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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 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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> 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 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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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Marisol is a 69-year-old woman in Aguablanca, a mid-sized community near the coast in Colombia. She hasn’t saved much for her older years. She receives a small social pension—about a dollar per day—from the public pension program, Colombia Mayor. While it provides an income floor for her, Marisol would like to be working as an entrepreneur. She even has a plan: “If I had a little capital, I could buy chicken legs, beef, and bananas here at a cheap price and then sell them in the Pacific towns at three or four times the price. And then I could bring back fish from the coast to sell here at the fairs.” But she cannot get a loan because of the age caps on credit at the financial institutions that operate in her area.

Marisol explains that it is not her lack of zeal or a declining health that is keeping her from increasing her income through this business dream of hers. “Strength and desire do not fail me,” she says. “It’s the money that I lack.”

Marisol was one of the people that we interviewed as part of the creation of an issue paper on Aging and Financial Inclusion, a project conducted by the Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign and in collaboration with HelpAge International. Her story is not unique—many older people report being denied access to credit and insurance in their later years. Most older people who had low or informal income when they were younger have not saved for their older years.

The new paper examines the unmet financing needs of older adults, a population segment growing rapidly in developing countries. With a focus on Latin America, the paper discusses the barriers to and market opportunities in expanding financial access to aging populations.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

When clients are facing loan default, they’re often in the most precarious financial position of their lives. As we detailed on this blog last week, navigating the default process can be exceedingly complex for clients. It can be complex for providers, too. No doubt, on both ends the stakes are high. In a new Smart Campaign research report released last week, What Happens to Microfinance Clients who Default?, we examined how providers behave at this juncture and the factors informing these practices.

The research team selected three very different markets to compare – Peru, India, and Uganda.¹ An analysis of three markets does not represent the entire sector. However these three countries represented great diversity in legal and regulatory systems, market infrastructure, in particular credit reporting, and use of group versus individual loans, among other factors. These three countries are also locations where the Smart Campaign has cultivated supporters and partners, which persuaded providers to share information on sensitive debt collection practices.

In total, we conducted interviews with 44 providers. In addition to MFIs, the most helpful interviews were with credit bureaus. Fonts of information, they helped us understand the topography of market debt as well as the information MFIs have when making decisions. And, as we came to understand, information was a critical determinant to what actions MFIs took when a client defaulted.

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

The risks associated with the recent U.S. boom in subprime auto loans for the working poor are compounding, a series of articles recently published by The New York Times indicates. The articles report on the Times’ extensive investigation on the subject, which included the examination of over 100 bankruptcy cases, dozens of civil lawsuits against lenders, and hundreds of loan documents. The series draws attention to companies lending to those on the financial margins who often have questionable or missing credit histories and who are purchasing typically pretty old, low-quality cars. Lenders have lowered credit standards to widen their pool of borrowers, a risky practice incentivized by an influx of money from investors looking for a hot market and keen to securitize. Subprime auto loans have increased by 130 percent in recent years, and in 2014 they accounted for one in four auto loans.

In addition to viewing this through our did-we-learn-nothing-from-the-subprime-mortgage-crisis?! glasses and seeing potential systemic repercussions, one can take the consumer rights vantage point and see the scary picture of a world in which the underbanked or financially excluded are given two kinds of options: bad and really bad. We decided to score the features of this market against the seven Client Protection Principles of the Smart Campaign. Since the Client Protection Principles are a do-no-harm standard, we expect markets to meet seven out of seven principles to earn our endorsement. Let’s see how subprime auto loans stack up.

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

Financial inclusion stories and research are published daily, lauding various efforts to bring lower-income people into the formal banking fold. All progress deserves celebration, but also closer examination. When a new initiative takes effect, or a new service deployed, how does that advance us in achieving financial inclusion? A backdrop of sound measurement is critical. A BBVA research team, Noelia Cámara and David Tuesta, recently set out to construct an index that measures the extent of financial inclusion at the country or region level. The index is discussed and applied to 82 countries in the team’s new paper, Measuring Financial Inclusion: A Multidimensional Index. We were especially intrigued to learn that this research incorporates both supply and demand-side data. I recently sat down with Cámara to talk about the project, from challenges in measuring financial inclusion to the implications of the newly-available index.

1. What are the challenges in measuring financial inclusion?

Many issues arise when it comes to measuring financial inclusion. First, there is no single definition for financial inclusion universally accepted in the literature. Most definitions include three dimensions: use, quality, and access. However, when it comes to defining these dimensions, no consensus is found. For instance, the use of financial services is part of the financial inclusion concept, but it is not clear what “use of financial services” really means. Thus, several questions come to the fore: Do we consider having a bank account in the formal financial system to be a necessary condition for financial inclusion? Is having a pre-paid card or microinsurance enough to classify an individual as included? Is using electronic payment intermediation (e.g. paying bills with a mobile phone) a sufficient condition?

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

Imagine you are a new microfinance loan officer in a rural area of your country and extremely proud to have found a stable, well-regarded job. Your sales territory, while requiring significant travel, is familiar – this is where your father’s extended family is from, and in fact, a few of the borrowers in your portfolio are distant cousins. You manage a portfolio of just under 300 borrowers, most of whom you see on a weekly basis.

This week, at one of the repayment meetings, you are approached by a client in distress and near tears. She apologizes that she is unable to pay back the outstanding balance on her loan due to circumstances out of her control, and asks for an additional six months to repay. Her fellow group members have been covering for her for the past two weeks and seem to be losing patience with her. Given that this was the woman’s first loan and that your country’s credit bureau covers only five percent of the microfinance market, you have no information on her credit history or current debt burden.

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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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