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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

Visitors to our FI2020 Progress Report on Client Protection will have noted our poor math skills. (This is the section of the report that assesses global progress to date in advancing fair treatment for lower-income financial services clients.) We rated regulators a 6 on consumer protection and providers a 3—and somehow averaged those out to a 5. Our averaging skills make even less sense when you consider the three legs of the client protection stool—providers, regulators, and consumers—and realize that consumers are not even on the radar, rightfully earning a 1 at best in terms of their capacity to advocate on their own behalf. So why the optimism?

We were certainly swayed by the impressive momentum among a range of actors at the global level—including policy and private sector initiatives—toward improved consumer protection. But it’s what happens at the national level that really counts. The World Bank’s 2014 Global Survey on Consumer Protection and Financial Literacy reports that some form of legal framework for financial consumer protection is in place in 112 out of 114 economies surveyed. We are not so Pollyannaish as to think that having a legal framework is equivalent to having a regulatory and supervisory system that protects consumers well, but we do think it’s a good step in the right direction.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Smart CampaignToday, the Smart Campaign released for public comment new draft Client Protection Standards – which will be the basis for what we term Certification 2.0. The new standards streamline the previous Client Protection Standards, and reflect the evolving financial inclusion industry. They incorporate client risks pertaining to insurance, savings, and digital financial services. The standards operationalize where the financial inclusion industry sets the bar in terms of the minimum behaviors clients should expect from their financial service providers. Now open, the public comment period extends through November 30, 2015.

We’d love your feedback!

The new standards build off of the first set of Client Protection Standards, released in January 2013, as the basis for the introduction of Smart Certification. The standards and their corresponding indicators, which put the Client Protection Principles into practice, are used to benchmark institutions seeking Smart Certification.

Like the first iteration, the development of Certification 2.0 standards has been a highly collaborative process. Over the past 18 months, the campaign consulted a wide array of stakeholders and up to 30 experts to strengthen and update the standards and indicators.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

On August 4, Facebook received approval on a patent it had purchased in a bundle from the defunct social network Friendster. It primarily describes a mechanism to weed out content depending on whether it travels via trusted nodes in a user’s social network. This might not have caused much of a stir, had it not been for entrepreneur and blogger Mikhail Avady’s revelation that the patent also includes the following application:

“In a fourth embodiment of the invention, the service provider is a lender. When an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes. If the average credit rating of these members is at least a minimum credit score, the lender continues to process the loan application. Otherwise, the loan application is rejected.”

Many commentators and journalists reacted with alarm, while Facebook has not offered comment on the story. It is unclear whether or not a product will be developed out of this particular embodiment of the invention. A Daily KOS headline proclaims that “Facebook Gets Patent to Discriminate Against You Based on Your Social Network”, and a Popular Science writer notes that “It’s totally not something straight out of a cyberpunk dystopia”. This MSN article warns readers to purge their less trustworthy friends, though it also notes that the technology could relegate some consumers to riskier lenders. In the non-financial press, less attention is given to the potential upshots for thin-file loan applicants. The list of concerned news outlets stretches well beyond the first page of search results I examined after Googling the patent’s text.

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> Posted by Haset Solomon, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

I rarely think about the cost of convenience. I often use my phone’s navigational system, seeking turn-by-turn directions, but I usually don’t consider the trail of data I’m leaving behind – and even if I do, I decide the benefit outweighs the cost. We live in an age where leaving myriad digital footprints is almost inescapable. Increasingly, we hear of big data analytic companies that “liberate data” or “democratize data” for the purpose of improving products and services or making them more widely available. There are true benefits to advancing our society’s data capabilities and unearthing new patterns and insights. (The phone that tracks my travel can give me advice on promising restaurants nearby.) But the costs can be high. Here in the U.S., the anonymity of “meta” data sets is continually being challenged. Fortunately, in this country consumer advocacy groups and institutions such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Bureau of Consumer Protection at FTC, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are working to address and remedy breaches of privacy and data rights.

In most of the world, similar institutions are nonexistent or under-developed. The fast uptake of technology has opened up large population segments to new possibilities, while leaving them vulnerable. Digital financial services users in developing countries are often choice-less and voiceless on how their data is used.

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> Posted by Haset Solomon, Associate, the Smart Campaign, and Sonja E. Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Click for complete and full-size infographic

Earlier this year we shared a puzzle: microfinance institutions reported that they had age caps on credit products, but we couldn’t figure out what data or rationale was backing them. Leveraging the Smart Campaign’s endorser network of over 2,000 microfinance institutions, we set out to get to the bottom of this puzzle. What we found in our survey surprised us.

