Lending a hand: help banks in the Netherlands, 1848–1898

Amaury de Vicq and Christiaan van Bochove

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First emerging in the late 1840s, help banks (hulpbanken) were introduced in the Netherlands to bridge the credit gap for small-scale borrowers. They would soon appear in various towns across the country. Modelled after Irish loan funds, their mission was simple yet profound: to provide small-scale loans to individuals and businesses that were otherwise underserved by commercial banks, pawnshops, or social networks.


Exploring the Success of Help Banks in the Netherlands

In our historical analysis, we argue that the success of help banks can be attributed to three key factors: their lending mechanism, corporate governance, and historical circumstances.


Lending Mechanism

Help banks were distinguished by their lending model. Borrowers were required to make weekly repayments, and loans were secured through co-signers, which effectively reduced adverse selection and moral hazard concerns. This strategy led to high repayment rates and minimal losses due to defaulting borrowers.


Corporate Governance

Another key to the enduring success of help banks was their corporate governance structure. Unlike many traditional lending institutions, help banks funded their operations by issuing shares rather than relying on deposits. This meant that shareholders were actively engaged in the decision-making process, aligning their interests with the institution’s success. This approach created a robust accountability mechanism that ensured the efficient management of the institution and safeguarded the interests of financiers.


Historical Context

The impact of historical circumstances cannot be understated in the success story of help banks. The willingness of Dutch elites to work in modest premises and volunteer their efforts played a pivotal role. Additionally, these elites were open to receiving lower dividend payments, driven by non-economic motivations and a commitment to social welfare. This unique blend of philanthropic intentions and practical considerations contributed significantly to the financial sustainability of help banks.


Lessons for Today

The story of the Dutch help banks resonates with the challenges faced by modern microcredit institutions and other small-scale lenders. In today’s financial landscape, many such institutions struggle to strike a balance between financial sustainability and social impact. The lessons from help banks shed light on how this delicate equilibrium can be achieved. One crucial takeaway is the importance of local involvement. Help banks succeeded because of the active participation of local elites who were deeply connected to their communities. This stands in contrast to present-day microcredit institutions that often lack local roots and awareness of the socioeconomic dynamics. Building relationships with the community, involving local leaders, and fostering a sense of ownership can significantly enhance the success of small-scale lending initiatives.


Future Research Avenues

While this analysis provides a comprehensive insight into the success factors of help banks, there are still uncharted research avenues. Further exploration into the personal relationships between borrowers, co-signers, directors, and shareholders could provide deeper insights into the sustainability of these institutions. Additionally, understanding the impact of help bank credit on borrowers’ lives and economic outcomes would enrich our understanding of their societal contributions.