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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Microfinance Network (MFN), which was hosted by the Alexandria Business Association in Alexandria, Egypt. MFN is a global network of some of the largest and leading microfinance institutions, and its annual meeting has long been known for candid and in-depth sharing of experience among the leaders of these institutions, as this post demonstrates.

Ask a microfinance CEO what’s making his or her life hard these days, and the answer is likely to be politics.

That’s hardly surprising when the speaker is Motaz Tabaa, CEO of the Alexandria Business Association (ABA), one of the largest microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Egypt. On January 28, 2011, when the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo held the world’s attention and led to the resignation of then-President Mubarak, it became impossible for ABA to operate. But before the week was over, staff were back on the streets, collecting and disbursing loans, and sleeping at the office to guard the cash that couldn’t be deposited in banks, which remained still closed.

Nearly every MFI in the group had a similar encounter with crisis – consider the political violence (and/or natural disaster) that has touched Uganda, Nigeria, Armenia, Mexico, Haiti, and Bangladesh in recent years. Today, Al Majmoua in Lebanon and Tamweelcom in Jordan are overwhelmed with the attempt to serve the Syrian refugees that have crossed their borders. The CEOs who have experienced such upheaval agreed about the role of MFIs in responding quickly to help clients obtain cash, keep their businesses open, and then rebuild. Given how prevalent political and natural crises are, organizations have developed protocols for responding quickly. Even while we met, Enrique Majos of Compartamos received news of a tornado in Mexico, and sent the Compartamos natural disaster team into action.

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> Posted by Bruce MacDonald, Senior Vice President, Communications, Accion

My first love was Susan Morasky, but my second – and far more enduring – has been Africa. For that I credit Mrs. Walden, my third-grade teacher, who encouraged us to think big.

Sadly, even the loves of your life can let you down. In Nairobi last week to promote the Africa Board Fellowship, our new program on governance for sub-Saharan MFIs, all went well. Until, that is, I tried to go home. A 20-minute taxi ride to the airport became an hour, then two, then four.

I missed the KLM flight to Amsterdam, and of course the connecting flight home. As I sat in the cab, fuming in First-World frustration, I peppered the driver with questions. “What’s the cause of this?” Rain. “Can’t you go another way?” This is the only way. “Where are all the policemen directing traffic?” Incoherent response. And, finally, snippily, “How on earth do you people put up with this?” Obviously embarrassed, he finally stopped answering my questions.

Everything’s relative, especially in Africa – something I should have remembered, given the banking and finance conference I’d just come from, and the presentation by Amish Gupta, head of investment banking at Standard Investment Bank in Nairobi.

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> Posted by Nelly Agyemang-Gyamfi, Program Coordinator, CFI

On the 6th of April, 68 financial inclusion stakeholders from 23 countries across the globe arrived in (a thankfully snowless) Boston to commence the 10th annual HBS-Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance. Over the past decade, the deeply immersive, week-long program has trained over 660 high-level executives from more than 250 organizations spanning 90 countries. As in past years, this year’s program was held on the beautiful campus of the Harvard Business School and led by world-renowned HBS professors Michael Chu and V. Kasturi Rangan. As a Center for Financial Inclusion staff member who helped organize the course, I was privileged to take part, and I offer these reflections on what I saw and learned.

Participants were exposed to a wide range of issues pertinent to inclusive finance, from managing political uncertainty to impact investing and measurement. This year, reflecting the changing landscape of inclusive finance, the course included seven new sessions including cases on China’s CreditEase, Massachusetts’ Pay-for-Success, and Peru’s Edyficar.

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Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group

> Posted by Center Staff

Among the excitement of the World Bank Spring Meetings last week, key players in financial inclusion declared actionable commitments toward the goal of universal financial access by 2020 in a standout session. Those committing included banks, associations, payment companies, and telcos. The message of the commitments, and of the session’s panel discussion, was that we’ve achieved remarkable progress in the past few years, the goal of universal access by 2020 is very much in reach, and both of these are due in no small part to the aligning of stakeholder incentives and powerful partnerships. The panel highlighted that in three short years, the number of unbanked adults around the world dropped from 2.5 billion to 2.0 billion, according to the 2014 Global Findex.

