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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi and Alyssa Passarelli, Deputy Director and Communications and Operations Assistant, the Smart Campaign

The Smart Campaign has worked tirelessly for over five years to embed the Client Protection Principles into the microfinance sector, and increasingly, the broader financial inclusion community. Yet until now, the Campaign has had minimal input from the very clients whose well-being drives the entire movement.

In order to better understand the concerns and experiences of the individuals who use microfinance, the Campaign has launched a client voice research and learning project. Through listening directly to clients, market stakeholders can raise awareness, dialogue with each other to identify potential issues, and in turn integrate this learning into their work. The Smart Campaign has a unique role in shining a light on potentially harmful or negative experiences that low-income users of financial services have had and bringing those experiences to the attention of those who can do something about them.

To conduct this project, the Campaign will be working with Daryl Collins and her team at Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA). BFA has conducted extensive global research with low-income households, including projects with an explicit focus on consumer protection. The client voice project will be conducted in four markets – Pakistan, Benin, and two others to be chosen this summer. The markets are selected based on geographic diversity as well as engagement by local stakeholders with the Smart Campaign. In Pakistan and Benin for example, the project is working closely with the Pakistan Microfinance Network and the Alafia Consortium, who have helped convene local stakeholders to give feedback on project design, research locations, and results. This ensures that the research has input and support at all stages from local expertise and will be used by those who are best placed to take action in response to the findings.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Nearly every industry requires infrastructure to thrive, and this goes for the microfinance industry too. But the infrastructure that the global microfinance industry has constructed over the past two decades is looking a bit shaky today. Infrastructure investments are urgently needed to keep the industry sound and prepare it for the future.

One could argue what exactly constitutes the microfinance industry’s infrastructure, and there are a range of organizations to choose from, but for this conversation, let’s look at several key organizations dedicated to setting standards and providing information for microfinance globally: the Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX), the four specialized microfinance rating agencies, the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF), Smart Campaign, and Microfinance Transparency (MFT). These organizations, which perform vital functions for the industry, arose during two different phases of microfinance industry development.

The first generation of organizations – MIX and the rating agencies – were created to provide financial transparency and standards, primarily so that investors could identify well-performing institutions, and also so microfinance institutions could evaluate their own performance against common standards. It took a lot of work to create these organizations. MIX had to find ways to incentivize MFIs to report and to devise a system for data quality assurance. The founders of the rating agencies – Microrate, Planet Rating, Microfinanza Ratings, and M-CRIL – took substantial personal risk in devoting their careers to promoting financial transparency in microfinance.  Together, these organizations have helped spread financial standards throughout the microfinance industry and contributed to improving the financial performance of MFIs, enabling the entry of private social investors who now contribute very importantly to the funding of microfinance. We sometimes now take financial transparency for granted, but if these organizations were to stop playing their role in upholding it, adherence to standards across the industry would undoubtedly drop, with consequences for investor interest, which up to now has remained strong.

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> Posted by Fernando Botelho, Founder, F123 Consulting

Microfinance institutions (MFIs) may not be aware of tools and resources at their disposal that can make it easier for them to work with persons with disabilities (PWDs) as clients or staff. A new tool launched a few weeks ago attempts to close this gap, “Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Microfinance through Organizational Learning and the Strategic Use of Low-Cost Technologies.” This tool is part of the Framework for Disability Inclusion toolkit produced by CFI through work with Fundación Paraguaya and others.

Need help? (Braille translation)

Need help? (Braille translation)

The new tool provides concrete guidance for selecting appropriate technologies, forming partnerships with disability-related organizations, and incorporating disability inclusion throughout an organization. It was developed by myself and my organization, F123 Consulting, inspired by our work with the staff of Fundación Paraguaya, to make their organization more disability inclusive.

For example, free and open source assistive technologies can be used by organizations that have an interest in ensuring that operational and financial viability are maintained. In that regard, it’s important to take advantage of the many available low-cost, high performing technologies, and to adapt instead of replace existing processes whenever possible. Managers don’t have to roll their eyes and fret about cost. Small modifications to already existing systems can often make MFIs accessible to staff and clients with disabilities. And the best part is that some of these modifications are free!

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> Posted by Laura Galindo and Alexandra Rizzi, Senior Associate and Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

A few days ago a post on this blog detailed debt collections practices in the United States. The Smart Campaign, led by Jami Solli of Consumers International, is working to shed light on provider practices in microfinance through exploratory research in Peru, India, and Uganda.

Once a client becomes seriously delinquent and moves into default, the possibilities for serious consequences for the client arise. Yet little is known about how microfinance institutions treat clients at these later stages. What alternatives do providers offer to clients who are in protracted arrears? How are clients treated when they are defaulting on multiple loans? What do clients experience during this difficult and stressful stage? And after the default, are client debt obligations resolved? Is there a concerted effort to rehabilitate or re-include defaulters?

