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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

In his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the history of the fight against cancer. It’s a grand saga involving scientists, doctors, patients, and politics, all wielding their best tools to find better treatments and ultimately a cure. And of course, the tale is not over: the scourge continues, though much progress has been made, and an increasing number of bright spots are appearing.

As I read, I see parallels between the evolution of that medical “war” and the struggle against poverty waged by the international development community, or at least the part of that struggle I’m part of, the struggle to give people financial tools to better their lives. The more I read, the more I see, until in each corner of the cancer story I find parallels with our own sector and its searches for solutions.

In the early 20th Century, surgeons began to treat breast cancer with radical mastectomies in which not only breast but also lymph nodes and many of the neighboring chest muscles were taken. The more radical, the greater the chances of success, went the theory. By mid-century, chemotherapies appeared. They represented another radical approach in which patients were brought to the brink of death as chemicals attacked cancerous and normal cells alike. In both cases, Mukherjee argues, brute force substituted for the absence of a deep understanding of the causes and behavior of cancer. The medical profession simply applied the tools at hand, raising the intensity as high as patients could tolerate. The tools sometimes cured the patient, but more often postponed the inevitable recurrence, a partial success. According to Mukherjee, the surgeons and chemotherapists who wielded these instruments were so convinced of their efficacy that they closed their minds to alternatives (including each other’s solutions), scoffed at attempts to measure success through rigorous trials, and downplayed the suffering imposed on actual patients.

Maybe you’re already seeing parallels…

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

With increasing regularity, I hear people talking about a new concept: deploying funds to earn profit while at the same time solving complex social and environmental problems, also known as impact investing. One article that stood out for me, and in fact prompted me to write this, is “Good Investments” by Dan Morrell in the Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin. At one point the author writes: “What impact investing really needs, all agree, are pioneers.”

Impact investing advocates can sometimes give the impression that they have “outsmarted poverty” (and other societal problems) by discovering the need for this profit-making approach, one that allows high net worth individuals to further increase their assets while also having (in the words of another impact investor quoted in the HBS article) a “fabulous social impact.”

Count me as someone who does not feel that what “impact investing” needs now are “pioneers” per se. Rather, it needs pragmatic, risk-taking, deeply curious, and disciplined people with access to funding who can work collaboratively to move an old idea forward, bearing in mind the lessons of the past and the opportunities of the present.

In fact, the actual pioneers of impact investing began laying the groundwork for this latest incarnation decades ago. Think of the Ford Foundation’s work in the 1960s to establish, legitimize, and get U.S. government policy support for Program Related Investments, the “Philanthropy at Five [Percent]” movement in nineteenth century America and England, the Russell Sage Foundation’s financing of low-income housing in New York in the early 1900s, or, in more recent times, the Calvert Foundation, just to name a few.

Or simply consider the modern microfinance industry and how an ecosystem of financing mechanisms – including dozens of “microfinance investment vehicles” (MIVs) – grew up around it in the 1990s and 2000s. Even today, according to an important study by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and JPMorgan Social Finance, close to 40 percent of impact investments are in microfinance institutions (MFIs) or funds. Microfinance is the largest single sector for receiving impact investments, and is larger than its two closest competitors combined. Clearly there are strong linkages between microfinance and impact investing, and additional opportunities for sharing lessons.

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Senior Africa Specialist, the Smart Campaign

The marijuana industry is burgeoning. While consumer demand has always spurred this black market business, commerce has expanded over the last few years with the legalization of medical use in 23 U.S. states and recreational use in Washington, Colorado, and (just a few days ago) Washington, D.C. It may come as a surprise that cannabis growers and sellers face some steep financial inclusion challenges.

Despite state decriminalization or legalization, marijuana remains a “controlled substance” per federal statutes and unfortunately for “Ganga Station” or “Glorious Buds” it is federal jurisdiction that matters when it comes to the banking sector and disciplining its dealings with what it categorizes as illegal enterprise. As a result, banks must ultimately worry about criminal charges. Most decide the risks associated with pot proprietors as clients are too high. As a result of their limbo position between state and federal law and enforcement, those in the business are increasingly speaking about their frustrations in being unbanked.

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> Posted by Abhishek Agrawal, India Country Director, Accion, and Victoria White, Senior Vice President and Asia Regional Head, Accion

In November 2013, Dr. Raghuram Rajan was appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). In his maiden speech, he announced plans to issue differentiated banking licenses. He spoke about his intention of creating significant reforms in the banking system around priority sector lending, payment systems, and the drive towards a cashless economy, among other areas. Within two months of this speech, the RBI published what has become known as the Mor Committee report, supporting plans for differentiated licenses; and in a record setting 10 months, the RBI finalized the guidelines and invited applications for differentiated bank licenses for small finance banks and payment banks.

At the February 2 deadline, the RBI had received 72 applicants in the small finance bank category and 41 for payment banks. The stated objective of both types of banks is to further financial inclusion. For small finance banks, this is to be accomplished through the mobilization of credit and savings to underserved segments of the population. The relatively low minimum capital requirement (approximately $16 million, versus the $80 million required for banks) offers a much more feasible option for MFIs seeking to offer more than the traditional credit-only product offering. Likewise, payment banks (which will also have a minimum capital of $16 million) will be authorized to provide small savings accounts and payments/remittance services to this same underserved market segment. This option offers a tremendous opportunity to expand product offerings for those already active in the payment space.

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> Posted by Maria May, Senior Program Manager, BRAC

Babita Akhtar, BRAC customer service assistant, Kawalipara branch, Bangladesh

Babita Akhtar, BRAC customer service assistant, Kawalipara branch, Bangladesh

Even when introducing herself, Babita’s enthusiasm is contagious. “Maybe you think that you can’t change how you manage your money. It’s too hard. Well, I used to think that I could never get up in front of a group of people and give a presentation. But here I am. BRAC taught me how. So if I can do this, then you can do anything.”

