory into practice and, in comparison to the hustle, bustle and smog of Chennai, Trichy was (literally) a breath of fresh air.
Of course, being a complete urbanite, I had never visited a village - much less an Indian one - before and I was not sure what to expect. But what I found was that the village was much more sanitized and advanced than I had imagined. In particular, there was a pervasive laid-back vibe in the village that made the trip very enjoyable.
That aside, and even though our pilot sample was extremely small (we only interviewed 4-5 households), I made two interesting observations:
Firstly, the clientele of the MFI we interviewed were richer than the average village household. For one, most of their houses were larger and had more furniture than that of their neighbors. This made me question the oft-mentioned exclusion of the ultra-poor by Microfinance, a conundrum that I had discussed with a fellow intern. His view was that Microfinance had done enough for the moderate-poor and the onus was now on MFIs/NGOs to help the ultra-poor. I for one, disagree. I think the Indian Government should be the one, as much as possible, to take the lead on coming up with alternative measures - not NGOs nor MFIs. The National Employment Rural Guarantee Act (NREGA) is a case in point.
Secondly, the villagers were very enthusiastic about answering our questions even though we did not provide them with any gifts or rewards - a puzzle that I've yet to resolve. Yes, granted, one reason could be because they had never seen a Singaporean-Chinese boy, but over and above that, we even had 3 villagers who put down their chores and gleefully made their way to the house we were in. They were then more than happy to spend close to an hour engaging us in a discussion on MFIs and their livelihoods in general! (On the other hand, of course, some clients were thoroughly irritated when we asked them for the umpteenth time whether they had borrowed from their employers/landlords.)
On the whole, this enthusiasm was great for the conduct of our pilot but left me with one nagging doubt - the veracity of answers given by survey respondents. What if these villagers were purposefully tailoring their answers in a way they thought we wanted them to? I am not accusing respondents of having a motive to bias our research studies, but it could well be that our taking time out to visit these villages and interview them compelled these households to tell us exactly just how life-changing their Microfinance loans had been. (NB: This potential bias was a primary motivation for the authors of Portfolios of the Poor to use "Financial Diaries" in place of surveys to investigate the financial behavior of the poor.)
Having said that, the pilot was invaluable in allowing me a first-hand look at the impact of Microfinance and the conduct of CMF research studies and I eagerly look forward to further experiences in developmental research. But for now it's back to college!