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Smart Campaign> Posted by Center Staff

Big news from the Smart Campaign camp. Today, the Campaign, the global movement you’ve come to know for embedding a set of client protection principles into the fabric of the microfinance industry, is announcing enhancements to its Client Protection Certification Program designed to improve and accelerate the certification process.

The Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification Program contains a core set of standards against which institutions are evaluated by independent, third-party raters. Certification publicly recognizes those institutions providing financial services to low-income people whose standards of care uphold the seven Client Protection Principles. The certification process aids institutions in strengthening their practices, and becoming certified helps institutions demonstrate to industry stakeholders – including clients, investors, and other institutions – their commitment to responsibly serving their clients. The Client Protection Principles cover important areas such as transparency, fair and respectful treatment, privacy, and prevention of over-indebtedness.

The Certification changes will enable the program to better meet the growing global demand for certification among microfinance institutions, while ensuring that certified institutions demonstrate high standards and the program maintains strong governance and quality control. Several enhancements will take place immediately:

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> Posted by the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM)

How has the microfinance industry leveraged regulation and supervision to safeguard client wellbeing? In priority areas like over-indebtedness, acceptable pricing, and transparency, what progress has been made to ensure that institutions are operating responsibly? And in cases where regulatory actions have been taken, how have they been implemented? A recent research project conducted by EY and the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM) investigates these questions across 12 country markets and assesses the current state of client protection regulation in microfinance.

The growth of the inclusive finance sector has helped create significant opportunities for low-income people around the world. However, when not done correctly, access to financial products also has the potential to bring harm. Of the increasing importance of client protection and sound regulation, EY Senior Manager and one of the report’s authors, Justina Alders-Sheya remarked: “The sector is growing and to do so responsibly, it is necessary that supervisory authorities perform their role.”

Drawing on questionnaires completed by local stakeholders, the study examined whether laws and regulations on client protection have been implemented in any way in the 12 studied countries: Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Russia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The study also examined the regulatory and supervisory landscape for client protection in each country. It investigated who is creating the regulations, how they’re being enforced, and the role of industry players like microfinance associations and credit bureaus.

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> Posted by Khadija Ali, Social Analyst, Pakistan Microfinance Network

The Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN) – a national association of over 50 microfinance providers (MFPs) – has supported its members in conducting third-party client protection assessments using the Smart Campaign’s Smart Assessment tool. To date, 18 assessments have been conducted, covering over 60 percent of the market in terms of overall outreach to active borrowers. These assessments have been made possible with funding support from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) through the UK Aid-sponsored Financial Inclusion Program (FIP). The assessments provide a unique opportunity for PMN to observe the state of practice in client protection among member MFPs. For participating MFPs, the assessments provide an opportunity to evaluate their practices in comparison with globally accepted standards of client protection, and seek recommendations for institutional improvements to better comply with the standards. They also indicate whether an institution is ready to pursue Smart Certification, a designation recognized across the global market that an institution successfully integrates the Client Protection Principles into their practices. After undergoing an assessment and acting on its results, Kashf Foundation (KF) recently became the first microfinance institution in Pakistan to achieve Smart Certification.

The Pakistan Microfinance Network, a strategic partner of the Smart Campaign, sat down with Roshaneh Zafar, Managing Director of Kashf Foundation, to talk about the certification experience.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Over the past year, financial inclusion leaders and advocates have bolstered airtime for banking the unbanked. In August, The Guardian launched a hub for financial inclusion content. In recent months, The New York Times produced an extensive reporting series on the consumer ills of the U.S. subprime auto loan market. In January, U.S. President Obama publicly commended and partnered with India in its robust inclusion efforts. Also in January, Bill Gates spoke about mobile money on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Today, The Wall Street Journal added its considerable weight with the launch of Multipliers of Prosperity, a micro-site sponsored by MetLife Foundation that explores the challenges faced in advancing financial inclusion.

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> Posted by Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

As we acknowledge World Consumer Rights Day, celebrated on March 15th each year, recent news from South Africa on over-indebtedness reminded us of the findings from the What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default? project. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) just reported that 50 percent of the country’s credit-active population is debt-impaired (meaning they are more than three months behind on bills and/or have a debt-related judgment), and another 15 percent of the population is debt-stressed (one to two months behind on bills). Essentially, more than half of South Africa’s population is over-indebted.

In reacting to this situation, the SAHRC has taken an approach drawn from a human rights-based framework. They have recognized freedom from oppressive, unsustainable debt levels is a human right. Similarly, in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, the government determined that under particular financial circumstances a fresh start is a human right. To address Greece’s growing problem of over-indebtedness, in 2010, Parliament passed a law which gives individuals the right to personal bankruptcy. The implementation of this legislation was also an attempt to harmonize the law with Article 5 of the Greek Constitution which protects citizens’ social and economic well-being. According to the new law, over-indebted individuals now have the possibility to restructure their debts, reducing both interest rates and total amounts owed. The prerequisite is that the individual’s inability to repay needs to be considered a permanent condition.

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> Posted by Abhishek Agrawal, India Country Director, Accion, and Victoria White, Senior Vice President and Asia Regional Head, Accion

In November 2013, Dr. Raghuram Rajan was appointed Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). In his maiden speech, he announced plans to issue differentiated banking licenses. He spoke about his intention of creating significant reforms in the banking system around priority sector lending, payment systems, and the drive towards a cashless economy, among other areas. Within two months of this speech, the RBI published what has become known as the Mor Committee report, supporting plans for differentiated licenses; and in a record setting 10 months, the RBI finalized the guidelines and invited applications for differentiated bank licenses for small finance banks and payment banks.

At the February 2 deadline, the RBI had received 72 applicants in the small finance bank category and 41 for payment banks. The stated objective of both types of banks is to further financial inclusion. For small finance banks, this is to be accomplished through the mobilization of credit and savings to underserved segments of the population. The relatively low minimum capital requirement (approximately $16 million, versus the $80 million required for banks) offers a much more feasible option for MFIs seeking to offer more than the traditional credit-only product offering. Likewise, payment banks (which will also have a minimum capital of $16 million) will be authorized to provide small savings accounts and payments/remittance services to this same underserved market segment. This option offers a tremendous opportunity to expand product offerings for those already active in the payment space.

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

Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

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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 Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

When clients are facing loan default, they’re often in the most precarious financial position of their lives. As we detailed on this blog last week, navigating the default process can be exceedingly complex for clients. It can be complex for providers, too. No doubt, on both ends the stakes are high. In a new Smart Campaign research report released last week, What Happens to Microfinance Clients who Default?, we examined how providers behave at this juncture and the factors informing these practices.

The research team selected three very different markets to compare – Peru, India, and Uganda.¹ An analysis of three markets does not represent the entire sector. However these three countries represented great diversity in legal and regulatory systems, market infrastructure, in particular credit reporting, and use of group versus individual loans, among other factors. These three countries are also locations where the Smart Campaign has cultivated supporters and partners, which persuaded providers to share information on sensitive debt collection practices.

In total, we conducted interviews with 44 providers. In addition to MFIs, the most helpful interviews were with credit bureaus. Fonts of information, they helped us understand the topography of market debt as well as the information MFIs have when making decisions. And, as we came to understand, information was a critical determinant to what actions MFIs took when a client defaulted.

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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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