> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

2014 World Bank/IMF Annual Meeting

Sound financial inclusion regulation and policy does not an ethical financial system make. In financial inclusion, we often talk about the importance of consumer protection, industry transparency, and fair market conditions. In the absence of universal standards of what these principles look like in practice, we turn to regulators and policymakers. I contend that we cannot keep relying on regulation to make the financial system moral and just. Since much of my own research promotes financial inclusion policy and regulation, this is a fairly inflammatory statement for me to make. But when we look only to regulators to create a financially inclusive and fair marketplace, we miss the mark.

In my own life, I see an analogy to our family game night. I am a very competitive person. I confess that there are times (fairly frequent times) that I cheat. I can easily miscount the number of spaces my piece is moving in Monopoly, or I can set down three cards and make it look like one card in Uno. My husband sometimes catches me, or my efforts to cheat simply aren’t drastic enough, so very rarely do I change the outcome of the game. But no number of rules can keep me from trying. Nevertheless, I’m sure my husband would agree that rules and regulations are not sufficient. Game night would be far more ethical if, instead of relying on the game rules, we relied on our responsibility to one another (check back with me in a few months to ask how a recalibration of my own internal compass is going).

In his remarks to during the recent World Bank Annual Meetings, the Most Reverend Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) emphasized that ethics in finance is not about creating carrots and sticks, but about doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Welby’s charge to participants in the meeting, including Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, recognizes the necessity of the personal ethical compass—not solely a reliance on regulators.

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI


Last year, before I was a parent, my colleague Deborah Drake wrote a blog post asking “What do Governance and Parenting Have in Common?” Now that I am a parent, I would like to draw another commonality between governance and parenting: both are easier said than done!

There is plenty of literature out there on the best practices of parenting but in reality, it is really hard work, full of uncertain information and mixed advice. You may know the importance of letting them cry it out, feeding veggies, limiting screen time, or talking to your kids about risky behavior. However, we also know how hard these things can be to do in practice, and how often they get avoided, explained away, or ignored. It is often hard as a parent to take a long-term view or to experience the short-term pain needed for long-term gain. You just have to pick your battles, hope for the best outcome, and know there will be unforeseen challenges and crises along the way.

Same goes for governance. It is tricky to bring up the difficult conversations at board meetings, hard to think strategically about the long-term when you are busy putting out today’s fires. It is challenging to adhere to all the recognized best practices, and often difficult even to decipher which practices are important to adhere to.

In both parenting and governing, it is helpful to have advice and benchmarks to sort through all the noise. Googling teething or breastfeeding may provide some help, as will reading up on risk management or strategic alignment. But too often, these searches will leave you wondering where you actually stand between “nothing to worry about” and “oh boy, do we have a problem.” This is because these topics are harder to learn from literature and easier to learn from people who have been there.

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> Posted by Juan Blanco, Associate, Financial Inclusion 2020, CFI

Last Friday I attended an event organized by The Guardian and sponsored by Visa called “How to Bank Billions: Exploring New Models for Financial Inclusion in Emerging Economies” at George Washington University. Speakers included Camille Busette, lead financial sector specialist at CGAP; Martha Brantley, director of business development at the Clinton Global Initiative; and Stephen Kehoe, head of global financial inclusion at Visa Inc.

The panelists shared new models for financial inclusion, emphasizing the need to truly address consumers’ needs and the importance of building a whole market ecosystem. Camille Busette affirmed that the intersection between these two approaches will truly advance financial inclusion. Other trends were highlighted, especially the need to have traditional financial services providers interested in financial inclusion in order to truly scale up its impact. Marin Holtmann from the IFC pointed out entirely new developments as mobile network operators (MNOs) acquiring banks or banks acquiring MNO licenses, as in the case of Equity Bank in Kenya.

The second half of the discussion was focused on barriers faced by the financial inclusion community. Most participants identified obstacles like regulation and traditional business models. However, the panelists agreed that these obstacles also present themselves as the greater opportunities. Stephen Kehoe illustrated both issues in a very insightful way. He stressed the need to develop public-private partnerships so that regulations are conducive to a growing ecosystem for digital financial services. Kehoe affirmed that the community doesn’t need to work on one particular business model but rather five different business models:

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> Posted by Lindsey Tiers, Communications and Operations, the Smart Campaign

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a number of lenders seem to have adapted General Douglas MacArthur’s views on government regulation: “Rules are mostly made to be broken.” Research conducted on the effectiveness of the U.S. government’s Military Lending Act over the past few years has illustrated that “lenders, intent on offering loans regardless of the federal restrictions, devised loan products that fell squarely outside the loan’s restrictions.” When interest rate caps were limited to loans of up to $2,000, lenders started offering loans for $2,001. When protections were applied to auto-title loans with terms under 181 days, loan periods were extended to just over 181 days.

