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> Posted by Guy Stuart, Ph.D., Executive Director, Microfinance Opportunities

The past few decades have seen an impressive expansion of financial services to the world’s under- and unbanked populations. This expansion has not been without its challenges, including low-income customers of many financial service providers (FSPs) falling into considerable over-indebtedness¹ or signing up for services they do not use.² MFO’s own research³ and the research of others suggest that the limited financial capability of FSP customers is one of the factors behind these challenges. Hundreds of millions of people are gaining access to formal financial services with no education in basic money management principles and ways to maximize the usefulness of the new services to which they have access.4

Extending financial education (FE) to consumers is vital in empowering them to make informed decisions about the financial services they use and how they use them, including avoiding over-indebtedness and signing up for accounts they never use. But reaching the massive number of clients in need of FE in a way that is accessible and practical is a tall order. The Monitor Group report suggests it could cost from $7 billion to $10 billion using traditional, classroom-based approaches to provide education just to those who already have access now —a sum that is 10 to 15 percent of the total current asset base of microfinance institutions worldwide. If access to finance were extended to include the world’s 2.7 billion unbanked, the cost of building financial capability would rise further by a factor of at least three.
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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI

It’s a big couple of weeks for Africa here in Washington, D.C. On Monday, President Obama hosted a town hall meeting to welcome this year’s class of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Launched in 2010 by Obama, YALI supports young African leaders as they spur economic growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa. These Fellows spend six weeks at one of 20 U.S. universities and colleges undergoing leadership training and mentoring in business and entrepreneurship, civic engagement, and public administration. Next week, the State Department will host the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit with heads of state from 50 African countries to advance the U.S. Administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and discuss security and democratic development.

Nearly one-third of all Africans are between the ages of 10 and 24, and approximately 60 percent are below 35. YALI is tapping into the drive and energy of Africa’s youth to effect change. Many Fellows in the YALI network are focused on improving access to financial services, whether it’s encouraging a savings culture in Zimbabwe, establishing microfinance programs for women and youth in Kenya, or creating a microfinance program to help start medical supply stores in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Rwanda has a lot to celebrate in terms of financial inclusion these days. Last week in Kigali the National Bank of Rwanda (NBR) hosted a conference in partnership with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) commemorating their 50-year anniversary. At the event, titled Financial Inclusion for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development, NBR Governor John Rwangombwa highlighted the country’s recent rise in access levels, from 48 to 72 percent between 2008 and 2012 across formal and informal providers. Rwanda now has the laudable goal of increasing this figure to 90 percent by 2020. To help it get there, on Friday the World Bank launched a $2.25 million program supporting key financial inclusion areas for the country.

Along with overall exclusion rates dropping from 52 to 28 percent over 2008 to 2012, formal services access increased from 21 to 42 percent during the same period, according to the 2012 FinScope Rwanda Survey. The new government goal of 90 percent access by 2020 is an extension of the country’s Maya Declaration Commitment of 80 percent access by 2017. Rwanda’s growth in formal access can be attributed to products offered by both banks and non-bank providers, like the country’s community savings and credit cooperatives known as Umurenge SACCOs. Over the past three years, Umurenge SACCOs have attracted over 1.6 million customers. Ninety percent of Rwandans live within a 5 km radius of one of the cooperatives. Countrywide, the number of MFIs, including Umurenge SACCOs, increased from 125 to 491 between 2008 and December 2013. Elsewhere in the sector, over the last three years, the number of banks increased from 10 to 14, the number of insurance companies increased from 9 to 13, and the number of pension providers increased from 41 to 56.

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> Posted by Jamie M. Zimmerman, Senior Policy Consultant, CGAP

Achieving financial inclusion by 2020 will depend in large part on the proliferation of fast, affordable, and accessible digital financial services (DFS). Indeed these effective, scalable models were a clear theme at the FI2020 Global Forum hosted by CFI last fall. Yet as excitement for DFS dominated much of the public discussion, a small and diverse set of financial inclusion leaders convened a private side-meeting to discuss an often-overlooked question: what are the consumer risks to these new, innovative digital models?

