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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Smart CampaignToday, the Smart Campaign released for public comment new draft Client Protection Standards – which will be the basis for what we term Certification 2.0. The new standards streamline the previous Client Protection Standards, and reflect the evolving financial inclusion industry. They incorporate client risks pertaining to insurance, savings, and digital financial services. The standards operationalize where the financial inclusion industry sets the bar in terms of the minimum behaviors clients should expect from their financial service providers. Now open, the public comment period extends through November 30, 2015.

We’d love your feedback!

The new standards build off of the first set of Client Protection Standards, released in January 2013, as the basis for the introduction of Smart Certification. The standards and their corresponding indicators, which put the Client Protection Principles into practice, are used to benchmark institutions seeking Smart Certification.

Like the first iteration, the development of Certification 2.0 standards has been a highly collaborative process. Over the past 18 months, the campaign consulted a wide array of stakeholders and up to 30 experts to strengthen and update the standards and indicators.

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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

In three days the Center for Financial Inclusion will unveil the FI2020 Progress Report. In it, we define progress made toward financial inclusion and make predictions about the most critical issues facing the industry.

This web-based report has been a year in the making, the result of FI2020’s monitoring of industry trends, interviews with experts, and an analysis of financial inclusion data from both the supply and demand side. We organized the report around the five areas identified in the 2013 Roadmap to Financial Inclusion: Addressing Customer Needs, Client Protection, Credit Reporting & Data, Financial Capability, and Technology.

Perhaps the most fun—and most debatable—aspect of the report is the rating we will reveal for each area, marking where we are on the road to financial inclusion along these five dimensions. The financial inclusion community around the world will have the opportunity to weigh in with their vote – and we expect there will be some disagreement with our opinions. We hope you will not only mark your own rating, but also leave comments with your views. Most of all, we hope this thought exercise will help focus all of our attention on how to close the gaps to get to a 10 in each area.

To offer a sneak preview of the content, I thought I would reveal how we rated progress made on client protection:

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Three questions every ‘pro-poor’ group needs to ask themselves

> Posted by Chris Dunford and Carmen Velasco

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

This month, the United Nations will celebrate achievement of Millennium Development Goal No. 1. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. How did this happen? Is it because of targeted anti-poverty programs, or is it due to broad-based economic growth, especially in China and India? If economic growth is the main cause, as it seems to be, further progress may be doubtful. Economic growth alone is unlikely to reach the residual hundreds of millions still living in extreme poverty.

Nor is it likely that anti-poverty programs, whether public or private, will lift this “bottom billion” from extreme poverty. For example, the U.S. poverty rate hovers around 15 percent of the population, nearly unchanged for decades, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on U.S. anti-poverty programs. For another example, in poorer countries, microfinance was billed as a self-financing solution to deep poverty and became a darling of international development donors in the 1990s and “social investors” in the 2000s. Then smart social scientists tested the claims with sound field research and found little to no impact on poverty.

Is it reasonable, however, to expect anti-poverty programs, by themselves, to lift large numbers of people above an arbitrary poverty line? Given that the poor must overcome many burdens before they can seize whatever economic opportunities are available, perhaps we should ask a different question:

Do anti-poverty programs ease the burdens of poverty?

While the recent research into microfinance shows little to no increase of annual household income, on average, the same studies very often show that the burden of poverty is alleviated by giving microfinance participants access to money when they really need it during the year. Economists call this impact “consumption smoothing.” In plain terms, it means people get enough to eat throughout the year instead of going without adequate food for a day, a week, or even months at a time. If so, this is an impact worth celebrating, is it not?

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> Posted by Anne H. Hastings, Manager, Microfinance CEO Working Group

At a time when microfinance has fallen out of favor in mainstream development circles and when investors are asking to see metrics showing the impact of their funding, it is especially important to base our discussions of poverty outreach on empirical research. Grameen Foundation and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) recently published a study that does just this. Factors Influencing Poverty Outreach Among Microfinance Institutions in Latin America (available in English and Spanish) takes a close look at poverty outreach data from 14 microfinance institutions (MFIs) across six Latin American countries and is the first study of its kind in the region. The information analyzed includes data from Progress out of Poverty Index® (PPI®) surveys and a range of other relevant client profile variables such as socio-demographics and credit disbursement details.

The findings are important. In-depth interviews with the MFIs surfaced an interesting hypothesis that was supported by the data. High levels of competition and over-indebtedness of clients, two interlinked factors, seemed to be driving MFIs to pursue poorer clients. In regions where wealthier clients are already served by commercial banks (e.g., urban areas), MFIs service poorer clients, likely in order to avoid the pitfalls of over-indebtedness and to seek untapped markets. However, the MFIs service relatively wealthier clients in regions that have a higher rate of unbanked (e.g., rural areas). It seems, in others words, that MFIs tend to focus first on whomever is excluded regardless of poverty level, but some will extend their poverty outreach when there is greater penetration among the formerly excluded.

