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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

There was good news from the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) yesterday: the announcement of a partnership with MasterCard Worldwide to build technical capacity so that AFI members are better equipped to regulate innovations in products and business models.

Since its birth seven years ago, we have admired AFI for so effectively galvanizing a powerful regulator community to set a high bar on financial inclusion. Part of AFI’s strategy has been a fierce commitment to ownership of the issue by the regulators themselves. The results have been measured not only in dramatically increased access among AFI member countries, but also in higher standards around the quality of those services, as evidenced by Maya Commitments around client protection and financial capability. AFI Working Groups have also been developed for peer learning on digital financial services, financial inclusion data, and other key issues.

Yet we are among many in the industry who have felt that AFI’s circling of the wagons meant that their policy solutions were not always smart about encouraging innovation and investment in financial inclusion. To its credit, AFI got the message, and in 2014, it launched a Public-Private Dialogue Platform (PPD) to incentivize policymakers and regulators to cooperate with the private sector. Yesterday’s announcement about the new relationship with MasterCard is a strong next step toward realizing the PPD’s promise.

This trajectory resonates with recent interviews on client protection that we have carried out at FI2020. Among the regulators we interviewed, what was striking was the path many have followed toward empowering the private sector to play an active role in customer protection. We heard about a number of good practices that build capacity and break down communication silos between the public and private sectors.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

The following post was originally published on the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth blog.

Reaching full financial inclusion by 2020 will require supportive policies in every country around the globe. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Global Microscope on Financial Inclusion, 2014” assesses the policy environment for financial inclusion in 55 countries. The Microscope examines 12 policy dimensions essential for creating an inclusion-friendly regulatory and institutional framework. The rigorous model incorporates input from hundreds of policy makers and participants in the financial sector and a review of existing policies and implementation. The resulting rankings represent the best readily available source for judging the state of financial inclusion policy around the world.

What’s surprising about the 2014 Microscope results is their wide range. Out of a possible 100 points, the top scorer (Peru) received 87 while the lowest (Haiti) earned only 16. If full inclusion requires good policies, it is disappointing to learn that the median score across all countries was a mediocre 46.

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Gail Buyske, Advisory Committee, Microfinance Information Infrastructure Project

> Posted by Center Staff

Convening of Stakeholders

Several weeks ago we learned that MFT has suspended its operations. Moody’s has discontinued its Social Performance Assessment Program. The MIX is trying to increase revenue through its MixGold program. Should we care about these developments? What are they telling us about the state of microfinance’s information infrastructure?

The Center for Financial Inclusion undertook an analysis of these issues to follow up on Elisabeth Rhyne’s provocative blog of March 11, 2014, in which she argued that the microfinance industry needs an “infrastructure fix.” Today’s blog summaries the key issues, which will be discussed at a stakeholder discussion in DC on April 14, followed by one at a later date in Europe.

Let’s start by thinking about why we should care about microfinance’s information infrastructure. Information and its natural outcome, transparency, have been guiding principles of the microfinance industry practically since its inception. These are not just feel-good concepts: they played a fundamental role in the development of microfinance. Information and transparency were critical in microfinance’s early days in enabling donors and investors to identify promising MFIs that they could support. Readily available information enabled MFIs to benchmark their performance and set goals to improve their performance. And we can never forget that a commitment to transparency is a pact between MFIs and their clients.

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Smart Campaign> Posted by Center Staff

Big news from the Smart Campaign camp. Today, the Campaign, the global movement you’ve come to know for embedding a set of client protection principles into the fabric of the microfinance industry, is announcing enhancements to its Client Protection Certification Program designed to improve and accelerate the certification process.

The Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification Program contains a core set of standards against which institutions are evaluated by independent, third-party raters. Certification publicly recognizes those institutions providing financial services to low-income people whose standards of care uphold the seven Client Protection Principles. The certification process aids institutions in strengthening their practices, and becoming certified helps institutions demonstrate to industry stakeholders – including clients, investors, and other institutions – their commitment to responsibly serving their clients. The Client Protection Principles cover important areas such as transparency, fair and respectful treatment, privacy, and prevention of over-indebtedness.

The Certification changes will enable the program to better meet the growing global demand for certification among microfinance institutions, while ensuring that certified institutions demonstrate high standards and the program maintains strong governance and quality control. Several enhancements will take place immediately:

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> Posted by the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM)

How has the microfinance industry leveraged regulation and supervision to safeguard client wellbeing? In priority areas like over-indebtedness, acceptable pricing, and transparency, what progress has been made to ensure that institutions are operating responsibly? And in cases where regulatory actions have been taken, how have they been implemented? A recent research project conducted by EY and the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM) investigates these questions across 12 country markets and assesses the current state of client protection regulation in microfinance.

The growth of the inclusive finance sector has helped create significant opportunities for low-income people around the world. However, when not done correctly, access to financial products also has the potential to bring harm. Of the increasing importance of client protection and sound regulation, EY Senior Manager and one of the report’s authors, Justina Alders-Sheya remarked: “The sector is growing and to do so responsibly, it is necessary that supervisory authorities perform their role.”

Drawing on questionnaires completed by local stakeholders, the study examined whether laws and regulations on client protection have been implemented in any way in the 12 studied countries: Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Russia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The study also examined the regulatory and supervisory landscape for client protection in each country. It investigated who is creating the regulations, how they’re being enforced, and the role of industry players like microfinance associations and credit bureaus.

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There is a need to enhance consumer awareness and confidence in doing electronic transactions

> Posted by Smita Aggarwal, Senior Program Director, the Centre for Advanced Financial Research and Learning (CAFRAL)

The following post was originally published on Livemint.

