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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

Visitors to our FI2020 Progress Report on Client Protection will have noted our poor math skills. (This is the section of the report that assesses global progress to date in advancing fair treatment for lower-income financial services clients.) We rated regulators a 6 on consumer protection and providers a 3—and somehow averaged those out to a 5. Our averaging skills make even less sense when you consider the three legs of the client protection stool—providers, regulators, and consumers—and realize that consumers are not even on the radar, rightfully earning a 1 at best in terms of their capacity to advocate on their own behalf. So why the optimism?

We were certainly swayed by the impressive momentum among a range of actors at the global level—including policy and private sector initiatives—toward improved consumer protection. But it’s what happens at the national level that really counts. The World Bank’s 2014 Global Survey on Consumer Protection and Financial Literacy reports that some form of legal framework for financial consumer protection is in place in 112 out of 114 economies surveyed. We are not so Pollyannaish as to think that having a legal framework is equivalent to having a regulatory and supervisory system that protects consumers well, but we do think it’s a good step in the right direction.

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> Posted by Kim Wilson, the Fletcher School, Tufts University

In the olden days, awards were not given for innovation itself but for how effective an innovation was in relation to the importance of the problem it solved. But what we see today in financial inclusion is the ubiquity of innovation – often front and center – as the lead determinant in a plethora of prize competitions. Check the first judging criteria of this prestigious contest.

Why would the entity commissioning the award, The Wall Street Journal, care about how innovative or unique the business was or how it broke from tradition? Wouldn’t it care most about how well the service solved a problem and the problem’s significance?

In financial inclusion, innovation itself has been an endgame for quite some time. Take the much-hyped “Keep the Change,” Bank of America’s program to hoover in payment leftovers at the cash register. If you buy $3.80 worth of coffee, the amount is rounded to $4.00 of which twenty cents goes to your bank account. Greeted as a clever way to encourage savings, the idea was indeed innovative back in 2006. But was it good? Here is what a critic, citing another critic, had to say about Keep the Change: “If you want something that makes it quick and easy, lets you fool yourself into thinking you’re actually saving, (spend-to-save) programs are good.” But despite this perversion, Keep the Change has been the winner of multiple awards, many with innovation in their descriptions.

Plenty of ideas are creative and go nowhere. That’s where the ideas I have in the shower go, where they should, down the drain. But innovation is the crack-cocaine of the funding world. Funders including donors and impact investors want to be thought of as doing something new and what is newer than innovation? Innovation is the new excellence, the new buzzword, the new impact.

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> Posted by Sonja E. Kelly, Fellow, CFI

The following post draws observations from the just-released FI2020 Progress Report on Technology. See the full report to explore other topics and cast your vote on global progress in advancing financial inclusion.

Technology innovation is dramatically changing the financial services landscape—and quickly. No longer are simple 2G/SMS-based payments the talk of the financial inclusion community. Instead, a range of platforms and products and services promise that as we move into the future, the costs of providing services will be lower, and the base of the pyramid will be within reach for mainstream financial services providers.

The world in which these innovations are mainstreamed is one where the agent network concerns we have today will be gone. In the cash-lite or cash-free world that technology providers are seeking, there will, in fact, be few to no agents, as people will receive money electronically and spend it electronically without ever converting it to cash. When is the last time you went to a banking agent?

Consider the following innovations that allow important financial transactions to take place without a detour through cash. (For a more comprehensive list of innovations, see the FI2020 Progress Report on Technology.)

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> Posted by Bruce J. MacDonald, Vice President, Communications & Operations, CFI

(Photo by Damon Jacoby ©2015)

In New York yesterday to celebrate the launch of the FI2020 Progress Report (and Accion’s and Citi’s 50-year partnership, and the awarding of the first Accion Edward W. Claugus Award – Accion never does anything by halves…), we had the privilege of an audience with Dr. Daniel Schydlowsky.

Dr. Schydlowsky, recipient of said award, hardly needs introducing. As Superintendent of Banking, Insurance & Private Pension Fund Administrators for Peru, and as chair of the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, he symbolizes the gold standard of financial inclusion regulation. Scratch that – he is the gold standard. Peru has ranked at the top of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Microscope report for seven consecutive years. And to paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton TV ad, when Daniel Schydlowsky speaks, people listen. “We can perfectly well keep banking systems safe, and still do something for inclusion,” he said, explaining his philosophy of regulation (and thereby, perhaps, Peru’s standing). “Indeed, the more we include, the safer we’re making the banking system.”

Like our new Progress Report, Schydlowsky outlined his view of what lies ahead and what he’s excited about. First up: The promise of new loan-origination techniques. Making microloans is an artisanal craft, and thus expensive. But he is optimistic about the promise of new developments: big data, customer-relationship tools, and psychometric training (again, as is our Progress Report). Come to Peru, he urged innovators, where you will find a willing partner and audience.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

On August 4, Facebook received approval on a patent it had purchased in a bundle from the defunct social network Friendster. It primarily describes a mechanism to weed out content depending on whether it travels via trusted nodes in a user’s social network. This might not have caused much of a stir, had it not been for entrepreneur and blogger Mikhail Avady’s revelation that the patent also includes the following application:

“In a fourth embodiment of the invention, the service provider is a lender. When an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes. If the average credit rating of these members is at least a minimum credit score, the lender continues to process the loan application. Otherwise, the loan application is rejected.”