The meeting, co-hosted by CGAP and UNCDF’s Better Than Cash Alliance, introduced the concept of “responsible digital finance” and revealed heightened awareness of and interest in an array of issues related to the potential consumer risks of digital financial services, including:
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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI

Since launching microfinance activities in 1974, BRAC has grown to become one of the world’s largest financial services providers to the poor. BRAC’s microfinance operations, which include loans and savings, serve more than 5 million clients in eight countries. In 2012, BRAC started a financial education and client protection project that aims to help clients adopt financial behaviors that facilitate their well-being. Shameran Abed, Director of the BRAC Microfinance program, recently spoke with me to discuss BRAC’s work. Prior to joining BRAC, Abed served as an editorial writer at one of Bangladesh’s main English-language daily newspapers where he wrote primarily on politics. He also serves on the Board of Directors of bKash, a mobile financial services platform in Bangladesh.   

Eric: Can you talk about BRAC’s client protection work and what you learned from your project pilots in 2012 and 2013?

Shameran: We wanted to make sure that any clients coming into the BRAC microfinance program could be very well catered to. They should understand what our products are, what our terms are, what our rates are, and they should make an educated decision on whether they want to take our products. And if they do become our members then they should be treated well, treated with respect, and have access to information. I’m not saying that BRAC didn’t have all these things before two or three years ago, but we really wanted to double-down our efforts on these fronts. So that’s why we decided to do more work around client protection, client customer service, and financial education.

Eric: What do you think are the biggest risks facing microfinance clients?

Shameran: From a financial point of view, there are two or three risks that we’re particularly concerned about. One, of course, is something that’s been talked about a lot, the risk of overindebtedness. Bangladesh, although quite a mature microfinance market, is, in terms of overindebtedness, thankfully still quite low. But still I think overindebtedness is something that you always guard against because there is a lot of demand for credit and if microfinance institutions are not careful they can always have issues around overindebtedness of borrowers.

There are a lot of financial institutions nowadays that are kind of fly-by-night institutions that set up shop… Institutions that are typically unregulated. They come in, they offer products, they lure in clients, and then they disappear. I think around these issues the clients need more awareness, and these are some of the things our financial education components try to address.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last week the Microcredit Summit Campaign released their 2014 State of the Campaign report, sharing insights and exemplary initiatives that support the global goal of resilience for all. Resilience outlines where the microfinance industry stands in its mission to end poverty, and how synergies with other services and sectors, like healthcare, mobile phones, and social relief payments, are key to achieving even greater impact.

Worldwide, 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty. One in eight people go to bed hungry and one in six children under the age of five are underweight. Every few years between 10 and 30 percent of the poorest households around the world work their way out of poverty, while roughly the same number fall below the poverty line. Several of these statistics, all highlighted in Resilience, come from the 2013 Millennium Development Goals report. In that report, it’s noted that in terms of the MDG to eliminate poverty, the world is about five years ahead of schedule, though of course progress around the world hasn’t been uniform. In one of the regions that has lagged, Sub-Saharan Africa, so too does financial inclusion. About 85 percent of those in the region don’t have a formal savings account, compared to 77 percent of the world’s poor globally. Even fewer individuals have access to formal credit or insurance products.

Nevertheless, the growth numbers of the microfinance industry for the past decade and a half are encouraging. In 1997, global client outreach totaled 13 million. By 2010, it grew to 205 million. After a dip in 2011 resulting from a loss of 15.4 million clients in India, industry outreach rebounded in 2012.

Resilience breaks down these numbers by income level, revealing an important trend. According to the statistics, during the past decade, for the first time the gap between total client outreach and the total number of clients who are among their country’s lowest income group has widened. At first glance, the numbers may be interpreted as suggesting that MFIs have become more interested in serving wealthier clients. The reality, however, is that more MFIs are adopting accurate benchmarking tools for assessing poverty, such as the Progress out of Poverty Index. It turns out, many MFIs’ previous estimates of their outreach to the very poor have been inaccurate – overestimating how effectively they are serving this client segment.

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> Posted by Zahra Khalid, Social Analyst, Pakistan Microfinance Network

Pakistan’s financial sector is due for some client-centric changes. Over the past decade there has been rapid growth in consumer lending as well as an increase in the number of households that have taken on risks and obligations that they do not fully understand due to unfair and deceptive practices coupled with low levels of general and financial literacy.