The focus of the panel was mobilizing the public and private sectors to achieve the goal of universal financial access. Although achieving access is just the first step toward inclusion, it is a bridge to effective services usage, as well as to other development objectives like adequate housing, education, clean water, and healthcare. During the session, panelist Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group said, “If we reach universal financial access by 2020, we’re going to have a much better chance of getting to the end of poverty by 2030.” One particularly promising avenue to expanding access is digitizing government payments. Ajay Banga, CEO of MasterCard shared that 30 percent of the money that flows into the hands of the under-banked comes from governments. Delivering these payments into a mobile phone, card, or cloud-based account that can be accessed using biometric technology or other non-limiting customer-identification methods brings tremendous benefits. In this way, by migrating their social benefits from cash to electronic, Pakistan opened 3 million debit accounts in six months. Countries with national financial inclusion strategies achieve twice the increase in the number of account-holders compared to countries that don’t have strategies in place.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Globally, about 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.25 a day. This is a huge number of people, roughly four times the population of the United States. Yet it is a smaller percentage of the world’s population than ever before – 17 percent of people living in developing countries lived in extreme poverty in 2011, compared to 43 percent in 1990. But we cannot be satisfied until extreme poverty disappears. The World Bank has put forth the goal of reducing the proportion of people living in extreme poverty to 3 percent or less of the world’s population by 2030.

Live Below the Line, which begins one month from today, is an opportunity to support the eradication of extreme poverty and gain some valuable perspective on what it’s like to live with such meager means. The global movement challenges individuals to live on a food budget of $1.50 a day for five days: April 27 – May 1. The set-up is simple. During the time leading up to Live Below the Line week, you pick one of 20 organizations targeting poverty elimination, then spread the word among your circles and gather fundraising support for your chosen organization. During the five days of living below the line, you and your team get a sense for the hardships that so many individuals around the world endure. To make the challenge more practical, the $1.50 budget only includes food and drink – not transport, health, or housing expenses.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last month Larry Reed, Director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, attended the International Summit of Productive Inclusion in Guayaquil, a conference focused on financial inclusion for one of the world’s most underserved populations: persons with disabilities. The event was organized by Ecuador’s Office of the Vice President, whose leadership has been seminal in advancing disability inclusion in Ecuador and around the world. I caught up with Larry to learn more about the event and the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s efforts to support persons with disabilities living in extreme poverty.

1. The event included diverse stakeholders and topics related to financial inclusion for persons with disabilities. Did anything in particular stand out to you?

The first thing that impressed me was just how big it was. Over 2,000 people attended the event, and it was also live-streamed. The 2,000 people were not only a diverse group in terms of sector, but also in how they related to persons with disabilities. And the interesting thing was that about half the people in the audience were either people with disabilities or caregivers for people with disabilities. The event included a fair where people could buy things made by people with disabilities. Even the food stands for lunches were all run by people with disabilities. It was an event that actually practiced what it preached.

The event aimed to further the work of Ecuador’s previous vice president on inclusion for people with disabilities and extend it into the financial sector. They’ve done a lot of work in Ecuador to get people with disabilities included. For example, there’s a law that says for any company over 25 employees, 4 percent of its employees must be people with disabilities. But, because there are not very many large companies in Ecuador, that law results in employment for only a small portion of the population that has disabilities. The government sees a need for self-employment and small businesses run by people with disabilities. And to advance that they need to have the financial sector providing services that help promote business start-up and growth.

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> Posted by V. McIntyre, Freelance Writer for the Harvard Kennedy School

Often, we hold out hope that innovation will happen through the great leap forward, the stroke of luck, the miracle cure – and when one candidate fails, we go off in search of another.

There is justifiable concern that this yes-or-no approach hampers international development. A recent article in the New Republic listed “big ideas” in international development that failed – not because they were bad, but because they were big. The article describes a $15 million-plus project to install thousands of water pumps attached to merry-go-rounds in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages which sought to overhaul entire villages by building housing, schools, clinics, roads, and other key infrastructure. In these and the article’s other cases, with expectations high and money and attention flowing in, the projects sank, often because they outgrew the scale at which they had proven to work. Yet some of a project’s apparent lack of success may simply come down to the measurement you’re using. Many of the world’s most successful development efforts – deworming campaigns, for example – only improve the average life in tiny increments.

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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 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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