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> Posted by Dan Balson, Lead Specialist, The Smart Campaign

Visionfund Azercredit

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the Smart Campaign, a global initiative to embed client protection into the institutional culture and operating principles of the microfinance industry. Smart Certification, introduced last year, awards special status to microfinance institutions (MFIs) that can demonstrate that they meet strong standards of client protection.

Getting Smart Certification is not easy. A third-party certifier conducts a thorough desk review and extensive field visit where the candidate MFI’s policies and practices are placed under a microscope. To become certified, MFIs must be in full compliance with all the Smart Campaign’s indicators, both in letter and in spirit. These indicators are derived from the seven Client Protection Principles and touch on everything from appropriate product design to the existence of effective complaint resolution mechanisms. The certification process often requires an MFI to make significant adjustments to its internal policies and practices. But once certified, an MFI can affirm its responsible practices to investors, staff, partners, regulators, and clients alike. To date, 26 organizations worldwide have received certification, covering nearly 9 million clients.

VisionFund Azercredit became the first MFI in Azerbaijan and in the Caucasus region to acheive certification. The Smart Campaign sat down with Mehriban Yusifova, VisionFund Azercredit’s Head of Marketing & Product Development, to better understand the significance of certification from the MFI’s perspective.

Smart Campaign (SC): When and why did VisionFund AzerCredit decide to get Smart Certified? What inspired you to pursue your certification?

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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

The Credit Reporting section of the FI2020 e-zine (click to read)

The Financial Inclusion 2020 Round-Up 2014 e-zine, found on the CFI website, takes a look at progress toward financial inclusion in the year following the FI2020 Global Forum. It was at the Global Forum that five Roadmaps to Financial Inclusion were presented after two years of being developed and debated by dozens of financial inclusion experts. Now, imagine the editorial challenge of collapsing a year’s worth of activity around each Roadmap into just two pages each.

While it’s a fun read, I admit to a little cognitive dissonance as I page through the Round-Up. The brief analyses of where we stand around each of the Roadmaps to Financial Inclusion can be summed up in the quote “we’re not as far along as we think we are.” While that quote was about the Technology Roadmap, it could just as easily be said of the other Roadmaps: Financial Capability, Addressing Customer Needs, Client Protection, and Credit Reporting.

Yet despite the clear-eyed look at the ongoing challenges, the e-zine also tells a story of intense and productive activity by a wide range of actors. Legacy financial service providers—the heavy hitters with big resources and even greater reach—are investing heavily in financial inclusion. It’s not just for corporate social responsibility any more; it’s part of a new business strategy inspired by the discovery of an untapped and (they hope) profitable new market. Sprinkled in and around those vignettes are stories of scrappy start-ups doing the social entrepreneurship thing. Some of those services may not make it past 2015, but some of them have a “why didn’t I think of that” inevitability about them. The diversity of actors and the energy are impressive.

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The following post was originally published on the Microfinance Gateway.

As the microfinance industry grows and becomes more complex, governance plays an increasingly important role in managing sound institutions and preventing crises. Corporate governance provides the framework through which an institution’s diverse stakeholders—investors, board members, management, and employees—set the strategic vision, monitor performance, and manage risks.

The Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion has recently announced a partnership with The MasterCard Foundation to launch the Accion Africa Board Fellowship program. The new program will promote peer-to-peer learning on governance and risk management practices at financial institutions that serve low-income clients in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with more than 6.6 million microfinance clients.

We spoke with Beth Rhyne (left), Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, and Ann Miles (right), the Director of Financial Inclusion at The MasterCard Foundation, to learn more about their vision for the program.

Good governance helps an institution fulfill its mission, increase efficiency, and improve its ability to attract customers and investors. Why do you think the microfinance industry in Africa needs such a program at this time?

Miles: Good governance begins at the top of any organization. The policies that are set, and the signals that are sent, by board members and CEOs permeate throughout an organization. They are a major component, perhaps the major component, in determining how an organization succeeds in its given mission. So, how a board does its work is critically important, and it’s something that we at The MasterCard Foundation care about a lot.

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> Posted by Lindsey Tiers, Communications and Operations, the Smart Campaign

As successful business leaders know, regular evaluation is vital to ensure that improvements are made and growth continues. Here at the Smart Campaign, it is time to reflect on our impact and evaluate the Campaign’s global activities so that we continue to achieve the objective of embedding client protection into the fabric of the microfinance industry. For this reason, we are reaching out to all industry stakeholders for feedback via a short survey.