These trends make the World Bank’s recently released industry-wide diagnostic review of the state of consumer protection and financial literacy in the country all the more relevant, and its recommendations targeting irresponsible practices, such as inadequate price disclosure, gender-based discriminatory lending practices, and lack of dispute resolution mechanisms, increasingly important. Offering key findings, recommendations, and comparisons against World Bank-developed best practices, the review is the first to cover the country’s legal, institutional, and regulatory framework from the consumer protection angle.

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> Posted by Sonja E. Kelly and Ruben Marquez, CFI and Bancomer

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Shakespeare

While Juliet’s musings on the essence of her Romeo might be poetic, she is quite wrong. Words determine a great deal about how we think about things—and one word change could change hundreds of thousands of people’s use of financial products.

Percent of People Who Report Saving in the Past Year

In Mexico, if you were to ask those at the base of the pyramid whether they save, they would likely tell you no. CFI’s Country Profiles show the Global Findex Data in the figure at right.

When asked whether they had saved any money in the past year, roughly 14 percent of people in the bottom 40 percent of the economy in Mexico answered yes. This same group of people in all upper middle income economies (of which Mexico was a part at the time of the survey) were about twice as likely to say yes to this question.

Does this mean that the poor in Mexico just don’t prioritize savings? Probably not.

In Mexico, there is a difference between the word for “saving” (ahorrar) and the word for “keeping” (guardar). When you ask people at the base of the pyramid whether they “keep” money for the future, they are much more likely to answer yes.

The Findex survey (the source of the above data) may have inadvertently run into this problem in Mexico. The difference between two words could explain the low incidence of saving reported at the base of the pyramid compared to countries with a similar income level.

When we take this language difference into account, there are implications for institutional knowledge, financial education, and product marketing.

On this front, Bancomer in Mexico has found that there is a reorientation to be done within the bank itself—while Bancomer is listening to clients, for listening to be effective it must be listening for the right language. Within the bank, integrating the vernacular of low-income clients has led to new views on this income segment. Past market research has included the question of whether potential clients are saving—with dismal results. With the recognition that this population is saving, but just calling it something else, there is a different perception of the kinds of products that customers might be interested in.

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> Posted by Kim Wilson, Fellow, Center for Emerging Market Enterprises and the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

A few months ago, the instructor of a user design workshop challenged the class to redraft the Healthcare.gov website, the official site of the Affordable Care Act.

In a flash, my 23-year old classmate and team member, Sam, deftly sketched out a new landing page and a few forms. We had time left over to chat. It was Sam’s chance to question the very existence of the site itself.

Sam complained that the Affordable Care Act seemed neither affordable nor about care. As a healthy freelancer he would be soon forced to purchase an expensive financial product – health insurance. And a quick search informed him that if he did not comply he could plan on spending $695 to opt out. Sam turned to me and said, “I don’t know where to begin.”

Projected to cost $1.36 trillion dollars by 2023, the Affordable Care Act is one of the biggest financial inclusion experiments in the world. It requires that every resident of the U.S. participate in a financial scheme to purchase health insurance.

In making the product fully inclusive, U.S. President Barack Obama and proponents of the bill could have followed the advice of many of the financial education skeptics I call “inclusionists”: The inclusionists dismiss high touch financial education as a key part of financial inclusion. The arguments against high touch education run thus.
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> Posted by Amanda Lotz, Financial Inclusion 2020 Consultant, CFI

Javier moved from Honduras to the United States with his wife and their children in search of better work opportunities and to escape the violence in their community. His parents chose to stay behind. Luisa moved from the Philippines to Canada to pursue more lucrative opportunities as a nurse, hoping to support her family back home. Yousef fled from Syria to Lebanon, as a refugee, to escape civil unrest.

Javier, Luisa, and Yousef – fictitious characters – are only symbolically representative of some of the enormous global migrant population – estimated to total 232 million people in 2013. Certainly not homogenous, their reasons for leaving their home country can vary tremendously and may include economic opportunities, natural disasters, and security or political concerns.

In spite of the complications of migrating, there is an undeniable and increasing opportunity for financial service providers to serve migrants and their families. Today, I will focus primarily on migrants who move for economic and employment opportunities, though we recognize that these issues are more nuanced for migrants like Yousef who have fled their country of origin for the sake of their safety. I will save this smaller subset, 7 percent of all migrants, for another post. Though, I will mention that MasterCard has an innovative partnership with Banque Libano-Française for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which you can read more about here.

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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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