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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

Account Use (Developing Economies) - Click to Enlarge

Account Use (Developing Economies) – Click to Enlarge

Especially since the Global Findex report made headlines around the world with its finding that the number of financially excluded dropped from 2.5 billion to 2 billion during the period 2011-2014, I have been increasingly uneasy with equating account access as financial inclusion, and especially as equivalent to the essential concept of full financial inclusion as defined by CFI. The Center’s new publication “By the Numbers” does an excellent job helping people to digest all the publicly available data about financial inclusion, and make sense of them. It also reinforces my unease.

Despite the progress in account openings, the report makes it clear that the number of people actually using accounts is unfortunately not growing. Even more worrying, it argues that most accounts “are not really functioning as the hoped-for ‘on-ramp’ to financial inclusion.” The risk, as I see it, is that by adopting a stunted definition of financial inclusion that emphasizes account openings, we may be measuring and incentivizing the wrong things. The report wisely urges “caution regarding the value of mass drives for account opening, such as mandated no frills accounts…”

While the available data may overstate progress in some areas, the data may understate it in others due to the tendency to focus only on transactions at formal financial institutions. As the report notes, the percentage of people in low and middle income countries who save increased from 31 percent to 54 percent — quite a jump! — over three years, but this “is not reflected in a commensurate increase in saving in financial institutions.” Global surveys tend to miss savings groups and microfinance institutions, which in many markets play important roles. The alarming gaps in data related to access among vulnerable populations are also noted.

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> Posted by Shameran Abed, Director, BRAC Microfinance Program

Shameran Abed, BRAC’s Director of Microfinance, joined the Microfinance CEO Working Group in January. He joins the Working Group’s efforts to support the positive development of the microfinance industry and brings tremendous insight into the discussion on pathways out of poverty.

This month, the results from six randomized control trials (RCTs), published in Science magazine highlighted a model of development that is an adaptable and exportable solution able to raise households from the worst forms of destitution and put them onto a pathway of self-reliance. The graduation approach – financial services integrated within a broader set of wrap-around services – is gaining steady recognition for its astonishing ability to transform the lives of the poorest.

These findings can be contrasted with the results of six RCTs published in January by the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, which cited limited evidence of “microcredit” alone transforming the lives of the poor.

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and Co-Chair of the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The Microfinance CEO Working Group, as part of its commitment to client protection in microfinance and financial inclusion, set out in early 2014 to develop a model law that could be adapted, in whole or in part, into different national contexts. The Working Group’s partners were the global law firm DLA Piper and its “Council of Microfinance Counsels” which is composed of the in-house counsels of all Working Group members. After 15 months of effort, the first version of this law has now been completed and released. The blog below describes this tool and how it can be used.

Those who set policy for consumer protection in financial inclusion have a powerful new tool at their disposal, one that financial inclusion practitioners, legal experts, and regulators have had a hand in creating.

Over recent months, the law firm DLA Piper/New Perimeter has been working with the Microfinance CEO Working Group and a subgroup of the Council of Microfinance Counsels to prepare the Model Law and Commentary for Financial Consumer Protection. This is a framework of suggested legislation on financial consumer protection based on the Client Protection Principles as promoted by the Smart Campaign. The seven Client Protection Principles set standards that clients should expect to receive when doing business with a microfinance institution, and cover such critical areas as transparency, fair and respectful treatment, privacy, and prevention of over-indebtedness. The team that developed this studied multiple countries that had the most progressive and effective laws related to client protection in financial services, and in other areas.

The Model Law can be used in a variety of ways.

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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 Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

While recent research indicates that access to and use of microcredit alone is not transformative for the average client served (see “Where Credit Is Due”), there has been very little discussion about the types of indicators being used to measure “transformation” in the ongoing debates. In fact, it seems that we all have accepted the general findings that microcredit has only had modest impacts on, along with other indicators of poverty and well-being, education, health, and social capital because the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have said so. There needs to be greater thought and debate about the choices of indicators used to support these conclusions.

Freedom from Hunger over the past 20-plus years has integrated health with microfinance and helped build a body of knowledge indicating that microfinance plus health services can enhance health outcomes. In an ongoing partnership with the Microcredit Summit Campaign, supported by Johnson and Johnson, we have pilot-tested a series of health indicators that financial service providers (FSPs) can use to track client health outcomes. This pilot test was built on years of experience of evaluating health outcomes with our FSP partners, as well as on similar experiences of developing common tracking indicators in the health sector. We created a list of criteria to assess the types of indicators we felt would be meaningful to track—for individuals with and without health services – which included dimensions of feasibility, usability, and reliability. Initial results have been shared in several webinars with SEEP and the Social Performance Task Force.