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> Posted by Carol Caruso, Senior Vice President, Channels & Technology, Accion

Providing micro financial services is often a costly endeavor. As practiced in most places today, it involves many manual processes which limit the potential for scaling up and expose vulnerability to poor service, errors, and fraud. Furthermore, as telco operators and fintech companies bring services to customers through new distribution mechanisms, microfinance banks (MFBs) need to explore innovative ways to competitively deliver their services. Hence, it is promising to see a rise in the use of tablets, smartphones, and other devices housing applications that digitize field operations. Digital field applications (DFAs) offer MFBs a way to take advantage of technology to solve some of these challenges. Globally MFBs have deployed DFAs in a wide variety of ways. For example, loan officers equipped with DFAs can process loan applications and answer client inquiries in the field, eliminating paper forms, digitizing data, and saving time and money for organizations and their clients. Bringing financial services out to clients can achieve a much-needed personal touch and can even increase the richness of the client interaction. For example, client education and consumer protection awareness can be more effective when digital messages are delivered by a field staff member. DFAs can also improve credit operations. When assessing loan applications and risks, field officers can operate more efficiently if digitally equipped.

In order for MFBs to successfully leverage these tools, both for their and their clients’ benefit, they must understand their business case, and incorporate best practices for implementation that have been derived from lessons learned by others. There is no shortage of pilots that have been halted due to challenges arising from lack of experience and understanding – despite hardware availability or subsidies.

With this in mind, Accion’s Channels & Technology group have published a case study aiming to provide some clarity on the impact of DFA use by examining the business case, implementation process, and effects for three MFBs: Ujjivan Financial Services in India, Musoni Kenya, and Opportunity Bank Serbia (OBS). Our case study presents a consolidated review of the findings from the three MFBs, with an accompanying Excel-based business case toolkit, available for MFBs to examine the potential impact a DFA might have on their business. Individual cases presenting the findings from each institution are also available – here, here, and here.

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> Posted by Kevin Fryatt, Director, Risk management Initiative in Microfinance (RIM)

“We do not engage in risk management because our CEO tells us that every department should be a profit center.” “Risk management seems useful, but how can we afford to pay for it?” Such industry sentiments have been the norm, I’ve found, in my work at the Risk management Initiative in Microfinance (RIM). These statements and many others like them reflect the reality that the value of risk management and its role within microfinance institutions (MFIs) have not yet fully been realized. As the microfinance industry matures and reaching scale through growth continues to drive the strategies of inclusive financial service providers, ways to create sustained value for their clients and shareholders will be increasingly sought after and explored. Finding ways to create sustained value, however, can often be challenging.

Risk management, if carried out effectively, is one important aspect in creating sustained value. Well-executed risk management derives organizational value by ensuring decision-making is carried out within an agreed-upon acceptable level of risk, ultimately providing greater certainty about returns against double-bottom line objectives through reducing volatility of net income and strengthening its ability to meet necessary social returns. For example, decisions on the acceptable amount of credit risk to accept may impact the amount of future financial losses an institution may suffer (financial return) while potentially impacting the type of clients it is able to serve (social return). If risk management has such a high potential to create sustained value, what then has been standing in the way of MFIs effectively implementing it to date?

Many factors explain the challenges in realizing the full value risk management can provide, and much of which point back to the lack of an appropriate risk management framework. Consider the following key framework characteristics:
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> Posted by Center Staff

Larry Reed, director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, recently sat down with Susy Cheston, senior advisor to FI2020, and Anton Simanowitz, co-author of the new book The Business of Doing Good, to discuss how organizations can do good work and turn a profit, particularly in the microfinance sector.

In exploring this question, Simanowitz draws on key insights from the new book, in which he and co-author Katherine Knotts studied the success of AMK, a social enterprise which has touched the lives of millions of people living in poverty in rural Cambodia. This study revealed six powerful strategies to improve business to do good:

  1. Don’t just offer products; respond to client needs
  2. Ask good questions and have good conversations
  3. Do what it says on the tin
  4. Motivate staff to do difficult work in an excellent way
  5. Own the dirt road
  6. Adapt to the changing landscape

Find out more about the thinking behind these insights, here.

In the latter half of the book, the authors explore the disconnect between theory and practice and the resulting implications for client value. AMK’s success is largely attributed to its recognition of the distinction between client wants and client needs, which are rooted in the meaningful conversations the organization has with its clients. The authors observe, through their exploration of AMK, that vision is ensured only when it follows intent, instead of being constrained by conventional wisdom.

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> Posted by Debashis Sarker, Centre for European Research in Microfinance (CERMi) and University of Mons, Belgium

With estimates indicating that less than 1 percent of microfinance clients around the world are persons with disabilities (PwDs), it’s clear that sizable barriers exist to the financial inclusion of this largely unbanked population segment. One such barrier is discrimination on the part of microfinance institutions. Two features of microfinance lending make it especially hard to reach definitive statistical estimates of discrimination. One is the complex stages of the microfinance lending process. The second is the self-reinforcing cycle of exclusion that results from the legacies of discriminating microcredit organizations.

A pilot project conducted in Uganda in partnership with the Association of Microfinance Institutions in Uganda (AMFIU) and the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) demonstrates the discrimination that often occurs in microfinance practices. The project worked with AMFIU microfinance institutions, applying interventions to combat practices discriminatory to PwDs. Along with addressing PwD exclusion by microfinance staff, the initiatives targeted exclusion by other microfinance clients, low self-esteem, product design, and informational and physical barriers. In two years, since the sensitization and accessibility efforts began, attitudes of MFI staff towards PwDs improved and, across eight queried MFI branches, there was an average 96 percent per MFI increase in clients with disabilities. Another study, also based in Uganda with AMFIU and NUDIPU, examined biases against PwDs across different MFI staff. Surveying eight MFIs between 2008 and 2009, staff were asked questions on aspects including risk of loan default among PwD clients. The responses of credit officers indicated they were more biased against PwDs than other MFI staff.

Given these findings, what measures can be taken to combat this?

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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 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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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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