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> Posted by the Pakistan Microfinance Network

The Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN) – a national association of over 50 microfinance providers (MFPs) – has supported its members in conducting third-party client protection assessments using the Smart Campaign’s Smart Assessment tool. To date, 18 assessments have been conducted, covering over 60 percent of the market in terms of overall outreach to active borrowers. These assessments have been made possible with funding support from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) through the UK Aid-sponsored Financial Inclusion Program (FIP). The assessments provide a unique opportunity for PMN to observe the state of practice in client protection among member MFPs. For participating MFPs, the assessments provide an opportunity to evaluate their practices in comparison with globally accepted standards of client protection, and seek recommendations for institutional improvements to better comply with the standards. They also indicate whether an institution is ready to pursue Smart Certification, a designation recognized across the global market that an institution successfully integrates the Client Protection Principles into their practices. After undergoing an assessment and acting on its results, Kashf Foundation (KF) recently became the first microfinance institution in Pakistan to achieve Smart Certification.

The Pakistan Microfinance Network, a strategic partner of the Smart Campaign, sat down with Roshaneh Zafar, Managing Director of Kashf Foundation, to talk about the certification experience.

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

The following post was originally published on the Grameen Foundation blog and presented at the ‘Financial Services for the Poor: Lessons and Implications of the Latest Research on Credit’ event hosted by CGAP, IPA, J-PAL, and The World Bank on February 27, 2015.

I would like to start by congratulating the researchers involved in these six new studies, as they add to the body of knowledge about microcredit and microfinance that has been accumulating for several decades, and has made us a stronger industry as a result. I would also like to congratulate the organizers of this event, and thank them for inviting me to share my views, as a representative of Grameen Foundation and the Microfinance CEO Working Group, which I co-chair with Mary Ellen Iskendarian of Women’s World Banking.

I actually find these studies encouraging. The frame I use to digest them is this: what do they tell us about what microcredit is accomplishing, and about what it can accomplish. Somehow, the main frame people seem to be using to interpret these results is what microcredit does not do. I don’t think that frame is appropriate, nor helpful.

I think that we can all agree that while microcredit has been “transformative” for individual clients, it is not today “transformative” for the average client, especially in the time frames that are being studied. I presume we can all also agree that microcredit has not cured cancer, nor the common cold. But why use unrealistic standards to frame the discussion?

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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 Center Staff

In over 100 countries around the world, central banks, stock markets, finance providers, NGOs, and others are coming together en masse this week and next to target the financial inclusion of one of the most underserved client segments: children and youth. Global Money Week (GMW), now in its fourth year, is an ambitious movement to raise awareness on the importance of youth inclusion and to empower our rising generation. Indeed, around the world only 38 percent of youth (ages 15-25) have some sort of account at a formal financial institution.

The theme of this year’s GMW is “Save today. Safe tomorrow.” Globally, savings rates among young people are dismally low. In high income countries, 42 percent of youth save in formal institutions. The next highest regions are East Asia and Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, where youth savings rates are 19 and 9 percent, respectively. Why is this the case? On the consumer side, when asked, youth most often cite the same reasons adults most often cite: a lack of money and high account fees.

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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 Amitabh Brar and Paul DiLeo, Investment Manager and President, Grassroots Capital Management

A rare, behind-the-scenes look

Performance data on private equity funds is not easy to collect, and privately-held microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) are no exception. Much less is known about the investment process within these MIVs, and how the three main elements of their governance — board, investment committee, and fund manager — interact to create value within these funds. A new Calmeadow study written by Grassroots Capital Management shines light on the elusive subject of governance inside a pioneer equity fund, AfriCap. The study, sponsored by a group of AfriCap investors, evaluates strategy setting and resetting, investment decisions, and portfolio management from the standpoint of the prime movers governing the fund: the board and its committees.

About AfriCap

After three years of planning, AfriCap was launched in 2001 with $13 million to invest in support of commercial microfinance in Africa. The sponsors were inspired by the accomplishments of Latin America’s Profund, then in its sixth year, and indeed many of AfriCap’s investors had collaborated earlier on Profund. Fund investments were complemented with a $3 million technical assistance (TA) grant facility to strengthen investees’ capacity. AfriCap saw some spectacular early successes. Some of its investees are today well-recognized financial institutions, including Equity Bank (Kenya) and Socremo (Mozambique), among others. These early results led to increased investor interest and in 2007 new investors joined, tripling AfriCap’s capital to $42 million. The TA pool was boosted to $11 million. In addition, the decision was taken to transform the closed-end fund into a permanent investment company, and the manager into an African-owned and run management company with the ability to manage multiple funds

Yet, notwithstanding AfriCap’s early successes, the fund failed to recover investment costs in 12 out of 21 investments, and there were several write-offs. The fund ended up delivering only modest financial returns to its investors, and the results were especially disappointing for new investors who joined at the time of recapitalization. In 2013 the board approved a plan to liquidate the fund and return unused capital to the investors, reversing an earlier decision to run AfriCap as a permanent company.

