By Saroj Pathirana
BBC Sinhala service
Microfinance is sought by many traders across South Asia
Leaders from South Asian microfinance institutions (MFIs) recently took part in a week-long workshop in Sri Lanka in an attempt to ensure the rapidly growing sector is as well run as possible.
The workshop was aimed at enhancing the skills of managers and leaders working for microfinance institutions in the region.
"The microfinance institutions are growing in a rapid phase," Elizabeth Lynch, manager of the Centre for Microfinance Leadership, at Women's World Banking (WWB) tells the BBC.
"We want to ensure that the human capacity develops at an equally rapid phase to be able to run these institutions."
Microfinance caters for the needs of low-income entrepreneurs and small traders such as fish sellers, vegetable sellers, and those working in industries such as tailoring and embroidery.
In South Asia the many main commercial banks are yet to reach the majority of the population.
If it wasn't for the microfinance sector, the vast majority of the rural population would have no option but to be at the mercy of unregulated high interest loan providers.
Eighteen middle managers of MFIs from Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan took part in the workshop to discuss the challenges they face across the region.
The workshop was designed to help participants boost their skills
Mehmud Shamshir Ali, the human resources manager of Kashf Foundation, one of the largest microfinance institutions in Pakistan, says the workshop was important beyond individual perspectives.
"It is a very important strategic perspective," he says.
"We at Kashf feel that management, the developing of the middle management, is the key way of proceeding in the future towards a much stronger institution."
Most of the members who manage these institutions come from rural areas, which include many who have never had the opportunity for higher education.
The Kashf foundation has nearly 300,000 clients spread across the Punjab region, according to Mr Ali.
It is based upon the model of the Grameen Bank, whose founder, Muhammad Yunus, was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his scheme to give loans to the poor.
The capital employed in the microfinance institutions is a small fraction compared to the commercial banks. Its operations are also very much decentralized.
But at a time when many people no longer have strong faith in financial institutions, following recent scandals, WWB says microfinance institutions are more important than ever before.
For many microfinance offers an an alternative to high interest lenders
While in the West, the multi-billion dollar fraud of US investor Bernard Madoff is perhaps the best known, in Sri Lanka, fraudsters have recently swindled billions of rupees, and a large financial company - Ceylinco - is under investigation over alleged serious fraud.
"MFIs are having more difficulty accessing debt in the current commercial market, like many other businesses," says Elizabeth Lynch.
"But I think we are also seeing that what MFIs have always distinguished themselves by is a close association and understanding of their client base."
However, critics question the efficiency of the MFIs. The amount of money lended is so small, they say, there is no scope for the low-income entrepreneurs to develop beyond a small business.
Yet in a strategic shift in late 2002, the United Nations declared that microfinance services will, over time, become an integrated part of the financial system.
The United Nations Capital Development fund (UNCDF) has also been running special microfinance distance training programmes.
Sri Lanka was represented at the week's workshop in Colombo by Seeds, the financial arm of Sri Lankan charity Sarvodaya, plus the Women's Development Federation (Janashakthi) and Hatton National Bank.
M Piyaseeli, insurance manger at Janashkthi, says her organization is currently working on empowering over 40,000 women members.
"Our aim is to reduce poverty by developing women in low-income families," she says.
Ms Piyaseeli adds that all the members of her organization are poor women form the rural areas, and it currently maintains 99 rural bank branches.
"We do get some financial assistance, not from the government, but the government guides us to develop this initiative," she says.
"We are funded by our own members. Our aim is to become one of the leading microfinance institutions in South Asia."
Other institutions that took part in the event included India's Ujjivan Financial Services, and the Shakthi Foundation for Disadvantaged Women of Bangladesh.
The organizers of the workshop say they are planning many more similar workshops, aimed at senior managers and women separately, in the near future.