In September, the Smart Campaign kicked off a research project to explore what happens to clients who default. The project focuses on how microfinance practitioners treat defaulting clients. It is scanning for best practices around the world – like debt mediation projects in Europe and middle-income countries – and examining practices in detail through interviews with practitioners and regulators in Peru, India, and Uganda. Interviews were also conducted with credit bureaus, debt collections agencies, consumer advocacy/protection groups, and researchers specialized in those markets. These countries were chosen, in part, because of their variation in credit bureau infrastructure and the hypothesis that this would have significant impact on provider practices.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

The following post was originally published on the IFMR Trust Blog

The Mor Committee Report offers a radical take on client protection, built around the concept of a legal right to suitability. After describing the recommendations briefly, I would like to tell IFMR’s readership why I’m excited about the approach (two big cheers), provide some thoughts on how to make it work (and how the Smart Campaign could assist), and raise a couple of questions.

Suitability is about ensuring that clients are sold financial services that are appropriate for their circumstances. A suitable product is one the client can be expected to manage with a low probability of serious hardship and a reasonable prospect that it will provide value. The concept has been present for some time in financial consumer protection regulation, most notably in the UK and Australia. The Mor Report proposes a unique approach to implementing suitability, which places responsibility on the service provider to install processes to ensure that clients are sold suitable products, e.g., client targeting and underwriting procedures that adequately assess repayment capacity. Regulation would hold the board of directors responsible for approving and overseeing the implementation of these processes, subject to external review. Hand in hand with this, the report recommends an energetic grievance redress system (which I will not address here), including both internal and external mechanisms to cope with individual problems.

The first big cheer goes to the decision to focus on suitability as the heart of client protection. This directs attention exactly where the greatest potential for harm occurs. Overindebtedness, is perhaps the greatest failure of suitability, resulting from selling loans that exceed a client’s debt threshold. This is why the Smart Campaign places Appropriate Product Design and Delivery and Prevention of Overindebtedness as Client Protection Principles #1 and #2, even ahead of Transparency. Among all the standard client protection problems, only overselling of credit has repeatedly caused sector-wide crisis and collapse, and thus if there is to be a focal point, this is the right one. (The report discusses the relative merits of suitability vs. disclosure as the core of consumer protection policy, which raises both practical and philosophical issues – an engaging topic for another day’s post.)

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

Over the last two years, the Center for Financial Inclusion has worked to develop a series of tools and trainings (a how-to guide) for MFIs that have decided to become disability inclusive but don’t know how to do so.

Through our strategic partnership with Handicap International, Fundación Paraguaya, and the Smart Campaign, we have now completed a comprehensive toolkit. And today, we are pleased to announce that we are making these tools and trainings available to the industry in English, Spanish, and French on the Persons with Disabilities (PWD) page on the CFI website. Everything is open source and available to any MFI or other financial services provider that wishes to use the tools.

The Center made inclusion of PWD an institutional priority because at 15 percent of the global population, PWD represent a very large vulnerable minority, and are largely unbanked – no more than 0.5 percent of current MFI clients worldwide are PWD.

In its Responsible Treatment of Clients principle, the Smart Campaign emphasizes the importance of non-discrimination. As the Smart Campaign’s principles evolve, MFIs are encouraged to broaden their scope of services to minorities like PWD and promote equal opportunity to financial services.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) stipulates in Article 27 on Work and Employment that countries that have ratified the treaty must level the playing field so that persons with disabilities have an equal right to employment. The Center’s White Paper “A New Financial Access Frontier: People with Disabilities” made the case for disability inclusion, drawing on the approaches used around the world to guide implementation of the Convention. Now we present the industry with practical implementation guidelines for those institutions seeking to close the financial inclusion gap for persons with disabilities.

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

Client protection (and the Smart Campaign) had a big year in 2013 in India, with five Indian MFIs becoming client protection certified and the release of the Implementing Client Protection in Indian Microfinance report.

Following the Andhra Pradesh crisis in 2010, client protection became a priority in India across microfinance stakeholders including the Reserve Bank of India, industry associations such as MFIN, Sa-Dahn, and DFIs, and investors such as IFC, the World Bank, Oikocredit, and SIDBI. In 2011, the Smart Campaign began a two-year capacity-building program with support from Accion and the International Finance Corporation to move MFIs from endorsement of the Client Protection Principles to actually improving their practices.

Microfinance India Summit 2013

Left to right: Alexandra Rizzi (Smart Campaign), Girish Nair (IFC), Matthew Titus (Sa-Dhan), Alok Prasad (MFIN), Veena Mankar (Swadhaar), Victoria White (Accion), Hema Bansal (Smart Campaign), and Amit Gupta (Smart Campaign)

The results of this Accion-IFC-Smart Campaign project are presented in the Smart Campaign’s State of Practice Report Implementing Client Protection In Indian Microfinance, launched at the Microfinance India Summit 2013 in Delhi, India in December. By examining client protection through the lens of the seven Client Protection Principles, the report takes a comprehensive look at the status of client protection in India, including areas where progress has been made and areas that still need improvement.