On a recent visit to Sydney, Australia I needed some cash and I inserted my Indian debit card in an automated teller machine (ATM). Immediately after I put in my transaction request for cash withdrawal, I got a prompt that there would be a $3 charge for that transaction and I had to confirm with a “yes” before the transaction would be processed further. I withdrew my card and left. The e-payments code by Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), the unified regulator responsible for market conduct, requires all service providers to provide certain mandatory information, including fees and charges, to users before or at the time users first perform transactions.

The experience in Australia shows that the display of charges just before the transaction is done has altered consumer behavior, apart from significantly reducing complaints. Increasing the usage of electronic transactions through ATMs, cards, internet, and mobile phones is a critical step towards digitizing our economy. However, there is a need to significantly enhance consumer awareness and confidence in doing electronic transactions and there could be lessons we can learn from what Australia has done.

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> Posted by Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking, and Michael Schlein, President and CEO of Accion, who are Co-Chair and Founding Member, respectively, of the Microfinance CEO Working Group

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

As leaders of international organizations dedicated to financial inclusion, we welcome and support initiatives that hold the microfinance industry to the highest standards of client protection, social performance, and pricing transparency. This is the principal reason why the members of the Microfinance CEO Working Group came together – a shared commitment to these principles as well as a shared recognition that enforcing them takes work that none of us can do alone.

When our group first formed in 2011, we scanned the landscape of actors and initiatives working to enforce high quality microfinance industry standards. Chuck Waterfield and MFTransparency (MFT) stood out. Pricing transparency is widely considered the most challenging standard to uphold in our industry, and there was no denying that Chuck and his small but dynamic team had created something unprecedented with MFT.

Publicly reporting pricing information is extremely complicated, which is why all industries struggle with it. The microfinance industry, however, is actually further along than most, and that is largely due to MFT’s efforts. Chuck and his staff developed a methodology to present credit pricing information in a clear and consistent way, so all stakeholders can learn the true price of credit products for clients. As a direct result of MFT’s methodology, microfinance institutions in many countries now report their pricing data. Multiple institutions also reduced their prices after publishing data and determining that they were out of line with other institutions in their market. Since MFT has been operating, many governments have also started to require pricing transparency in their regulation of the microfinance industry.

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> Posted by Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

As we acknowledge World Consumer Rights Day, celebrated on March 15th each year, recent news from South Africa on over-indebtedness reminded us of the findings from the What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default? project. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) just reported that 50 percent of the country’s credit-active population is debt-impaired (meaning they are more than three months behind on bills and/or have a debt-related judgment), and another 15 percent of the population is debt-stressed (one to two months behind on bills). Essentially, more than half of South Africa’s population is over-indebted.

In reacting to this situation, the SAHRC has taken an approach drawn from a human rights-based framework. They have recognized freedom from oppressive, unsustainable debt levels is a human right. Similarly, in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, the government determined that under particular financial circumstances a fresh start is a human right. To address Greece’s growing problem of over-indebtedness, in 2010, Parliament passed a law which gives individuals the right to personal bankruptcy. The implementation of this legislation was also an attempt to harmonize the law with Article 5 of the Greek Constitution which protects citizens’ social and economic well-being. According to the new law, over-indebted individuals now have the possibility to restructure their debts, reducing both interest rates and total amounts owed. The prerequisite is that the individual’s inability to repay needs to be considered a permanent condition.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Fellow, CFI

When I started my doctoral research on financial inclusion policy and regulation, I was secretly thinking, “Surely this cannot be too complicated—it’s just the regulator directing financial institutions to make services available for excluded people.” Now, five years into my PhD, I’ve finally admitted what I should have known from the beginning: regulation of financial services providers is almost impossibly complex, and making sense of financial inclusion policy and regulation requires a great deal of creativity, especially given all of the different factors that supervisors have to consider beyond prudential supervision.

Prudential banking supervisor’s responsibilities beyond prudential supervision (percent of respondents)

A new publication on the range of regulatory issues that affect financial inclusion confirms this. Supervised by the Basel Consultative Group and researched by CGAP (in full disclosure, I was a part of the team), the publication describes the regulatory approaches to financial inclusion in 59 jurisdictions from all world regions.

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> Posted by Maria May, Senior Program Manager, BRAC

Babita Akhtar, BRAC customer service assistant, Kawalipara branch, Bangladesh

Babita Akhtar, BRAC customer service assistant, Kawalipara branch, Bangladesh

Even when introducing herself, Babita’s enthusiasm is contagious. “Maybe you think that you can’t change how you manage your money. It’s too hard. Well, I used to think that I could never get up in front of a group of people and give a presentation. But here I am. BRAC taught me how. So if I can do this, then you can do anything.”

Babita Akhtar is one of 900 women recruited by BRAC as a customer service assistant. She greets every person who walks into the branch office—people coming for loans, seeking support from BRAC’s legal aid clinics, teachers or community health promoters coming for training, and even visitors. Before loan disbursement begins, she runs a short orientation session for all borrowers that covers important information about the loans, BRAC’s services, and good financial practices. The branch manager comes in at the end to answer any questions and greet the clients personally.

The messages provided in this orientation are timed for maximum impact. Pranab Banik, who heads BRAC’s Financial Education and Client Protection Unit, said, “The time when clients are waiting at the branch to take a loan seems the best moment to deliver basic financial awareness at scale and cost effectively. Our pre-disbursement orientation is an integral precondition for comprehensive client protection; it is intended to empower all clients to better understand their options and manage their finances responsibly.”

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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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