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> Posted by V. McIntyre, Freelance Writer for the Harvard Kennedy School

Often, we hold out hope that innovation will happen through the great leap forward, the stroke of luck, the miracle cure – and when one candidate fails, we go off in search of another.

There is justifiable concern that this yes-or-no approach hampers international development. A recent article in the New Republic listed “big ideas” in international development that failed – not because they were bad, but because they were big. The article describes a $15 million-plus project to install thousands of water pumps attached to merry-go-rounds in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Jeffrey Sachs’s Millennium Villages which sought to overhaul entire villages by building housing, schools, clinics, roads, and other key infrastructure. In these and the article’s other cases, with expectations high and money and attention flowing in, the projects sank, often because they outgrew the scale at which they had proven to work. Yet some of a project’s apparent lack of success may simply come down to the measurement you’re using. Many of the world’s most successful development efforts – deworming campaigns, for example – only improve the average life in tiny increments.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

It’s been an exciting few months for client protection in the microfinance industry. FINCA Kyrgyzstan, MBK Ventura in Indonesia, SKS Microfinance in India, and a number of other MFIs around the world demonstrated that they successfully integrate the client protection principles into their practices and joined the rapidly growing list of institutions that are Smart Certified. Today, we’re pleased to share that the number of clients across all the Smart Certified institutions surpassed the 15-million-client benchmark.

To date, 28 microfinance institutions, from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, have achieved Smart Certification, including some of the world’s largest and best-known MFIs. These institutions are not only ensuring that their clients are equipped and best positioned to effectively use financial services, they’re also demonstrating to their respective markets and the global industry the good business that is responsible microfinance.

“Momentum to improve client protection is accelerating, with scores of MFIs across the globe improving their client protection practices, and being recognized for it through certification,” stated Isabelle Barrès, director of the Smart Campaign, in a press release. In Eastern Europe, there are certified institutions in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, with the certification of the nation’s network of FINCA MFIs, the country’s market crossed an important threshold. “As measured by MixMarket data, more than 50 percent of all microfinance clients in Kyrgyzstan do business with certified MFIs,” noted Barrès. The certified MFIs in Kyrgyzstan include the first formal financial institution serving low-income entrepreneurs in the region, as well as a relatively young institution, and encompass a range of service offerings like individual, group, and agricultural loans. Elsewhere in the region, the proportion of clients in certified institutions by country market is about 45 percent in Bosnia, and 40 percent in Tajikistan.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Islamic finance is expected to expand substantially in 2015, from 2014’s total of $2.1 trillion to $2.5 trillion, according to figures released last week by the Al-Huda Centre of Islamic Banking and Economics. In 2011, the industry had assets of about $1 trillion. Islamic microfinance, the segment of Sharia-compliant services targeting clients at the base of the pyramid, only occupies a small slice of the pie, at 1 percent of all Islamic finance globally. However this uptick in Sharia-compliant finance, as well as encouraging recent support for the 650 million Muslims living on less than 2 dollars a day, suggest a rising tide for Islamic microfinance.

The industry findings indicate that not only did Islamic finance surpass the $2 trillion landmark in 2014, it gained traction in nascent markets and entered new ones. Markets still green in offering Islamic finance that showed growth in 2014 include Morocco, Tunisia, Azerbaijan, Libya, and several non-Muslim-majority countries including Nigeria, Tanzania, and South Africa. Among the new markets where Islamic finance took root last year are Australia, Brazil, and China. Globally, there are 1,500 organizations working in Islamic finance across 90 countries – 40 percent of which are non-Muslim-majority countries. The expansion of Islamic finance opens the door for the many Muslims whose beliefs preclude them from accepting finance with interest rates and fee structures outlawed by Sharia doctrine.

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> Posted by Center Staff

This edition of Top Picks features a post that offers a fresh framework for examining savings groups, a post that synthesizes recent research on payments in South Asia, and a post on the relative effectiveness of aid approaches.

Steering the conversation on savings groups towards foundational concerns, or at least towards more interesting matters than the oft-trodden territory of model and methodology specifics (e.g. passbooks versus ledgers), Paul Rippey in a new Savings Revolution blog post offers six questions for potential consideration. Here’s a portion of one of the questions: “How big is the gap within the program between what is said and written, and what is done? Said another way, the casual disrespect and bending of procedures makes management incredibly difficult and inefficient.”

In South Asia, domestic remittances are conducted much more than international remittances, and they’re carried out mostly in cash through informal channels. These are two of the big findings from a recent Gates Foundation survey, highlighted by Jake Kendall in a new Next Billion blog post. The post provides a brief overview of the importance of digital payment options for the poor and shares the big findings from the Gates survey, which interviewed individuals in South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) and Indonesia on their experience with payments. Another key finding from the survey, demonstrating a big potential market for digital payments, was that the majority of those interviewed – who represent the majority of a population of 1.9 billion adults – reported having sent, brought, or received a domestic or international remittance in the past 12 months.

What’s better?: an organization giving money to the poor with no strings attached, or an organization giving the poor productive assets which require higher expenditures that hinder the organization’s scope? That’s one of the big questions presented in a new post, “Cash or Cows?“, on the Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) blog. It’s a question getting a lot of attention recently thanks to the increasingly talked-about organization GiveDirectly that gives money directly to the poor in Kenya, with no associated conditions, via M-PESA mobile money transfers. To put this approach to the test, GiveDirectly agreed to allow IPA to conduct a public evaluation (which is currently underway) of the effectiveness of their work. In addition to exploring this question, the post takes an additional half-step of comparing the net impact of conditional and unconditional cash transfers, drawing on IPA research.

Image credit: Ianf

> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Assistant, CFI

The majority of individuals around the world without formal bank accounts are women. In the developing world, 63 percent of women lack accounts, versus 54 percent of men. Mobile financial services offer a path to inclusion given that 1.7 of the 2.5 billion unbanked own mobile phones. However, the path is longer for women, as the majority of mobile phone owners are men.

Visa, mWomen, and Bankable Frontier Associates are working together to bring mobile services to women. Today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona they’re releasing joint research that examines how to best design mobile financial services to reach women at the base of the pyramid (BoP), Unlocking the Potential: Women and Mobile Financial Services in Emerging Markets.

You might remember our posting about mWomen research on mobile phone usage among BoP women earlier this year. The previous report, Striving and Surviving: Exploring the Lives of Women at the Base of the Pyramid, cast light on the opportunity for mobile money services to benefit BoP women. This potential was evidenced in the report’s findings that BoP women are largely responsible for managing their family’s finances, that they often go to unsafe, costly, and time-consuming lengths to do so, and that one of the biggest barriers preventing their use of formal financial services is a lack of nearby facilities.

Unlocking the Potential builds off Striving and Surviving to establish where the developing world is with mobile financial services among BoP women. Over the past few months the research team has worked with women in Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Tanzania to better understand their relationship with mobile financial services, examining how they manage their money, what their needs are, and how mobile financial services can fit into their lives.

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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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