Launched in September of 2009, the Smart Campaign is already five years old. With over 4,200 endorsers—1,400 of which are financial institutions working to improve client protection practices—it’s clear the message is spreading, and support for keeping the industry on track is strong. Client Protection Certification, launched in January 2013, has already seen 24 financial institutions meet the requirements of adequate client protection. Across these institutions, over 8.7 million clients have access to quality services and treatment. In addition, dozens of other MFIs are in the pipeline working to become certified. With nearly 100 tools available in English, plus translations in Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Arabic, the Smart Campaign website has become a valuable resource for any institution looking to improve client protection practices. The Client Protection Principles have even been incorporated into legislation and regulations for financial service providers in some countries – such as the Industry Code of Conduct in India.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Welcome to the second Financial Inclusion 2020 e-magazine!

It’s been a year since the Financial Inclusion 2020 Global Forum. The Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion is taking this moment to review how the drive for financial inclusion is faring. With this e-zine we bring you highlights of the past 12 months from around the financial inclusion world – new ventures, milestones, and ongoing debates. Inside, you’ll find a snapshot of progress in each of our five “Roadmap to Inclusion” areas, from technology-enabled business models to consumer protection. Over the past months we spoke with dozens of industry participants to gauge their views of the progress of each major recommendation presented at the Global Forum, and we’ve distilled their responses here. We learned of many exciting initiatives, though we have room to cite only a few.

To read the e-zine online, click the cover above or here. Although the e-zine is best viewed online, a PDF download is also available, here.

> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

2014 World Bank/IMF Annual Meeting

Sound financial inclusion regulation and policy does not an ethical financial system make. In financial inclusion, we often talk about the importance of consumer protection, industry transparency, and fair market conditions. In the absence of universal standards of what these principles look like in practice, we turn to regulators and policymakers. I contend that we cannot keep relying on regulation to make the financial system moral and just. Since much of my own research promotes financial inclusion policy and regulation, this is a fairly inflammatory statement for me to make. But when we look only to regulators to create a financially inclusive and fair marketplace, we miss the mark.

In my own life, I see an analogy to our family game night. I am a very competitive person. I confess that there are times (fairly frequent times) that I cheat. I can easily miscount the number of spaces my piece is moving in Monopoly, or I can set down three cards and make it look like one card in Uno. My husband sometimes catches me, or my efforts to cheat simply aren’t drastic enough, so very rarely do I change the outcome of the game. But no number of rules can keep me from trying. Nevertheless, I’m sure my husband would agree that rules and regulations are not sufficient. Game night would be far more ethical if, instead of relying on the game rules, we relied on our responsibility to one another (check back with me in a few months to ask how a recalibration of my own internal compass is going).

In his remarks to during the recent World Bank Annual Meetings, the Most Reverend Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) emphasized that ethics in finance is not about creating carrots and sticks, but about doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Welby’s charge to participants in the meeting, including Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, recognizes the necessity of the personal ethical compass—not solely a reliance on regulators.

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> Posted by Lindsey Tiers, Communications and Operations, the Smart Campaign

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a number of lenders seem to have adapted General Douglas MacArthur’s views on government regulation: “Rules are mostly made to be broken.” Research conducted on the effectiveness of the U.S. government’s Military Lending Act over the past few years has illustrated that “lenders, intent on offering loans regardless of the federal restrictions, devised loan products that fell squarely outside the loan’s restrictions.” When interest rate caps were limited to loans of up to $2,000, lenders started offering loans for $2,001. When protections were applied to auto-title loans with terms under 181 days, loan periods were extended to just over 181 days.

The Obama Administration is suggesting an expansion of the law in order to close some of the loopholes, but will more rules truly deter predatory lenders? Regulators might find themselves overburdened with a multitude of rules and a decreasing ability to enforce them. A few well-supervised regulations seem preferable to a tangled web of unenforceable ones. Additionally, it would be foolish to underestimate the innovative abilities of those intent on making a buck from those in the military, based on the case precedents we’ve seen.

Even when the law does actually catch up to bad actors, there is evidence that they can go out again with the same or similar practices. Julio Estrada, a used-car dealer featured in an earlier article in The New York Times on subprime auto lending, continued to dupe customers into accepting predatory loans for several months after he was “indicted by the Queens district attorney on grand larceny charges that he defrauded more than 23 car buyers with refinancing schemes” less than a year earlier.

