> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Senior Associate, FI2020, CFI

Once in a while, we in the Accion D.C. office gather in our state-of-the-art movie theater (a.k.a. conference room) for some collective viewing. Now that the World Cup has ended, this viewing has a lot less to do with fútbol and more to do with our day jobs. Last Friday’s feature was a recently-released documentary that highlights those who are left behind by the U.S. financial system. Spent: Looking For Change follows four households who represent the quarter of American households that are underserved and held back by the current financial system.

The film focuses on how families with precarious financial and economic lives end up using services like check cashers, title loans, and payday loans – the tools that those without bank accounts or with poor credit must rely on in the absence of affordable and accessible financial services. In one example, a former nurse and single mother had to stop working to care for an incapacitated family member. She turned to title loans to pay the bills and when she couldn’t keep up the loan repayments, the title company repossessed her car. Another family, which took out one $450 payday loan, is now stuck in a cycle of high interest rates and hidden fees because the family’s income is not high enough to pay off the debt altogether. Each narrative helps us understand why, in 2012, underserved Americans spent an estimated $89 billion on interest and fees.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

The following post was originally published on The WorldPost blog of The Huffington Post.

In a recent retrospective, Rich Rosenberg called Pancho Otero, the founding leader of Bolivia’s Prodem and BancoSol, a genius. With Pancho’s sudden death last month, I find myself surprised to speak with many people who work in microfinance or financial inclusion today but do not know about Pancho’s genius. And so, I would like to take this moment to tell the story of who Pancho was and what he accomplished.

Genius can be applied in many spheres, from art to action. But all notions of genius share the idea that a genius sees beyond the things ordinary people see and works in some extraordinary way to bring that vision into being, disregarding conventional boundaries. I think Pancho would have enjoyed this thought about genius, by seventeenth century English author Jonathan Swift, “When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” But that is the end of the story, not the beginning.

In 1986 Pancho was hired by Accion to start a microenterprise lending organization in Bolivia. His signal accomplishment was to create an organization that was so good at what it did that it gave rise to the idea – and then the reality – that a microfinance operation lending exclusively to the poor could become a full fledged commercial bank. And when Prodem launched BancoSol, Pancho became President of the first private commercial bank in Latin America dedicated to the microenterprises of the poor. BancoSol, in turn gave impulse to the transformation of microfinance NGOs into financial institutions all over the world and set the ball rolling for the widespread commercialization of microfinance.

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

Serve clients with suitable products. Prevent over-indebtedness. Be transparent and price products reasonably. Treat clients respectfully, listen to their grievances, and protect their privacy.

The seven client protection principles make undisputedly good sense on paper. It’s hard to argue against any one of these practices, either normatively or from the perspective of the financial bottom line. We assume that well-treated, well-understood clients using appropriate products through the right delivery channels are more loyal, satisfied, and likely to refer their friends and family, provide useful feedback, and repay loans. Right?

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> Posted by Kim Wilson, Fellow, Center for Emerging Market Enterprises and the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

“Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler.” This aphorism credited to Albert Einstein inspires our call to Lean Research.

Two Fridays ago at MIT a group of 50 of us met to hash out some principles that, if followed, might generate better research in development and social science contexts. NGOs, universities, foundations, corporations, government, and multi-lateral agencies were represented in our group.

Our analogy of choice was Toyota. If “the Toyota way,” or lean manufacturing as it has come to be called, could cause profound and beneficial disruptions in production processes, might lean research cause equally profound and beneficial disruptions in research processes?

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> Posted by Joseph Smolen, Summer Associate, CFI

At this week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit it was noted that even as sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) enjoys a period of unprecedented economic growth (GDP in developing SSA has increased from $43 trillion to $75 trillion since 2004), lack of financial inclusion remains an issue of paramount concern. In some ways this has been driven by a lack of foreign direct investment (FDI) in financial inclusion vehicles in SSA (primarily MFIs) – less than 10 percent of FDI in MFIs worldwide is earmarked for Africa-focused institutions. Historically, the disproportionately low amount of FDI in sub-Saharan African MFIs has been driven by a combination of the following factors:

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> Posted by Debashis Sarker, Senior Manager, BRAC Microfinance Program, Bangladesh


Microfinance institutions in Bangladesh have more than 30 years of glorious experience of serving poor people with the twofold objectives of women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation. The proven microfinance lending model has been replicated in many developing countries, and more people in Bangladesh have become financially included over time. But what about financial inclusion of a most vulnerable group, persons with disabilities (PWD)?

People with disabilities simply did not get access to the leading lending sources in Bangladesh because of discrimination and accessibility barriers. Regular discrimination, taking the forms of negative attitudes, social exclusion, lack of economic opportunities, and unpaid or underpaid work, has long been an integral part of the lives of PWD. Extremely poor disabled people in rural Bangladesh mostly work in the informal sector with minimum wage rates, reflecting severe discrimination in the workplace. Family members often see them as burden. They may be turned down when trying to rent houses in urban areas. People with disabilities, especially women, are disadvantaged when it comes to education, employment, and even marriage. They may be left out of decision-making and participation in social occasions. In fact, many Bangladeshi people see disability as a curse and cause of shame to the family, and at the national level, Bangladesh has not yet passed an anti-discrimination law.

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Posted by Ignacio Mas, Independent Consultant

I guess it happens in all human endeavors; we sometimes get carried away wishing things were the way we think they ought to be. Let me provide three cautionary observations relating to financial inclusion: about how we measure it, how we talk about it, and how we assess it. The point is not to dampen enthusiasm about the possibilities, but to reflect on our progress in a more realistic way.