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

The following post was originally published on the Grameen Foundation blog and presented at the ‘Financial Services for the Poor: Lessons and Implications of the Latest Research on Credit’ event hosted by CGAP, IPA, J-PAL, and The World Bank on February 27, 2015.

I would like to start by congratulating the researchers involved in these six new studies, as they add to the body of knowledge about microcredit and microfinance that has been accumulating for several decades, and has made us a stronger industry as a result. I would also like to congratulate the organizers of this event, and thank them for inviting me to share my views, as a representative of Grameen Foundation and the Microfinance CEO Working Group, which I co-chair with Mary Ellen Iskendarian of Women’s World Banking.

I actually find these studies encouraging. The frame I use to digest them is this: what do they tell us about what microcredit is accomplishing, and about what it can accomplish. Somehow, the main frame people seem to be using to interpret these results is what microcredit does not do. I don’t think that frame is appropriate, nor helpful.

I think that we can all agree that while microcredit has been “transformative” for individual clients, it is not today “transformative” for the average client, especially in the time frames that are being studied. I presume we can all also agree that microcredit has not cured cancer, nor the common cold. But why use unrealistic standards to frame the discussion?

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> Posted by Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, and Michael Schlein, President and CEO of Accion, who are Co-Chair and Founding Member, respectively, of the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microfinance CEO Working Group blog.

As leaders of international organizations dedicated to financial inclusion, we welcome and support initiatives that hold the microfinance industry to the highest standards of client protection, social performance, and pricing transparency. This is the principal reason why the members of the Microfinance CEO Working Group came together – a shared commitment to these principles as well as a shared recognition that enforcing them takes work that none of us can do alone.

When our group first formed in 2011, we scanned the landscape of actors and initiatives working to enforce high quality microfinance industry standards. Chuck Waterfield and MFTransparency (MFT) stood out. Pricing transparency is widely considered the most challenging standard to uphold in our industry, and there was no denying that Chuck and his small but dynamic team had created something unprecedented with MFT.

Publicly reporting pricing information is extremely complicated, which is why all industries struggle with it. The microfinance industry, however, is actually further along than most, and that is largely due to MFT’s efforts. Chuck and his staff developed a methodology to present credit pricing information in a clear and consistent way, so all stakeholders can learn the true price of credit products for clients. As a direct result of MFT’s methodology, microfinance institutions in many countries now report their pricing data. Multiple institutions also reduced their prices after publishing data and determining that they were out of line with other institutions in their market. Since MFT has been operating, many governments have also started to require pricing transparency in their regulation of the microfinance industry.

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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 the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microfinance CEO Working Group blog.

The American Economic Journal has published an issue dedicated to six new studies measuring the impact of microcredit. Through a series of randomized control trials (RCTs), researchers have identified some of the effects of expanded access to microcredit on borrowers and communities in Bosnia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Mongolia, and Morocco.

The researchers reported evidence of positive impacts of microcredit on occupational choice, business scale, consumption choice, female decision power, and improved risk management, but did not report clear evidence of reduction in poverty or substantial improvements in living standards. “These results,” conclude the authors, “suggest that although microcredit may not be transformative in the sense of lifting people or communities out of poverty, it does afford people more freedom in their choices… and the possibility of being self-reliant.”

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> Posted by Tyler Owens, CFI Staff

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The current era of financial services for the poor is marked by the growth of high-tech delivery mechanisms, innovative start-ups, new socially responsible investing models, and more traditional banks growing their portfolios of base-of-the-pyramid clients. Different players in increasingly crowded markets often collide in trying to win over more clients. Just one recent example is the newly public Alibaba, which has issued more than $16 billion in small loans over the last three years through its SME loan company AliFinance. The result of all this can lead one to question the role that traditional MFIs will play in the years and decades ahead. What will be their unique value proposition and how will they earn and maintain market share and the loyalty of their clients?

There is evidence that microfinance industry practitioners and stakeholders are not prioritizing questions of relevance and long-term customer retention. All too often, thinking strategically about the place of an MFI in a rapidly changing financial services landscape takes a back seat to the daily crush of competition and loan book performance. The 2014 Microfinance Banana Skins report—which is built on surveys of industry practitioners and insiders—concluded that the most urgent risks the industry faces are those of day-to-day business operations, such as credit control, competition, and management quality. The report went on to say that “longer term risks associated with the survival and evolution of the industry such as technological change, product development and funding are considered to be less urgent – and are less well defined.” It concluded that paying scant attention to long-term risks in the industry—at a crucial point in its development—may be a serious risk in itself.

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