The Obama Administration is suggesting an expansion of the law in order to close some of the loopholes, but will more rules truly deter predatory lenders? Regulators might find themselves overburdened with a multitude of rules and a decreasing ability to enforce them. A few well-supervised regulations seem preferable to a tangled web of unenforceable ones. Additionally, it would be foolish to underestimate the innovative abilities of those intent on making a buck from those in the military, based on the case precedents we’ve seen.

Even when the law does actually catch up to bad actors, there is evidence that they can go out again with the same or similar practices. Julio Estrada, a used-car dealer featured in an earlier article in The New York Times on subprime auto lending, continued to dupe customers into accepting predatory loans for several months after he was “indicted by the Queens district attorney on grand larceny charges that he defrauded more than 23 car buyers with refinancing schemes” less than a year earlier.

Predatory lending to military personnel is made easy because military salaries are largely transparent. Lenders have near perfect knowledge of just how much a servicemember desperate for cash can afford in monthly payments. The reliability of a government paycheck has fostered the creation of systems that withdraw installments before income even reaches a servicemember’s account, further minimizing the risk to lenders and increasing their relative advantage. Yet the most egregious imbalance in knowledge stems from the fact that lenders know the “military considers personal indebtedness to be a threat to national security, so high levels of debt can imperil service members’ security clearances,” and ultimately their job. Predatory lenders leverage this knowledge to threaten servicemembers.

Perhaps instead of relying on regulation, and hoping that everyone plays by the rules, we should refocus our efforts on adequately arming our servicemen and women with the knowledge they need to defend themselves. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took steps to do just that when it created the Office of Servicemember Affairs to focus on the challenges faced by military employees. However, it primarily addresses ways to save, funding for higher education, and accessing VA benefits, and only touches on indebtedness in a section on deployment and credit cards. While educating servicemembers on these issues is important, increasing savings and controlling the interest charged on credit card bills are ways to preempt debt, and might not necessarily be relevant for someone already in debt. These individuals are most likely to fall prey to abusive payday lending schemes.

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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI

Students in a technical education program

With 1.2 billion people, youth between the ages of 15-24 represent approximately 18 percent of the global population, and 87 percent of youth live in developing countries. Yet only 44 percent of 15-to-24-year-olds have an account at a formal financial institution globally compared to 55 percent of adults.

Last week, I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion on youth financial inclusion, hosted by Credit Suisse and organized by the Microfinance Club of New York. The presenters shared important examples of what has worked in providing financial education and services to youth. Joining me were:

  • Barbara Magnoni, President of EA Consultants and co-author of CGAP’s “Analyzing the Business Case for Youth Savings
  • Maria Perdomo, YouthStart, Programme Manager, UNCDF
  • Scott MacMillan, Communications Manager, BRAC USA
  • Simon Bailey, Head of Learning, Research, and Network, Aflatoun
  • Nathan Byrd, Head of Education Finance, Opportunity International

Recently, our Financial Inclusion 2020 team worked with Making Cents International to look at the barriers to and drivers of youth financial inclusion. We found that the primary reasons that youth cite for not having an account at a formal institution are a perceived lack of money, the high costs of services, and challenges in having proper identification. In addition, youth often feel that their financial assets or businesses are too small to work with a bank, especially in situations in which the costs of getting to a bank are high.

Despite these challenges, there are a few areas of opportunity. One is the business case. Since financial needs of young people grow in volume and sophistication over time there is a business case for serving them even as their financial needs are initially limited. Serving youth can help build a longer-term and loyal clientele if products are appropriate and financial capability is fostered. Another important area is financial education/capability. Establishing financial literacy early in life will help foster positive financial habits and lead to longer-term asset accumulation and higher credit scores. This needs to take place in a regulatory environment that supports financial inclusion and coordination among various players.

These three areas – the business case, financial capability, and the policy perspective – were the focus of much of the discussion at the event. I noticed that a few themes cut across the presentations:

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

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India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi created much fanfare and excitement upon the launch of a financial inclusion plan for the millions of unbanked Indians (currently estimated at 40 percent of the entire population). The Jan-Dhan Yojana (Scheme for People’s Wealth) will provide a free, zero-balance bank account and a debit card allowing for electronic payments, coupled with accident insurance and overdraft protection. Indian media went wild for the aggressive first day of the program wherein 15 million bank accounts were opened.

While all should cheer the intention of Prime Minister Modi to build a more inclusive financial system, there are some cautionary tales, both old and new, that the scheme should learn from. The tool of a basic savings account has been touted for close to a decade in India where, in 2005, the RBI promoted a ‘no-frills’ account scheme. While millions of new bank accounts where opened under this scheme, researchers found that many of the accounts were dormant, underutilized, and hence ineffective at ushering the formally excluded into the formal system. Even in districts dubbed 100 percent included, the reality on the ground was far less exemplary in terms of enrollment and usage of accounts.