Consistent with our research in the Financial Inclusion 2020 (FI2020) publication Aging and Financial Inclusion: An Opportunity, 61 percent of respondents indicated that they have age caps at their microfinance institutions. Indeed, it is common-place for institutions to place age caps on their credit products. The practice is not limited to one country or region – respondents to the survey came from 45 different countries across every region. As we analyzed the survey, we figured there is either a global phenomenon of discrimination against older people or everyone has a very good reason for their actions that we have been missing.

When asked what the age cut-off is at each respondent’s institution, the responses ranged between 55-80 years, and the average age was 65. Our research earlier this year, however, found that this age cut-off is not always consistently applied within each institution. New customers may have an earlier age cut-off, whereas customers with an existing relationship with an institution may be given an additional few years to apply for a new loan.

So, why do institutions impose these age caps on credit products? We received two competing answers:
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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Momentum for Smart Campaign Certification is accelerating. Today, we’re thrilled to announce that there are now more than 20 million lower-income clients whose financial service provider has been certified as meeting the Campaign’s standards for consumer protection.

Since February 2015, the number of clients served by Smart-Certified financial institutions (FIs) has grown by 6 million, to a total of 21 million, with the certification of an additional 11 institutions. To date, 39 FIs, from 19 countries across Latin America to Africa and Asia, have achieved Smart Certification, including some of the world’s best-known institutions dedicated to serving the poor.

As you might be familiar, the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification Program contains a core set of standards against which institutions are evaluated by independent, third-party evaluators. Smart Certification publicly recognizes those institutions providing financial services to microentrepreneurs with a standard of care that upholds the microfinance industry’s seven Client Protection Principles. Customers of Smart-Certified organizations can be confident that their financial service provider has policies and processes in place to ensure that they are treated responsibly.

“Twenty million clients is an exciting milestone – recognition of the fact that there’s growing momentum in the industry for client protection,” said Isabelle Barrès, Smart Campaign director. “These organizations are not just paying lip service to the concept of fair treatment, but actually working hard to improve practices,” she added.

In April 2015, having listened carefully to evaluation results and industry feedback, we launched certification program revisions to streamline the process while maintaining high standards. These revisions included an appeals and complaints system and a process for renewing certification validity. At the end of 2015, the Campaign will introduce an accreditation system to license existing and new certifiers, and a version 2.0 of the certification standards. Certification 2.0 standards remove duplication and ambiguity, and deepen standards for savings, insurance, and digital financial services.

Even as the coverage of the certification program approaches critical mass, the broader Smart Campaign continues to advance. For the Campaign’s next phase we are excited about working on the following:
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> Posted by Center Staff

Globally, the cost of fraud in the telecoms industry amounts to about 2 percent of total revenues, roughly US $46 billion. In the mobile money segment, it’s estimated that about 2 to 3 percent of revenues generated from phone-based banking are lost to fraudulent activity. In India, where the mobile subscriber base is over 980 million individuals, covering over 70 percent of the country’s population, mobile money presents a big opportunity for banking the unbanked. And awareness of this is catching on. Just this week Paytm, a mobile wallet service in India backed by Alibaba’s financial arm, announced that they’ve surpassed the 100 million client mark.

As more individuals are brought into the mobile banking fold, including those of lower income levels, it’s increasingly important that fraud risks are thoroughly managed. If they aren’t, clients will suffer, and so will their perceptions of formal banking services. A new report from Deloitte investigates the risks facing India’s mobile money market and how to best manage them.

The report outlines and offers the root causes of seven categories of fraud: phishing fraud; intrusion/ cyber attack; access to wallet through unauthorized SIM swap; fake KYC; commission fraud by agents; and application manipulation by authorized users. (The latter two are frauds carried out by internal stakeholders, like agents, employees, and third-party vendors.) As one example, in the case of phishing (when fraudsters dupe customers through phone calls/SMS/emails to share sensitive information), the root cause is inadequate customer awareness around information sharing and customer data theft.

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> Posted by James Militzer, Editor, NextBillion Financial Innovation

The following post was originally published on NextBillion, in two parts, here and here

The Smart Campaign was born in the midst of extraordinary upheaval in the microfinance sector. Its launch in 2009 was sandwiched between the 2008 global financial crisis, repayment crises in several microfinance markets, and the 2010 debtor suicides in Andhra Pradesh. Yet the turmoil served to amplify the campaign’s main point: that microfinance needs to focus on customer protection. In the succeeding years, it has labored to unite microfinance leaders and practitioners around this goal – most notably through its efforts to convince microfinance institutions (MFIs) to undergo the process of Smart Certification, in which independent evaluators verify that they are “doing everything [they] can to treat [their] clients well and protect them from harm.”