Many commentators and journalists reacted with alarm, while Facebook has not offered comment on the story. It is unclear whether or not a product will be developed out of this particular embodiment of the invention. A Daily KOS headline proclaims that “Facebook Gets Patent to Discriminate Against You Based on Your Social Network”, and a Popular Science writer notes that “It’s totally not something straight out of a cyberpunk dystopia”. This MSN article warns readers to purge their less trustworthy friends, though it also notes that the technology could relegate some consumers to riskier lenders. In the non-financial press, less attention is given to the potential upshots for thin-file loan applicants. The list of concerned news outlets stretches well beyond the first page of search results I examined after Googling the patent’s text.

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> Posted by Haset Solomon, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

I rarely think about the cost of convenience. I often use my phone’s navigational system, seeking turn-by-turn directions, but I usually don’t consider the trail of data I’m leaving behind – and even if I do, I decide the benefit outweighs the cost. We live in an age where leaving myriad digital footprints is almost inescapable. Increasingly, we hear of big data analytic companies that “liberate data” or “democratize data” for the purpose of improving products and services or making them more widely available. There are true benefits to advancing our society’s data capabilities and unearthing new patterns and insights. (The phone that tracks my travel can give me advice on promising restaurants nearby.) But the costs can be high. Here in the U.S., the anonymity of “meta” data sets is continually being challenged. Fortunately, in this country consumer advocacy groups and institutions such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Bureau of Consumer Protection at FTC, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are working to address and remedy breaches of privacy and data rights.

In most of the world, similar institutions are nonexistent or under-developed. The fast uptake of technology has opened up large population segments to new possibilities, while leaving them vulnerable. Digital financial services users in developing countries are often choice-less and voiceless on how their data is used.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Credit reporting systems are a critical component of a financial system’s infrastructure. They facilitate access to credit for all who can use it, protect clients from overindebtedness, and help providers manage risk and decrease costs. What’s the state of credit reporting in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region? That’s the focus of the Arab Credit Reporting Guide, a new resource from the Arab Monetary Fund (AMF) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The guide was launched earlier this week alongside a meeting between the region’s central banks’ governors. In short, the guide finds that MENA countries have come a long way in developing credit reporting systems in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go.

The guide examines the region – 19 countries in total – in the context of global trends and best practices in credit reporting. A regional overview sheds light on credit reporting as well as credit access and risk management in MENA, while the guide also provides detailed investigations into the practices and progress of individual countries. A composite index comprised of the key elements for a comprehensive credit information sharing system is applied to each of the studied countries, offering a quantified status on credit reporting in each.

What were the big findings?
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> Posted by Kai Hsu, Director of Administration & Finance, Positive Planet China

Over the past five years, peer-to-peer lending (P2P) has grown rapidly. Now more commonly referred to as “marketplace lending” because of the large range of institutions, intermediaries, and non-“peer” parties involved, the industry is poised to continue its year-on-year triple-digit growth. The breakneck speed of P2P’s growth seems natural given the many advantages it offers. As an industry, focus has gradually moved from a community of individuals lending directly to other individuals (often within affinity groups), and has evolved into a powerful engine of technical efficiency. Today, P2P is viewed in many different ways: a potential agent of financial inclusion; an innovation in big data analytics and credit risk evaluation; an efficient mechanism for loan matching without the often burdensome capital and regulatory requirements of banks; an innovative operational model leveraging the cost savings of online platforms; a new asset class for retail and institutional investors; and the list goes on.

This change has also attracted banks that are eager to be cut into the action as well. Banks have made equity stakes in P2P businesses in the past, such as Barclays’ 49 percent investment in South Africa’s RainFin and Credit Suisse’s $25 million note to Prodigy Finance. However, 2015 seems to be the breakout year for P2P into mainstream finance. In June, Goldman Sachs announced plans to enter the consumer lending space through an online platform, akin to what Lending Club and Prosper offer in the U.S. Several days later, Morgan Stanley featured an optimistic report on P2P lending on its home page. In August, Standard Chartered led a $207 million C-round of funding for Chinese P2P company Dianrong.

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> Posted by Grace P. Sengupta, Assistant Manager, BRAC Social Innovation Lab, and Maria A. May, Senior Program Manager, BRAC Social Innovation Lab and BRAC Microfinance Research and Development Unit

Bangladesh is a fast-growing mobile money market. With bKash, the second-largest mobile money provider in the world, industry growth in the country has reached impressive heights. Between January 2013 and February of this year, the number of mobile money clients in Bangladesh increased five-fold to 25 million users, with the number of monthly transactions increasing from 10 million to 77 million.

Yet many have found that much of the mobile money usage in Bangladesh is still over the counter – that is, many people who use mobile money rely on an agent to complete their transactions for them. There is strong speculation that the current mobile money interfaces are just too complicated for the average rural, low literacy user.

Last year, BRAC, our Bangladesh-based organization, decided to try going (nearly) cashless in a very rural, very remote branch run by our Integrated Development Programme (IDP). Many of the institution’s financial transactions, such as giving staff mobile allowances, paying extension workers, and collecting loan installments (for clients who opted-in), were digitized.

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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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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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