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> Posted by Anton Simanowitz and Katherine E. Knotts

“Customer centricity” is the new buzz in the microfinance industry. More and more financial service providers are recognizing that their success is built on the success of their clients. Customer centricity certainly means recognizing that financial inclusion is not just about more services – it’s about better services. To achieve this, financial service providers need to grapple with the complexity of clients’ financial lives, understand what appropriate design looks like, and empower clients to use those services effectively.

But is it always a “win-win”? What if clients express preferences and make choices that are not in their long-term best interests – that is, what happens when what clients need isn’t what they might want or demand? And what if responding to client needs in the most appropriate way appears to be a riskier decision from the point of view of institutional financial performance?

These tension points (and some quite radical decisions in the face of them) can be seen in the work of AMK Cambodia, highlighted in a new book The Business of Doing Good. Witness a conversation we had with a senior manager. “We will never be a leader in client service,” he proudly announced. In the competitive Cambodian market, rapid disbursement of loans that meet customer demand is an important competitive advantage. Yet AMK accepts that its own loan disbursement is slower and more time-consuming for clients, and its loan sizes are much smaller than those of its competitors. Coming from an organization that is proudly “client focused”, this statement struck an odd note.

AMK, serving more than 360,000 people, is now the largest Cambodian MFI in terms of outreach. How can an MFI that invests heavily in understanding and responding to the needs of its clients be “less customer friendly” than others? The simple answer is that a market-led solution (responding to what clients want and are prepared to pay for) might look different from responding to what clients need in order to address the underlying complexities of their lives (i.e. poverty and vulnerability).

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

In his book, The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee tells the history of the fight against cancer. It’s a grand saga involving scientists, doctors, patients, and politics, all wielding their best tools to find better treatments and ultimately a cure. And of course, the tale is not over: the scourge continues, though much progress has been made, and an increasing number of bright spots are appearing.

As I read, I see parallels between the evolution of that medical “war” and the struggle against poverty waged by the international development community, or at least the part of that struggle I’m part of, the struggle to give people financial tools to better their lives. The more I read, the more I see, until in each corner of the cancer story I find parallels with our own sector and its searches for solutions.

In the early 20th Century, surgeons began to treat breast cancer with radical mastectomies in which not only breast but also lymph nodes and many of the neighboring chest muscles were taken. The more radical, the greater the chances of success, went the theory. By mid-century, chemotherapies appeared. They represented another radical approach in which patients were brought to the brink of death as chemicals attacked cancerous and normal cells alike. In both cases, Mukherjee argues, brute force substituted for the absence of a deep understanding of the causes and behavior of cancer. The medical profession simply applied the tools at hand, raising the intensity as high as patients could tolerate. The tools sometimes cured the patient, but more often postponed the inevitable recurrence, a partial success. According to Mukherjee, the surgeons and chemotherapists who wielded these instruments were so convinced of their efficacy that they closed their minds to alternatives (including each other’s solutions), scoffed at attempts to measure success through rigorous trials, and downplayed the suffering imposed on actual patients.

Maybe you’re already seeing parallels…

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

With increasing regularity, I hear people talking about a new concept: deploying funds to earn profit while at the same time solving complex social and environmental problems, also known as impact investing. One article that stood out for me, and in fact prompted me to write this, is “Good Investments” by Dan Morrell in the Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin. At one point the author writes: “What impact investing really needs, all agree, are pioneers.”

Impact investing advocates can sometimes give the impression that they have “outsmarted poverty” (and other societal problems) by discovering the need for this profit-making approach, one that allows high net worth individuals to further increase their assets while also having (in the words of another impact investor quoted in the HBS article) a “fabulous social impact.”

Count me as someone who does not feel that what “impact investing” needs now are “pioneers” per se. Rather, it needs pragmatic, risk-taking, deeply curious, and disciplined people with access to funding who can work collaboratively to move an old idea forward, bearing in mind the lessons of the past and the opportunities of the present.

In fact, the actual pioneers of impact investing began laying the groundwork for this latest incarnation decades ago. Think of the Ford Foundation’s work in the 1960s to establish, legitimize, and get U.S. government policy support for Program Related Investments, the “Philanthropy at Five [Percent]” movement in nineteenth century America and England, the Russell Sage Foundation’s financing of low-income housing in New York in the early 1900s, or, in more recent times, the Calvert Foundation, just to name a few.

Or simply consider the modern microfinance industry and how an ecosystem of financing mechanisms – including dozens of “microfinance investment vehicles” (MIVs) – grew up around it in the 1990s and 2000s. Even today, according to an important study by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and JPMorgan Social Finance, close to 40 percent of impact investments are in microfinance institutions (MFIs) or funds. Microfinance is the largest single sector for receiving impact investments, and is larger than its two closest competitors combined. Clearly there are strong linkages between microfinance and impact investing, and additional opportunities for sharing lessons.

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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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