Prime Minister Modi might also take heed of a much more recent cautionary tale added by researchers at IFMR, a business school in Chennai. Co-authors Amy Mowl and Camille Boudot wanted to understand whether there were hidden barriers to individuals interested in savings and investing using a basic savings account. That savings account, formerly called no-frills, and now called a BSBDA (Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account), are mandated by the Reserve Bank of India to be offered by all banks. Mowl and Boudot hired and trained a group of mystery shoppers to pose as low-income customers interested in opening a BSBDA at 42 branches of 27 large banks in metropolitan Chennai. The experiences of these mystery auditors was tracked, recorded, and analyzed by the researchers. The results were stark.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Twitter and Groupe BPCE, France’s second-largest bank, are teaming up to enable Twitter’s users to complete person-to-person money transfers using tweets. Payments on the service will be open to anyone in the country, not just Groupe BPCE users, and won’t require senders to know the recipient’s banking details to initiate a transaction. The payments will be managed by S-Money, Groupe BPCE’s mobile money unit.

The development comes amid a wave of new offerings from digital and internet-based payments providers, both newcomers and veterans. In 2012, Western Union experienced a 41 percent increase in online transactions. Venmo, the PayPal-owned smartphone app that integrates users’ social info, reached a transaction volume of US$ 468 million in the second quarter of this year, a 347 percent increase over last year’s Q2 figure. Last month, with a portion of users in the United States, Twitter also began testing its potential to be a retail marketplace with Twitter Buy. The platform update integrates a “buy button” into the tweets of companies selling products or services, harnessing the Twitter stream of tweets as an avenue for online window shopping.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

Shamsin Ahmed of BRAC in her powerful piece, “The ‘Normal’ Ones”, makes an impassioned plea for greater tolerance and more treatment options and opportunities for those who suffer from some kind of psychosocial disability (mental illness). People with psychosocial disabilities make up at least 16 percent of the population in Bangladesh, and yet less than 1 percent of the national health budget is allocated to mental health care. For those of us who work on financial inclusion, I would argue that there needs to be much greater attention directed towards poor mental health as an obstacle to achieving economic citizenship.

Originally published on bdnews24, an online Bangladeshi newspaper, here is “The ‘Normal’ Ones”.

When I was eight years old I watched an Indian movie where the mother of the hero had gone mad, possibly from trauma of being tortured or having witnessed the death of the hero’s father by the villain. And in one scene this mad mother was running around the village in her white saree, disheveled, bushy hair, and villagers were running after her with sticks and stones, calling her “pagol”. I asked my father, “Why are the people stoning her? If she is the crazy one, shouldn’t she be the one stoning them?” My father was disturbed as well as deeply moved by my question as I was told years later.

People always say those who have mental illnesses are not “normal”. It’s funny how no one thinks it’s necessary to define “normal”. I grew up knowing anyone with some sort of disability, be it psychological or physical, was “not normal”. No one said they are unable to live like everyone else. No one said they are unable to lead “normal” lives not because of their disability but because of the “dis-enabling” environment that those without mental illness, who have a say in the making of our society, create for people with mental illnesses. No one admits that those of us who have a “sound mind” have continuously shunned, isolated, and stigmatized people with mental illnesses.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Wonga, the U.K.’s largest payday lender, is forgiving £220 million in loans from 330,000 clients in arrears. Another 45,000 Wonga clients on precarious financial footing will no longer have to pay interest on their active loans. The news came last Thursday after talks between Wonga and the U.K. regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which culminated in Wonga instilling new, and reportedly urgently needed lending affordability checks. The forgiveness measures are intended to cover clients that wouldn’t have been given loans under the new affordability measures. They follow what has been a controversial rise for the lending firm and suggest where the U.K’s payday industry may be headed.

Wonga, which currently lends to about a million clients a year, has incurred complaints in the past for its lack of affordability checks, high interest rates, unscrupulous debt collection practices, and misleading advertising. Those speaking out against the firm include politicians, trade unions, and public demonstrators. Even Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby once stated that he would “compete [Wonga] out of business” through the launch of a Church-backed group of credit unions.

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> Posted by Hillary Miller-Wise, CEO, Africa Region, Grameen Foundation

Veteran journalist Walter Cronkite once said of America’s health care system that “it is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” Imagine what he would have thought about some of the public health care systems in the developing world.

Consider Kenya, which is now a middle-income country, due to recent rebasing of the economic calculations. Public expenditure on health care is about 6 percent of GDP, compared to 9.3 percent in OECD countries. About 33 million Kenyans – or nearly 75 percent of the population – are uninsured, of whom 70 percent live on less than $2 per day. And there is no Obamacare on the horizon.

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