Over time, these efforts have started to gain traction. The campaign – which is steered by a group of prominent leaders in the industry and housed at Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion – has certified 39 microfinance institutions. (Note: Accion is a NextBillion Content Partner.) Certified institutions include a number of leading MFIs in markets around the world, from Equitas in India to Kompanion in Kyrgyzstan. And the campaign calculates that certified MFIs now serve slightly more than 20 million clients. In a recent interview with NextBillion, its director, Isabelle Barrès, called the 20 million client mark “an exciting milestone, recognition of the fact that there is momentum growing in the industry for client protection –  not just paying lip service to it, but actually working hard to improve practices.”

But achieving this momentum hasn’t been an easy task for the campaign – or for the industry whose practices it’s trying to improve. Barrès discusses the challenges it has faced – and the controversy it has sparked – in this two-part Q&A.

James Militzer: Do you have any data on which markets have the highest percentage of Smart Campaign-certified MFIs?

Isabelle Barrès: I think Kyrgyzstan probably is the one where we currently have the most right now – 60 percent of microfinance clients are served by organizations that have been certified. This shows that when there are some substantial efforts that are put towards improving client protection – whether it’s at the market level or at the regulatory level, or through market infrastructure, such as supporting a good credit bureau – it can make a difference for the entire industry.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Will microfinance continue to be relevant in 2020 and beyond? Should regulators or the industry lead on client protection? Will data analytics replace traditional credit reporting systems?

A new Financial Inclusion 2020 e-magazine explores these three essential questions debate-style, tapping industry leaders from around the world to weigh in with their perspectives.

Microfinance as a development strategy has in the past few years been eclipsed by the excitement around financial inclusion. This transition reflects the recognition that people need a full range of financial services. What does the future hold for microfinance institutions and other players like traditional banks and new fintech companies? Bindu Ananth, Chair of IFMR Trust and IFMR Holdings, Dean Karlan, President of Innovations for Poverty Action, and Liza Guzman, Vice President of Accion share their views.

The ideal balance in client protection is often conceived as a three-legged stool in which regulators, providers, and consumers work at equal levels of responsibility. Globally, regulators have often taken the lead, but initiatives such as the Smart Campaign prove that there is room for providers to move beyond compliance. Is a balanced three-legged stool realistic? Among the debaters are Alok Prasad, Principal Advisor of RBL Bank, Sanjay Sinha, Managing Director of M-CRIL, and Isabelle Barres, Director of the Smart Campaign.

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> Posted by Anne H. Hastings, Manager, Microfinance CEO Working Group

As a member of the Smart Campaign Steering Committee, I had the pleasure last week of attending the first ever Certification Summit held in Turin, Italy. The CEOs of 24 client protection certified microfinance institutions (MFIs) came together to discuss with one another their experiences with certification, their practices for preventing over-indebtedness, collections and grievance redressal, and their thoughts on how the certification process could be made more valuable.

I tried my best to talk with each and every participant there in order to get their honest thoughts about certification. I was surprised but pleased to discover that, without exception, every one of them said how happy they were that they had gone through the process and achieved the recognition. Some examples of the types of comments I heard are:

  1. Client protection has always been part of our DNA. It’s who we are. The certification process helped us align our practices with our values – and come closer to what we aspire to be.
  2. It has allowed us to improve our relations with the regulators in our country more than we imagined. They now turn to us for advice!
  3. It was great for our employees. It was a truly motivating exercise for them . . . and the recognition that comes with certification made them feel very special. Our employees are proud to be associated with a responsible institution.
  4. There was a cost to it, no question – but the process convinced us that it was well worth the investment.
  5. We wanted third-party validation of our practices, and this gave us that validation.
  6. The process was excellent. I have tremendous respect for the rating agency that conducted our mission. It was far more rigorous than I anticipated, and it did result in our making some very significant changes, especially to our disclosure practices.
  7. Our customers have told us that they appreciate the changes we made that were clearly visible to them. They especially like the improvements we’ve made to our grievance redressal mechanism.
  8. Certification must be seen as a risk management tool because that’s what it is. We need more MFIs to go through the certification process in order to control risk in our market. We need to engage more closely with investors and regulators about what it means and how it acts to mitigate risks.
  9. The process helped us to get back to our fundamentals, for the reason we were formed. This was something we had needed to do, without really realizing it, for a long time.
  10. There’s no question that it contributed to our ability to get new capital from our local bank.

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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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