Industry Showcases and the Numbers Game

Through numerous industry conferences and blogs, certain players get put up as shining examples for the industry to follow. M-Shwari is perhaps the latest one, I guess because it delivers large customer numbers to an industry that is still largely focused on coverage rather than usage, and it represents the kind of telco-bank partnership that many have been fantasizing about.

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> Posted by Anne Gachoka, Research Supervisor, Digital Divide Data

Thanks to mobile and agent channels, formal financial services in Kenya now reach millions of previously unbanked customers with new and innovative products. Just look at M-Shwari, the new banking product offered to M-Pesa customers enabling them to move beyond money transfer and epay to small, short-term loans with eligibility based on data about their savings, mobile usage, and debt repayment history. Globally, this is all very exciting and represents an important breakthrough in providing financial services to the poor.

But, after studying the interactions between the poor and the financial sector through the Kenya Financial Diaries, a joint-research initiative between Digital Divide Data and Bankable Frontier Associates, I have come to the conclusion that banking will fail to deliver on the promise of improving the lives of the poor unless providers do more to improve pricing transparency and communication on terms and conditions. The Diaries study tracked the cash flows of 300 Kenyan households over the period of one year.

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> Posted by Somen Saha, Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar, with inputs from Marcia Metcalfe, Freedom from Hunger and Sabina Rogers, Microcredit Summit Campaign

Microfinance institutions (MFIs) and self-help groups (SHGs) in India are increasingly recognizing the potential of offering both health and financial services. In a query of 25 MFIs across the country providing integrated services, the number of borrowers totaled nearly 18 million. A new report, Integrated Health and Microfinance in India, Volume II: The Way Forward, highlights best practices in integrating health and microfinance programs, particularly in light of India’s aim for universal health care, showcases potential interventions that can be adopted by microfinance institutions and NGOs that serve SHGs, and outlines the role of India’s existing livelihood promotion SHG initiatives in addressing access barriers to health services.

For the 1.3 billion people around the world who live on less than $1.25 a day, poverty means vulnerability. The poor face a disproportionate risk of disease and a heightened financial burden that includes both the direct costs of medical care and the indirect costs of work time lost. This financial impact also limits the ability of the poor to fully participate in financial services, as poor health is one of the most frequently cited reasons for loan default and drop-out. Because the poor are one illness away from losing everything, there is an increasing realization that countries need a pro-poor pathway towards universal healthcare.

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This post was originally posted on the Grameen Foundation blog by Alex Counts, President and CEO of Grameen Foundation and a member of CFI’s Advisory Council.

Alok PrasadAs a result of a complex combination of unwarranted attacks and self-inflicted wounds, the microfinance sector in India experienced a crisis starting in late 2010 after many years of strong growth and recognition for its contribution to poverty alleviation and financial inclusion.  When I was asked to give a keynote address at a microfinance conference in India in 2012, I said that it was important to leverage the sector’s strengths and accomplishments, while also addressing its failures and shortcomings.

I visited India in May and July and found that these things were finally happening and leading to on-the-ground progress as well as tangible support from both the outgoing and the newly elected Indian governments.  And as this blog went to press, there was another promising development: the government published draft guidelines on creating a pathway for NBFC-MFIs to become specialized or “differentiated” banks, which would enable them to take deposits directly for the first time legally.  (Though not all NBFC-MFIs would likely be eligible unless the “stringent norms” proposed are made more flexible.)  

My May visit to Mumbai was centered around Grameen Foundation’s workshop “Designing for Adoption and Scale” (click here for highlights and here for my closing address).  

One of the highlights of the second trip was speaking with Alok Prasad, the CEO of theMicrofinance Institutions Network (MFIN), a respected microfinance industry association.  He spoke eloquently about the progress the industry has made recently and the reasons behind it.  Below are excerpts from our conversation. 

Alex Counts (AC): I sense a new optimism related to Indian microfinance after some difficult years.  Would you agree?  How would you characterize the last 12 months in terms of how the Indian microfinance sector has developed? What were some of the key contributions of MFIN?

Alok Prasad (AP): Clearly the mood is buoyant, but not in an irrational way! Looking at the last fiscal year (April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014), much has gone well for the industry. Growth, both in terms of gross loan portfolio and clients, has been strong. Portfolio performance stays at levels which commercial banks can only dream of (for unsecured lending). Branch networks have expanded, and new geographies have been covered. Funding (both debt and equity) has improved markedly. The regulatory environment remains broadly positive, notwithstanding the Microfinance Bill falling by the wayside.

In specific terms, the aggregate gross loan portfolio of MFIN’s member institutions (Non Banking Financial Company-Microfinance Institutions or NBFC-MFIs) stood at Rs. 279.31 billion (US$4.63 billion), an increase of 35%, over the prior fiscal year. Clients covered stood at 28 million, representing growth of 20% over the previous year. Debt funding grew by 46%, along with a definite revival of investor interest.

MFIN, I believe, has played a key role in bringing stability to the sector. Deep and sustained dialogue with the government and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has resulted in regulatory changes that are conducive to growth; a much greater appreciation of our industry’s role in promoting financial inclusion; and, the recognition that the industry is an essential component of the national financial architecture. From a systemic standpoint, the development of the credit bureau ecosystem had been a big win. As of this date, more than 150 million client records are present on the databases of two national bureaus. These records are updated on a weekly cycle; and, all lending is only after a bureau check. This has given remarkable results in controlling multiple lending and over-borrowing by clients. Our recognition by the RBI as the self-regulatory organization (SRO) for NBFC-MFIs is a sign of both a certain maturing of the industry and the regulator’s acceptance of that reality. A nice ‘new normal’ for an industry which just 18 months ago appeared deep in the throes of a crisis!

AC: MFIs outside of Andhra Pradesh have begun growing again.  Can you give us a sense of this growth and how it compared to other parts of the financial sector?  What are the main reasons?  Are there risks?

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