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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

The latest edition of the Financial Inclusion 2020 News Feed, our weekly online magazine sharing the big news in banking the unbanked, is now available. Among the stories in this week’s edition are a new publication from GSMA that outlines operational guidelines for mobile money providers offering interoperable services, the Bank of Ghana issuing logos to licensed microfinance institutions so that they’re discernible from unlicensed ones, and, in the United States, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to target incidences of redlining (the practice of lenders charging minorities more for products or excluding them from services altogether). Here are a few more details:

  • Account-to-account mobile money interoperability can bring significant benefits to providers and customers if conducted correctly, but weak implementation can bring a slew of negative ramifications; the new GSMA report highlights key requirements for effective interoperability and actions for providers to realize them.
  • To combat unlicensed microfinance institutions frauding clients in Ghana, the government revealed a new system of logos to be issued to licensed MFIs, helping clients know which institutions they can and can’t trust.
  • At a recent conference, officials from HUD and CFPB, citing recent cases of redlining, announced they had signed a memorandum of understanding to work together in sharing information and investigating mortgage lending discrimination.

For more information on these and other stories, read the latest issue of the FI2020 News Feed here, and make sure to subscribe to the weekly online magazine by entering your email address in the right-hand menu so you can be notified when the latest issue comes out.

Have you come across a story or initiative you think we should cover? Email your ideas to Eric Zuehlke at

> Posted by Haset Solomon, Associate, the Smart Campaign, and Sonja E. Kelly, Fellow, CFI

Click for complete and full-size infographic

Earlier this year we shared a puzzle: microfinance institutions reported that they had age caps on credit products, but we couldn’t figure out what data or rationale was backing them. Leveraging the Smart Campaign’s endorser network of over 2,000 microfinance institutions, we set out to get to the bottom of this puzzle. What we found in our survey surprised us.

Consistent with our research in the Financial Inclusion 2020 (FI2020) publication Aging and Financial Inclusion: An Opportunity, 61 percent of respondents indicated that they have age caps at their microfinance institutions. Indeed, it is common-place for institutions to place age caps on their credit products. The practice is not limited to one country or region – respondents to the survey came from 45 different countries across every region. As we analyzed the survey, we figured there is either a global phenomenon of discrimination against older people or everyone has a very good reason for their actions that we have been missing.

When asked what the age cut-off is at each respondent’s institution, the responses ranged between 55-80 years, and the average age was 65. Our research earlier this year, however, found that this age cut-off is not always consistently applied within each institution. New customers may have an earlier age cut-off, whereas customers with an existing relationship with an institution may be given an additional few years to apply for a new loan.

So, why do institutions impose these age caps on credit products? We received two competing answers:
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> Posted by James Militzer, Editor, NextBillion Financial Innovation

The following post was originally published on NextBillion, in two parts, here and here

The Smart Campaign was born in the midst of extraordinary upheaval in the microfinance sector. Its launch in 2009 was sandwiched between the 2008 global financial crisis, repayment crises in several microfinance markets, and the 2010 debtor suicides in Andhra Pradesh. Yet the turmoil served to amplify the campaign’s main point: that microfinance needs to focus on customer protection. In the succeeding years, it has labored to unite microfinance leaders and practitioners around this goal – most notably through its efforts to convince microfinance institutions (MFIs) to undergo the process of Smart Certification, in which independent evaluators verify that they are “doing everything [they] can to treat [their] clients well and protect them from harm.”

Over time, these efforts have started to gain traction. The campaign – which is steered by a group of prominent leaders in the industry and housed at Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion – has certified 39 microfinance institutions. (Note: Accion is a NextBillion Content Partner.) Certified institutions include a number of leading MFIs in markets around the world, from Equitas in India to Kompanion in Kyrgyzstan. And the campaign calculates that certified MFIs now serve slightly more than 20 million clients. In a recent interview with NextBillion, its director, Isabelle Barrès, called the 20 million client mark “an exciting milestone, recognition of the fact that there is momentum growing in the industry for client protection –  not just paying lip service to it, but actually working hard to improve practices.”

But achieving this momentum hasn’t been an easy task for the campaign – or for the industry whose practices it’s trying to improve. Barrès discusses the challenges it has faced – and the controversy it has sparked – in this two-part Q&A.

James Militzer: Do you have any data on which markets have the highest percentage of Smart Campaign-certified MFIs?

Isabelle Barrès: I think Kyrgyzstan probably is the one where we currently have the most right now – 60 percent of microfinance clients are served by organizations that have been certified. This shows that when there are some substantial efforts that are put towards improving client protection – whether it’s at the market level or at the regulatory level, or through market infrastructure, such as supporting a good credit bureau – it can make a difference for the entire industry.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Will microfinance continue to be relevant in 2020 and beyond? Should regulators or the industry lead on client protection? Will data analytics replace traditional credit reporting systems?

A new Financial Inclusion 2020 e-magazine explores these three essential questions debate-style, tapping industry leaders from around the world to weigh in with their perspectives.

Microfinance as a development strategy has in the past few years been eclipsed by the excitement around financial inclusion. This transition reflects the recognition that people need a full range of financial services. What does the future hold for microfinance institutions and other players like traditional banks and new fintech companies? Bindu Ananth, Chair of IFMR Trust and IFMR Holdings, Dean Karlan, President of Innovations for Poverty Action, and Liza Guzman, Vice President of Accion share their views.

