> Posted by Aissatou Diallo, Special Assistant to the CEO, BRAC USA

For the three countries most affected by Ebola – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – the impact of the disease on society came in waves. The first wave happened around March, after the virus was first confirmed in the region. It was characterized by denial, disbelief, and a general numbness. The second wave, in May, happened as the disease spread geographically with a corresponding increase in cases and deaths. During this time, people felt overwhelmed. Even though a lot of people still doubted that the disease existed, they knew something was wrong because people were getting sick and dying at an alarming rate. The third wave, in August, blew the lid wide open on shortcomings and vulnerabilities in the region as Ebola spun out of control. Health systems collapsed, schools closed, communities were quarantined, and supply chain systems broke down. People lived in fear.

These factors contributed to severe economic losses in the region, especially for actors in the informal economy (e.g. traders and farmers) who depend on moving freely to sell their goods at markets and have little financial flexibility or cushion to absorb a shock to the system.

I just returned from a five-week trip to Liberia. In the towns and villages I visited, people told me that August was characterized by bleakness and despair. Communities looked like ghost towns, social ties were weakened, and there were sick people dying on the streets because no hospitals or care facilities were available.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

Indian financial inclusion advocates enjoyed a brief victory lap and an international spotlight in January, and they are poised to move into 2015 with a renewed push. On January 20, Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was presented with a Guinness World Record for the fastest financial inclusion roll-out in history, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY). In one week, between 23 and 29 August 2014, 18,096,130 bank accounts were opened through this national inclusion strategy. Since that date the number has grown to over 123 million across the country. During his January 25 joint address with Prime Minister Modi, President Obama commended Indian leadership’s commitment to prioritize financial inclusion for all Indian citizens, and pledged American support.

In a January 27 press release, USAID affirmed Obama’s pledge, and announced its intention to partner with over 20 Indian, U.S., and international organizations with the support of the World Economic Forum (WEF) to work alongside the Indian government “to expand the ability of Indian consumers and businesses to participate in the formal economy.”

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Marisol is a 69-year-old woman in Aguablanca, a mid-sized community near the coast in Colombia. She hasn’t saved much for her older years. She receives a small social pension—about a dollar per day—from the public pension program, Colombia Mayor. While it provides an income floor for her, Marisol would like to be working as an entrepreneur. She even has a plan: “If I had a little capital, I could buy chicken legs, beef, and bananas here at a cheap price and then sell them in the Pacific towns at three or four times the price. And then I could bring back fish from the coast to sell here at the fairs.” But she cannot get a loan because of the age caps on credit at the financial institutions that operate in her area.

Marisol explains that it is not her lack of zeal or a declining health that is keeping her from increasing her income through this business dream of hers. “Strength and desire do not fail me,” she says. “It’s the money that I lack.”

Marisol was one of the people that we interviewed as part of the creation of an issue paper on Aging and Financial Inclusion, a project conducted by the Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign and in collaboration with HelpAge International. Her story is not unique—many older people report being denied access to credit and insurance in their later years. Most older people who had low or informal income when they were younger have not saved for their older years.

The new paper examines the unmet financing needs of older adults, a population segment growing rapidly in developing countries. With a focus on Latin America, the paper discusses the barriers to and market opportunities in expanding financial access to aging populations.

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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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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, and Kathleen Stack, Vice President, Programs, Freedom from Hunger

Recently, Dean Karlan published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Next Stage of Financial Inclusion.” The key points of his article are that while non-profits led the way in developing microcredit for the poor and started the movement for financial inclusion, for-profit companies have increasingly found it worth their while to offer financial services for the base of the pyramid. The entrance of new players to the market, Karlan offers, is a testament to the success of the early microfinance-focused non-profits. However, Karlan suggests that non-profits still have an important role in continuing to innovate in the financial services space. We agree. This is particularly true for extending financial services to people that banks still consider unprofitable: “the too rural, the too poor and the too young.” We would add disabled populations and the “too old.”

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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microfinance CEO Working Group blog.

The American Economic Journal has published an issue dedicated to six new studies measuring the impact of microcredit. Through a series of randomized control trials (RCTs), researchers have identified some of the effects of expanded access to microcredit on borrowers and communities in Bosnia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Mongolia, and Morocco.

The researchers reported evidence of positive impacts of microcredit on occupational choice, business scale, consumption choice, female decision power, and improved risk management, but did not report clear evidence of reduction in poverty or substantial improvements in living standards. “These results,” conclude the authors, “suggest that although microcredit may not be transformative in the sense of lifting people or communities out of poverty, it does afford people more freedom in their choices… and the possibility of being self-reliant.”