Based on self-reported questionnaire results and 18 in-depth Smart Assessments, the report presents areas where there has been marked improvement in client protection practices in India, and a few areas that require additional attention. High scores were reported for the principles of Responsible Pricing, Ethical Staff Behavior, and Appropriate Collections Practices. This is in part due to MFIs incorporating Code of Conduct trainings and providing guidelines for staff behavior. Less progress has been made in Complaints Resolution.  Even when MFIs have a complaint policy, this is often not communicated to clients and many staff members aren’t trained on how to handle customer complaints. Privacy of client data remains an issue as well as most MFIs don’t recognize client data protection as a major issue and clients are not educated on how to keep their passbooks safe. The lack of external regulation on these issues magnifies this trend.

A major focus since the 2010 crisis has been avoiding over-indebtedness. According to the report, “Both RBI directives and the Smart Campaign emphasize evaluating borrowers’ repayment capacity and loan affordability. Out of the total MFIs assessed, around 70 percent of the institutions demonstrated adequate analysis of their clients’ capacity to repay.” Over the past two years, MFIs have started to provide a wider range of products and regulations mandate that institutions offer a variety of repayment options.

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> Posted by Calum Scott, Program Impact Director, Opportunity International 

An Opportunity International client talks with her loan officer while examining her cocoa beans.

As a network of 40 microfinance institutions in 22 countries, Opportunity International is well positioned to play a powerful role in supporting the positive development of the microfinance industry. For client protection, we believe that the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification represents the highest standard of assurance that an institution’s practices are responsible.

To promote client protection and certification among our network, we’ve engaged the support of MicroFinanza Rating – a specialized microfinance rating agency and one of the Smart Campaign’s licensed certifiers.

The agreement with MicroFinanza will facilitate our network partners to undergo certification missions, and promote the sharing of lessons learned from certification experiences across our network of institutions. This agreement also demonstrates our confidence in the quality of the work that MicroFinanza does.

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

Smart CampaignOver 165 investors and donors have endorsed the Smart Campaign and the Client Protection Principles. But our Campaign staff wanted to dig deeper: what does this support mean in practice? Are investors using the Client Protection Principles in their everyday work? How? Earlier this year, we embarked on a project to find out.

The Campaign worked with three Virtual Volunteers from Credit Suisse - Lloyd Yetton, Meha Jain, and Nicolas Vucekovic – to create a short survey aimed at understanding how investors incorporate client protection into their due diligence, post-investment monitoring, and reporting. The virtual volunteers spoke with representatives from 12 of the leading microfinance investors.¹ The findings, highlighted below, will help the Campaign shape its engagement with this pivotal stakeholder group.

Client Protection Universally Important But Not Uniformly Applied

All the investors interviewed stated that client protection was important to them from both a social perspective and for their bottom line. Most had seen first-hand the positive influence from strong client protection practices as well as the problems and instability that sprang up in their absence. Such universal recognition is an encouraging step forward from earlier days of the Campaign. In addition to understanding the importance of client protection, nearly all respondents said that client protection was already explicitly incorporated into due diligence. Investors are indeed scrutinizing a microfinance institution’s client protection practices before investing in it.

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

Global Forum Venue: The London Lancaster

Global Forum Venue: The Lancaster London

As I traveled to London to attend the FI2020 Global Forum, my mind was filled with many thoughts. First was excitement that I had been invited to attend when I was still very much a microfinance practitioner. I was still in the process of adjusting after 17 years living in Haiti struggling to build an institution that would be a model of a client-centric, double bottom line microfinance institution (MFI) committed first and foremost to reaching the very poorest people in Haiti and providing them a pathway to a better life. For me, this meant providing them with a full range of financial and social services. My commitment to these clients had been solidified through my years in Haiti but also by my service on the Smart Campaign Steering Committee and the Board of the Social Performance Task Force and more recently by my role as a practitioner advisor to Truelift.

But now that I was in the plane and on my way, I had taken on a new role: Manager of the Microfinance CEO Working Group, a collaborative effort of the CEOs of eight pioneering global microfinance networks – Accion, FINCA, Freedom From Hunger, Grameen Foundation, Opportunity International, Pro Mujer, VisionFund International, and Women’s World Banking – all dedicated to advocating for more responsible microfinance practices and to instituting the highest standards of performance within their own MFIs. These eight CEOs represent 250 MFIs in 70 countries, serving some 40 million families. Suddenly I had been boosted from deep concerns about the future of poverty in one tiny country of 9.5 million to a preoccupation with the future of MFIs worldwide.

The Forum was a beautiful reflection of the often chaotic financial services marketplace of today where traditional banks, telecoms, retail stores, donors, investors, policymakers, regulators, and MFIs often collide in seeking to capture new markets. In attendance were the CEOs of institutions like Citi and MasterCard, along with several former Governors of Central Banks, technology innovators like the CEO of bKash, executives of insurance companies like MetLife and Swiss Re, Managing Directors of investment companies like Wolfensohn Fund Management, experts in alternative data systems like Cignifi. There were times when I thought maybe I had actually entered the wrong conference! Who were all these people, and what did they have to do with the future of microfinance?

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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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