Eyeing Business Growth in Pakistan: The New U.S.-Pakistan Partnership for Access to Credit

03/13/2015 04:12 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Small is beautiful - unless you are a business that wants to grow. In which case, small is not so appealing. In Pakistan, where 90 percent of businesses are small or medium, challenges to scaling-up businesses have kept the private sector from realizing their full potential and contributing as much as they could to the economy. To help address a major constraint to the growth of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Pakistan, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is partnering with local banks to boost lending to SMEs. The new $60 million "U.S.-Pakistan Partnership for Access to Credit" was launched at last week's U.S.-Pakistan Business Opportunities Conference, as part of a larger bilateral government effort to boost trade and investment in Pakistan.

Finance is an important enabler of economic growth anywhere in the world. For Pakistan, which needs annual economic growth of at least 7 percent just to keep up with the number of youth expected to enter the labor market each year, this financing is important not only for the economy but for stability. Yet the private sector credit to gross domestic product (GDP) and financial depth ratios in Pakistan trail behind leading emerging economies.

In the SME segment, the volume of lending and types of financing tailored to SME needs have been very limited. A World Bank study found that only 16 percent of total credit in Pakistan went to SMEs. Moreover, about 70 percent of SME borrowing was used for working capital while only about 12 percent went toward long-term investment. Another survey shows only 11 percent of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Pakistan report having access to finance, below the 15 percent international average and well below percentages reported in higher performing middle-income countries like Brazil and Turkey (30 and 48 percent respectively).

Despite these limitations, SMEs make an out-sized contribution to Pakistan's economy. The same World Bank study found that SMEs in Pakistan employ nearly 70 percent of workers in the manufacturing, services, and trade sectors and generate an estimated 35 percent of manufacturing's value addition. They also contribute over 30 percent of GDP and more than 25 percent of export earnings. Thus, alleviating a key constraint to their growth could lead to substantial increases in the number of jobs for Pakistan's large number of youth and greater income generation.

The new Partnership reflects a shared commitment to promote broad-based economic growth in Pakistan. Private sector investment was identified as an essential ingredient for growth in the Government of Pakistan's Vision 2025 strategy. The Partnership is part of a larger umbrella of U.S. support to SMEs in Pakistan to help them grow and expand into new markets. It will provide partner banks- Bank Alfalah, JS Bank, Khushhali Bank and First Microfinance Bank- with a loan portfolio guarantee through USAID's Development Credit Authority (DCA). The guarantee will lower the risk to the banks for lending in sectors they would otherwise perceive as being too risky. It will also encourage partner banks to extend longer-term loans and introduce credit products that address the needs of SMEs.

With more access to finance, small and medium businesses are poised to make even larger contributions to the Pakistan economy than they do now. The new U.S.-Pakistan Partnership for Access to Credit will make it possible for dynamic SMEs to be more than small and beautiful. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for businesses eyeing scale-up, there are few things more attractive than being able to grow.