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Quite simply, a microfinance institution is an organization that offers financial services to low income populations. Almost all of these offer microcredit and only take back small amounts of savings from their own borrowers, not from the general public. Within the microfinance industry, the term microfinance institution has come to refer to a wide range of organizations dedicated to providing these services: NGOs, credit unions, cooperatives, private commercial banks and non-bank financial institutions (some that have transformed from NGOs into regulated institutions) and parts of state-owned banks, for example.
The image most of us have when we refer to MFIs is of a “financial NGO”, an NGO that is fully and virtually exclusively dedicated to offering financial services; in most cases microcredit NGOs are not allowed to capture savings deposits from the general public. This group of a few hundred NGOs have led the development of microcredit, and subsequently microfinance, the world over. Most of these constitute a group that is commonly referred to as "best practice" organizations, ones that employ the newest lending techniques to generate efficient outreach that permit them to reach down far into poor sectors of the economy on a sustainable basis.
A great many NGOs that offer microcredit, perhaps even a majority, do many other non-financial development
activities and would bristle at the suggestion that they are essentially financial institutions. Yet, from an industry perspective, since they are engaged in supplying financial services to the poor, we call them MFIs. The same sort of situation exists with a small number of commercial banks that offer microfinance services. For our purposes, we refer to them as MFIs, even though only a small portion of their assets may actually be tied up in financial services for the poor. In both cases, when people in the industry refer to MFIs, they are referring only to that part of the institution that offers microfinance.
There are other institutions, however, that consider themselves to be in the business of microfinance and that will certainly play a role in a reshaped and deepened financial sector. These are community-based financial intermediaries. Some are membership based such as credit unions and cooperative housing societies. Others are owned and managed by local entrepreneurs or municipalities. These institutions tend to have a broader client base than the financial NGOs and already consider themselves to be part of the formal financial sector. It varies from country to country, but many poor people do have some access to these types of institutions, although they tend not to reach down market as far as the financial NGOs.
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