Predatory lending to military personnel is made easy because military salaries are largely transparent. Lenders have near perfect knowledge of just how much a servicemember desperate for cash can afford in monthly payments. The reliability of a government paycheck has fostered the creation of systems that withdraw installments before income even reaches a servicemember’s account, further minimizing the risk to lenders and increasing their relative advantage. Yet the most egregious imbalance in knowledge stems from the fact that lenders know the “military considers personal indebtedness to be a threat to national security, so high levels of debt can imperil service members’ security clearances,” and ultimately their job. Predatory lenders leverage this knowledge to threaten servicemembers.

Perhaps instead of relying on regulation, and hoping that everyone plays by the rules, we should refocus our efforts on adequately arming our servicemen and women with the knowledge they need to defend themselves. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took steps to do just that when it created the Office of Servicemember Affairs to focus on the challenges faced by military employees. However, it primarily addresses ways to save, funding for higher education, and accessing VA benefits, and only touches on indebtedness in a section on deployment and credit cards. While educating servicemembers on these issues is important, increasing savings and controlling the interest charged on credit card bills are ways to preempt debt, and might not necessarily be relevant for someone already in debt. These individuals are most likely to fall prey to abusive payday lending schemes.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi and Sonia Arenaza, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign and Director of Accion Channels and Technology

This is the first of two blog posts about responsible digital financial services, on the occasion of the Responsible Finance Forum in Perth, Australia.

The Smart Campaign has watched with excitement as new forms of digital financial services (DFS) stand poised to bring financial access to millions of lower-income households previously excluded from the financial system. The potential benefits of this new ecosystem are enormous and include an array of positive outcomes ranging from lowered transaction costs to consumption-smoothing, among many others. Nevertheless, the excitement over new possibilities must not obscure the need to evaluate and respond to new risks to clients.

In an ongoing mapping exercise conducted by the Smart Campaign and Accion’s Channels and Technology team, we identified various things that can go wrong for clients of DFS, such as:

  • Clients lose their funds after an agent fails to take proper security measures or after a service outage
  • Agents charge unauthorized fees for transactions under guise of complicated pricing and fees
  • Clients lack or are not offered adequate customer care channels
  • Lack of data privacy due to clients not being informed or misinformed on how their data and history is being used or shared
  • Agents lacking liquidity serve only their favored clients

While these risks are grounded in anecdotes from the field, there is still much more evidence needed on the consumer harms that actually happen, including where they happen and how often. The Responsible Finance Forum in Perth will host several sessions that present demand-side evidence to help identify high priority risks.

But, what then? Once risks are known, how best to try to minimize them?

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Senior Africa Specialist, the Smart Campaign

The Smart Campaign secretariat does a lot of things – manage a Certification program, provide technical assistance, develop and promote industry standards, and conduct research. Our small team is always putting on different hats, and we joke about trying to explain our jobs to friends. At the end of the day, the one thing many of our friends can understand is that we are an industry-facing organization offering a “public good.” The Smart Campaign’s public good is not a road or a lighthouse. It just happens to be standards and guidance on protecting clients. These standards are a public good because they belong to everyone, and one individual or institution’s use does not reduce the availability of the resources for others.

Some of our ever-thoughtful friends then ask if this means that we contend with other classic public goods challenges.

The answer is yes, absolutely. One of the biggest issues we struggle with is the lack of a market feedback mechanism. Industry stakeholders can use Smart Campaign tools and resources without paying and thus without providing feedback on their experience. Without a price signal, it can be difficult for the staff to assess demand and user experience. This makes it hard to know how to tailor, expand, or improve offerings. We are curious to hear examples from readers about how other similar organizations consistently improve their offerings without market feedback.

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> Posted by Rafe Mazer, Financial Sector Specialist, Government & Policy, CGAP

It’s a great time to be working on consumer protection. Even while risks change or expand in scope as new products evolve and access increases, it seems that there are just as many talented researchers and new approaches to making consumer protection work emerging. Some of the most important breakthroughs are coming from consumer and behavioral research. This includes insights into what sales staff really do and why (see, for example, this infographic on a recent World Bank/CGAP/CONDUSEF audit study in Mexico), how consumers make financial decisions—not always for purely economic reasons, and what the context of low resources or scarcity means for financial behavior.

The next step is to take these research insights and turn them into improved consumer protection policies in emerging markets. CGAP’s recent publication, Applying Behavioral Insights in Consumer Protection Policy, describes a range of current and potential ways we can bridge the research and policy fields. But what about providers? What can we take from the recent behavioral insights emerging for the Client Protection Principles?

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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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