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

The risks associated with the recent U.S. boom in subprime auto loans for the working poor are compounding, a series of articles recently published by The New York Times indicates. The articles report on the Times’ extensive investigation on the subject, which included the examination of over 100 bankruptcy cases, dozens of civil lawsuits against lenders, and hundreds of loan documents. The series draws attention to companies lending to those on the financial margins who often have questionable or missing credit histories and who are purchasing typically pretty old, low-quality cars. Lenders have lowered credit standards to widen their pool of borrowers, a risky practice incentivized by an influx of money from investors looking for a hot market and keen to securitize. Subprime auto loans have increased by 130 percent in recent years, and in 2014 they accounted for one in four auto loans.

In addition to viewing this through our did-we-learn-nothing-from-the-subprime-mortgage-crisis?! glasses and seeing potential systemic repercussions, one can take the consumer rights vantage point and see the scary picture of a world in which the underbanked or financially excluded are given two kinds of options: bad and really bad. We decided to score the features of this market against the seven Client Protection Principles of the Smart Campaign. Since the Client Protection Principles are a do-no-harm standard, we expect markets to meet seven out of seven principles to earn our endorsement. Let’s see how subprime auto loans stack up.

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> Posted by Eric Zuehlke, Web and Communications Director, CFI

Financial inclusion stories and research are published daily, lauding various efforts to bring lower-income people into the formal banking fold. All progress deserves celebration, but also closer examination. When a new initiative takes effect, or a new service deployed, how does that advance us in achieving financial inclusion? A backdrop of sound measurement is critical. A BBVA research team, Noelia Cámara and David Tuesta, recently set out to construct an index that measures the extent of financial inclusion at the country or region level. The index is discussed and applied to 82 countries in the team’s new paper, Measuring Financial Inclusion: A Multidimensional Index. We were especially intrigued to learn that this research incorporates both supply and demand-side data. I recently sat down with Cámara to talk about the project, from challenges in measuring financial inclusion to the implications of the newly-available index.

1. What are the challenges in measuring financial inclusion?

Many issues arise when it comes to measuring financial inclusion. First, there is no single definition for financial inclusion universally accepted in the literature. Most definitions include three dimensions: use, quality, and access. However, when it comes to defining these dimensions, no consensus is found. For instance, the use of financial services is part of the financial inclusion concept, but it is not clear what “use of financial services” really means. Thus, several questions come to the fore: Do we consider having a bank account in the formal financial system to be a necessary condition for financial inclusion? Is having a pre-paid card or microinsurance enough to classify an individual as included? Is using electronic payment intermediation (e.g. paying bills with a mobile phone) a sufficient condition?

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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

Imagine you are a new microfinance loan officer in a rural area of your country and extremely proud to have found a stable, well-regarded job. Your sales territory, while requiring significant travel, is familiar – this is where your father’s extended family is from, and in fact, a few of the borrowers in your portfolio are distant cousins. You manage a portfolio of just under 300 borrowers, most of whom you see on a weekly basis.

This week, at one of the repayment meetings, you are approached by a client in distress and near tears. She apologizes that she is unable to pay back the outstanding balance on her loan due to circumstances out of her control, and asks for an additional six months to repay. Her fellow group members have been covering for her for the past two weeks and seem to be losing patience with her. Given that this was the woman’s first loan and that your country’s credit bureau covers only five percent of the microfinance market, you have no information on her credit history or current debt burden.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Last week Safaricom, one of the Kenya-based mobile network operators (MNOs) behind the flagship mobile money service M-Pesa launched Zindua Café, an online interactive portal that enables developers to share ideas, prototypes, and applications. In the industry of financial services for clients at the base of the pyramid, the move represents an intriguing arrangement for the development of new and improved services, which can be resource intensive and given little institutional priority. The arrangement works, because Safaricom purports intellectual property and related laws will be protected as the MNO considers an idea’s potential utility.

Zindua Café is open to external innovators and developers across Kenya. On the portal, Joe Ogutu, Safaricom’s Director of Strategy and Innovation, said, “Over the years we have received numerous proposals from customers on new ideas, products and services. This portal will serve as a central place where those ideas are captured.” As part of the launch, Safaricom held an intellectual property educational forum, where participants received guidance on understanding and monetizing the intellectual property that is their ideas.

M-Pesa in Kenya has over 19 million registered customers, Safaricom reported mid last year. Along with the service’s payment and store of value capabilities, additional products have been released in recent years including M-Shwari, which offers borrowing and saving, and M-Ledger, a smart phone application that provides accounting tools. Although smart phones make up a minority portion of Kenya’s phone market, reducing the reach of certain apps, in 2013 67 percent of the handsets sold by Safaricom were smart phones.

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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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