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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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> Posted by Maura Hart, Communications Manager, Microfinance CEO Working Group

In conjunction with the release of two new publications on over-indebtedness, the MCWG has launched the Over-Indebtedness Transparency Discussion Forum as a platform for discussion and encourage readers to join in. We invite you to share your thoughts and questions with other microfinance practitioners.

Over-Indebtedness: A Risk Management ApproachUnderstanding the causes and potential remedies for over-indebtedness is critical to socially responsible lending. The fallout from over-indebtedness can be extensive, not only to the clients whose inability to repay loans can lead to social, economic, and personal problems with long-lasting repercussions, but if over-indebtedness is widespread, it can create adverse economic impact on the community and ultimately cause a significant economic crisis in that region. We have seen tragic examples of this in Bolivia and India just in the last 15 years.

Recognizing the ongoing urgency of this issue, the Microfinance CEO Working Group – a collaborative effort by the leaders of eight pioneering microfinance organizations – Accion, FINCA International, Freedom from Hunger, Grameen Foundation, Opportunity International, Pro Mujer, VisionFund International, and Women’s World Banking – commissioned two new studies:

The Working Group and our colleagues in the socially responsible lending community are anxious to avoid a debt crisis in Mexico, similar to those that have caused major upheavals in other countries. The Working Group commissioned Over-Indebtedness in Mexico: Its Effect on Borrowers to learn of the causes of over-indebtedness in Mexico directly from borrowers and those who are on the frontlines of the loan application and approval process.

Over-Indebtedness: A Risk Management Approach is designed to help other microfinance institutions (MFIs) identify the leading indicators of the trend toward over-indebtedness and mitigate the risks—and ultimately reduce the likelihood that over-indebtedness will happen. The study examines the leading indicators of over-indebtedness and suggests steps MFIs can take to avoid over-indebting their clients. It also identifies the risk mitigants and controls that will reduce the likelihood of MFIs being affected should over-indebtedness hit the wider market.

We hope these two papers will be the catalyst for an open dialogue among practitioners and thought leaders in the microfinance sector so that we might collaborate to develop preventive solutions. As these initiatives become established, the Working Group will share these resources with other MFIs and the microfinance sector. We also plan to provide additional platforms to continue the fruitful discussion of over-indebtedness remedies.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

I was recently asked to give a talk at the University of Pennsylvania’s 8th (!) annual Microfinance Conference. This year’s theme, “Microfinance Beyond Its Roots” set me in search of ways in which the microfinance industry is moving into areas beyond its original microcredit core. Of course, this process has been going on for a long time, and so there are many topics to choose from.

I decided to look at health care, partly because, as every staff member of a microfinance institution knows, health setbacks are one of the most frequent sources of repayment problems among low income clients. As they learned about the health vulnerabilities of their clients, microfinance organizations began to invest in experiments, bringing their businesslike approach to bear on a challenge that is often dealt with in heavily subsidized, non-market ways. Today, many of these programs have matured and grown, even as new ideas are being tested.

I looked among the organizations belonging to the Microfinance CEO Working Group, and I found that nearly all have something exciting going on in health care. Approaches include some combination of direct health care service provision, health insurance coverage, and education. Many are using technology as a means of reaching people at scale and low cost.

The meetings associated with group lending provide a convenient and cost-effective platform for health services, and adding a health component to group microcredit is probably the earliest and most widespread model. Health education was perhaps the starting point, as pioneered by Freedom from Hunger and also implemented by Opportunity International. Today the services often reach farther (while health education continues to be important). ProMujer, for example, directly employs nurses and other health practitioners to staff fixed and mobile clinics available to ProMujer members. They focus on maternal and reproductive health, as well as screening for the chronic diseases that are increasingly major health issues in Latin America. Hundreds of thousands of women get access to health care through ProMujer’s efforts.

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> Posted by Jaclyn Berfond, Senior Associate, Network Engagement, Women’s World Banking

Women have long been the face of microfinance, a fact reflected by the mission and goals of the institutions that serve them. According to the Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX), most microfinance institutions (MFIs) claim to target women (74 percent) and just over half declare women’s empowerment or gender equality as an objective.

Big commitments are all well and good, but if we are going to espouse the importance of serving low-income women, we must be able to hold ourselves accountable. How do we do that?

For many years now, the microfinance industry has focused on financial performance, with sustainability and later profitability driving outreach. In the wake of crisis – often the consequence of rapid growth – the industry has re-focused on social performance, getting back to the basics of ensuring that financial institutions adhere to their mission of serving low-income clients. We strongly believe that there must be a balance between financial and social performance, and that in order to achieve either, the industry must take a good look at their clients – still predominantly women. By truly analyzing this client base, MFIs can both build the business case for serving women, and ensure that they are serving these women well. This is gender performance.

In 2011, Women’s World Banking launched the Gender Performance Initiative (GPI) to develop a framework that defines what it means to serve women and measures how effectively MFIs do so. We wanted to establish a set of indicators that would enable MFIs to consider not only how many women they serve, but how they can enhance their understanding of customers to tailor products, marketing strategies and delivery channels to meet women’s needs. The initiative also set out to demonstrate the benefits of financial inclusion for women and their households, as well as the benefits of gender diversity among staff, management, and board.

Developing the indicators. There is no easy place to start when it comes to measuring performance, and we wanted to be sure that the metrics we chose would truly tell us whether an institution was serving women well. First and foremost, we needed to start with the right questions, in the areas that matter most to women. Beyond outreach, we looked at product design and diversity, service quality, and client protection, as women have specific life-cycle needs and goals that must be considered. For example, women may need a convenient and confidential way to save for children’s education expenses, or an insurance product that offers cash benefits for hospitalization to cover lost income from time away from their business (and includes maternal health coverage). We also looked at the diversity of staff and management, because we believe that in order to be the best place for women customers, a microfinance institution should be a place that welcomes women employees and women leaders. Finally, we wanted to understand how serving women clients contributes to institutional financial sustainability, as well as outcomes for clients.

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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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