More and more I’m convinced that the primary purpose of microfinance is to assist in stabilizing and promoting the common well-being of a household. It can do this in a variety of ways, but most often through its provision of various financial tools to provide an environment of stability (and in some cases) growth.
Furthermore, it appears to be true that households are the core to economics. Of course we remember that the very word ‘economy’ is in its origins a word for housekeeping (oikonomia meaning ‘management of a household’). Therefore, we should be able to learn a good deal of what an economy (and microfinance) is for in thinking through the ins and outs of the household’s daily functions.
For starters, a working household is somewhere where life is lived in common. And housekeeping looks to make sure that this common life has some sense of stability and ensures the growth and flourishing of all involved. It provides stability for some to go out, work and return, while simultaneously providing an environment where one can care for those in need (children, elderly or sick persons), and also engage in projects of creativity and leisure. Good housekeeping needs stability so that all these things can happen.
Secondly, households in many places – particularly in Mathare – consist not only of family members but also members from other families and places. Therefore, fundamental to household care is taking care of one’s neighbor (quite literally) within that very household or outside of it.
Thirdly, we could say the stabilization of the home provides a platform for endeavors in local business, and similarly, endeavors of business provide the necessary continuation of the home. Therefore, households in themselves are the backbone to communal welfare and market life.
Similarly, if the sum total of economic theory works towards how people might be able to live together in a given place – each with the necessary share of work, cooperation and involvement for optimal market and social welfare – then ultimately we are dealing with what conditions allow households to function well and thus lubricate the continuation of the economy (major simplification I know, but you get the point…).
Finally then, we could say that economics is (in some sense) all about the household. And microfinance is all about managing the household on a day to day basis.
From there we are in a place to say that microfinance is best framed NOT as poverty eradication (though it can and does) and not as creating ‘hero entrepreneurs’ (though it can and does) and most certainly not as the ‘savior system of the poor’; but rather as the needed framework and assistance for the simple daily functions of individual and family stability and well-being.
And in my mind – when it is done well – this is a very worthwhile function.
 Some thoughts gleaned from Rowan Williams’ ‘Theology and Economics’.