Babita Akhtar is one of 900 women recruited by BRAC as a customer service assistant. She greets every person who walks into the branch office—people coming for loans, seeking support from BRAC’s legal aid clinics, teachers or community health promoters coming for training, and even visitors. Before loan disbursement begins, she runs a short orientation session for all borrowers that covers important information about the loans, BRAC’s services, and good financial practices. The branch manager comes in at the end to answer any questions and greet the clients personally.

The messages provided in this orientation are timed for maximum impact. Pranab Banik, who heads BRAC’s Financial Education and Client Protection Unit, said, “The time when clients are waiting at the branch to take a loan seems the best moment to deliver basic financial awareness at scale and cost effectively. Our pre-disbursement orientation is an integral precondition for comprehensive client protection; it is intended to empower all clients to better understand their options and manage their finances responsibly.”

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(click to enlarge)

> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Since the release of our paper, Aging and Financial Inclusion: An Opportunity, I have been considering the challenge of market segmentation using the life course. This is not unexplored terrain at the Center for Financial Inclusion. Beth Rhyne articulated a life course approach during our Looking Through the Demographic Window project, which we have captured in the infographic embedded at right. I have been hearing from microfinance institutions that some efforts are underway to segment clients by their life stage, though this remains a relatively untouched area in the industry. For a great example of segmentation, however, I only had to look to the spam filter on my email.

Most of the emails that get caught in my spam filter are about body image. I receive messages advertising dieting pills, on the one quick fix to reduce belly fat (you won’t believe which celebrities use it!), and how to get toned abs within a week. This makes sense—I work out regularly, and I (try to) watch what I eat. The emails are tailored to me.

In chatting with my colleagues, I find that they also receive targeted emails. Some women in our office who are older than me receive emails for walk-in tubs. Singles get emails that point them to dating websites. Some of the younger men in our office get emails that refer to “satisfying” their girlfriends. And the spam filters of older men in our office collect emails about (ahem) performance-enhancing pills.

These are, of course, gross generalizations—the life course cannot possibly be reduced to dieting, walk-in tubs, and bedroom performance. But why is it that the email caught in my spam filter is more skilled at customer segmentation using the life course than my financial institution’s product line? Even more than being successful at segmenting a potential client base, spam marketers are successful at moving this potential client base to action, according to MailChimp. They have a simple message and a call to action. Their “click rates,” or the rate at which people click on links, are higher than average.

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

Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

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> Posted by Matt Collin, Research Fellow, the Center for Global Development

The following post was originally published on the Center for Global Development blog.

In a few weeks’ time Australia’s Westpac bank will start closing down the accounts of money transfer organizations used by immigrants to send money home. Westpac is the last major Australian bank still offering services to organizations in the country’s US$25 billion remittance sector.

Two weeks ago, Merchant’s Bank of California also decided to close the accounts of all money transfer organizations (MTOs) sending money to Somalia. The source of Merchant’s decision appears to have been a cease-and-desist order issued by the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) in June, purportedly due to the bank’s failure to appropriately monitor the destination of remitted funds.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a trend here. In 2013, Barclays’ closed the accounts of nearly 90 percent of its U.K.-based MTOs, despite being the last large bank in the country willing to do business with remitters. HSBC made the same decision the previous year, following a nearly US$2 billion penalty handed down by U.S. regulators.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Participants in a workshop on aging and financial inclusion, organized by the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion and HelpAge, held last week in New York City at MetLife.

When we wrote about the topic of aging in our recently-released paper Aging and Financial Inclusion: An Opportunity, I have to admit that I was skeptical that any stakeholders would be motivated to action — regardless of how compelling the paper was. Aging, I thought, is something people feel uncomfortable talking about, whether because they worry about their own old age, or that of their parents, or because they consider older people an uninteresting market segment. Whatever the reason, I was worried that our effort to call attention to this issue would fizzle out and fade into the internet abyss.

I was thrilled to be proved wrong.

Last week, discussing the new paper in our various meetings in Washington, D.C. and in New York City and in a global webinar, we learned that much more is happening in this area than we had initially known, and that more people are willing to consider what aging may mean in their own work than we expected.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

It’s been an exciting few months for client protection in the microfinance industry. FINCA Kyrgyzstan, MBK Ventura in Indonesia, SKS Microfinance in India, and a number of other MFIs around the world demonstrated that they successfully integrate the client protection principles into their practices and joined the rapidly growing list of institutions that are Smart Certified. Today, we’re pleased to share that the number of clients across all the Smart Certified institutions surpassed the 15-million-client benchmark.

To date, 28 microfinance institutions, from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, have achieved Smart Certification, including some of the world’s largest and best-known MFIs. These institutions are not only ensuring that their clients are equipped and best positioned to effectively use financial services, they’re also demonstrating to their respective markets and the global industry the good business that is responsible microfinance.

“Momentum to improve client protection is accelerating, with scores of MFIs across the globe improving their client protection practices, and being recognized for it through certification,” stated Isabelle Barrès, director of the Smart Campaign, in a press release. In Eastern Europe, there are certified institutions in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, with the certification of the nation’s network of FINCA MFIs, the country’s market crossed an important threshold. “As measured by MixMarket data, more than 50 percent of all microfinance clients in Kyrgyzstan do business with certified MFIs,” noted Barrès. The certified MFIs in Kyrgyzstan include the first formal financial institution serving low-income entrepreneurs in the region, as well as a relatively young institution, and encompass a range of service offerings like individual, group, and agricultural loans. Elsewhere in the region, the proportion of clients in certified institutions by country market is about 45 percent in Bosnia, and 40 percent in Tajikistan.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.
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