The ideal balance in client protection is often conceived as a three-legged stool in which regulators, providers, and consumers work at equal levels of responsibility. Globally, regulators have often taken the lead, but initiatives such as the Smart Campaign prove that there is room for providers to move beyond compliance. Is a balanced three-legged stool realistic? Among the debaters are Alok Prasad, Principal Advisor of RBL Bank, Sanjay Sinha, Managing Director of M-CRIL, and Isabelle Barres, Director of the Smart Campaign.

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

As a member of the Smart Campaign Steering Committee, I had the pleasure last week of attending the first ever Certification Summit held in Turin, Italy. The CEOs of 24 client protection certified microfinance institutions (MFIs) came together to discuss with one another their experiences with certification, their practices for preventing over-indebtedness, collections and grievance redressal, and their thoughts on how the certification process could be made more valuable.

I tried my best to talk with each and every participant there in order to get their honest thoughts about certification. I was surprised but pleased to discover that, without exception, every one of them said how happy they were that they had gone through the process and achieved the recognition. Some examples of the types of comments I heard are:

  1. Client protection has always been part of our DNA. It’s who we are. The certification process helped us align our practices with our values – and come closer to what we aspire to be.
  2. It has allowed us to improve our relations with the regulators in our country more than we imagined. They now turn to us for advice!
  3. It was great for our employees. It was a truly motivating exercise for them . . . and the recognition that comes with certification made them feel very special. Our employees are proud to be associated with a responsible institution.
  4. There was a cost to it, no question – but the process convinced us that it was well worth the investment.
  5. We wanted third-party validation of our practices, and this gave us that validation.
  6. The process was excellent. I have tremendous respect for the rating agency that conducted our mission. It was far more rigorous than I anticipated, and it did result in our making some very significant changes, especially to our disclosure practices.
  7. Our customers have told us that they appreciate the changes we made that were clearly visible to them. They especially like the improvements we’ve made to our grievance redressal mechanism.
  8. Certification must be seen as a risk management tool because that’s what it is. We need more MFIs to go through the certification process in order to control risk in our market. We need to engage more closely with investors and regulators about what it means and how it acts to mitigate risks.
  9. The process helped us to get back to our fundamentals, for the reason we were formed. This was something we had needed to do, without really realizing it, for a long time.
  10. There’s no question that it contributed to our ability to get new capital from our local bank.

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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

What financial inclusion stakeholders believe is most important in advancing client protection

Regulators take the lead in advancing client protection in financial services, we’ve heard.  Providers “merely comply.”

If you are of the view that providers can, and should, take a leading role in client protection, then the results of a recent survey conducted by the Aspen Institute are discouraging.  The survey, carried out on behalf of the Smart Campaign as part of its strategic planning, took a look at the three-legged stool of client protection—providers, regulators, and consumers—and asked which element was the most important.  Of the financial inclusion stakeholders who were interviewed, only 24 percent said that provider-led initiatives were the most important element in client protection.  By comparison, 39 percent thought regulation and governance were the most important, and 37 percent put their faith in consumer awareness and activism.

I disagree!  We believe action from the financial services providers themselves is a vital missing link.  But what is holding them back?  In a consultative process carried out by the Financial Inclusion 2020 project over the past year, here are the top six reasons we heard for providers not taking the lead in consumer protection. Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Senior Associate, CFI

The Facebook page of JPay, a Florida-based company that provides a range of services to inmates in the U.S. prison system, is calling for visitation pictures – photos of families and their incarcerated loved ones. Happy images seem to echo the company’s statement that JPay is “the most trusted source for connecting incarcerated individuals with family and friends”. Money transfers are one primary element of the connection that JPay and others like it provide. JPay is one of the largest providers in the burgeoning field of financial services for the 2 million-plus inmates in the U.S. prison system. These providers are changing the way that families send money to their incarcerated loved ones and also the way in which inmates receive money upon their release. But has this change been good?

For those that might not know, money sent to inmates can be used in prison for things like making phone calls, sending emails, and buying food, toiletries, and winter clothes. To give you a sense, at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington State, phone calls begin at $3.13, and emails are 33 cents. When prisoners are released, money accumulated from work in prison or sent from family and friends can be transferred onto stores of value like debit cards.

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> Posted by María José Roa Garcia, Researcher, Centro de Estudios Monetarios Latinoamericanos (CEMLA)

Reports on the financial stability of emerging countries indicate that non-traditional institutions advancing financial inclusion are increasingly important. The contemporary financial services landscape in many markets includes new financial inclusion instruments such as electronic and mobile phone-based banking. For these newer entrants and many credit-offering institutions, the governing regulatory frameworks are either non-existent or much looser than those for formally-constituted banking institutions.

Does this lack of oversight affect market stability?

In reviewing the recent studies on the possible links between financial stability and inclusion, although additional research and analysis is required, it is shown that greater access to and use of formal financial intermediaries might reduce financial instability. As for why, the studies point to six reasons:

  1. More diversified funding base of financial institutions
  2. More extensive and efficient savings intermediation
  3. Improved capacity of households to manage vulnerabilities and shocks
  4. A more stable base of retail deposits
  5. Restricting the presence of a large informal sector
  6. Facilitating the reduction of income inequality, thereby allowing for greater political and social stability

The principal definitions of financial stability support this notion. Institutions that carry out financial inclusion activities help develop effective intermediation of resources and diversify risk, which are essential elements in supporting sustainable markets.

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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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