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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger


First of all, a disclaimer. I am by no means a mental health expert. Like many, I’ve had my own experiences which have led to interests into the causes and impacts of mental health issues as well as the coping mechanisms we might use when we or someone we know suffers from a mental illness.

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, as you might know, and it has reminded me of a conversation that Josh Goldstein, Vice President of Economic Citizenship and Disability Inclusion at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, and I started a while back — a conversation that also led to an exchange of ideas on his blog post “Four Interventions to Help Victims of Trauma Find Hope and Dignity” in which he summarized his remarks at the 8th Annual PCAF Pan-African Psychotrauma Conference held in Nairobi, Kenya. (Josh’s full conference remarks can be found here.) During this conference, Josh tried to answer the question of whether microfinance institutions (MFIs) can help victims of trauma who suffer from mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), to find hope and dignity through self-employment.

In his post, Josh suggests steps to be taken by our sector to be inclusive of those suffering from mental health disorders. In this post, I’ll address two of those steps:

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> Posted by Shaheen Hasan, Manager, FI2020 at CFI

The “customer centricity” mantra has become a common refrain among donors, policymakers, practitioners, and providers working on financial inclusion. Indeed we would be hard-pressed to find anyone working in the sector who wouldn’t identify him or herself as focused on customer needs. In the Addressing Customer Needs section of the Financial Inclusion 2020 Progress Report, however, we report that the number of financial service providers who are actually investing in and implementing these ideas at a scalable level are still few and far between. Although the truly customer-centric organizations are in the minority, we found a host of good examples, and we highlight some examples we like in the report.

A critical element of addressing customer needs is building the right consumer insights infrastructure to gather and translate data into better product offerings and the targeting of new market segments. Organizations use a multitude of methods to assemble insights. Some players, such as Equity Bank in Kenya and Tigo in multiple countries have built up in-house research capabilities. Banco Azteca in Mexico, for example, has one of the most sophisticated market research systems to amass and analyze information on customers. It has used that information to build up a clientele of millions of savers, borrowers, remittance receivers (and some senders), and insurance policy holders. Janalakshmi, an Indian microfinance institution, with the support of CGAP, developed a tool, Kaleido, which utilizes its front-line staff to get a “360 degree” view of a household, providing a rich source of data for developing new products as well as assessing the financial progress of a household.

With increasing availability of data on client behavior and new techniques to analyze that data, there is a rich wellspring to mine for insights relevant to market segmentation, product design, and delivery improvements.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Are you a senior leader at a financial institution serving lower-income clients in sub-Saharan Africa? The Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) program might be for you!

The six-month program was launched late last year to foster peer-to-peer learning and exchange on governance practices among board members and CEOs at African microfinance institutions. The fellowship begins and ends with multi-day in-person seminars; in between seminars, fellows are connected through a virtual collaboration space that includes discussion forums and dialogues.

The first cohort of ABF fellows convened in early June in Cape Town. Guided by the program’s seasoned faculty, advisors, and subject experts, fellows examined a wide range of topics, from board dynamics and managing sustainable growth to technology trends and risk management. A blog post on the inaugural seminar can be found here.

The above video shares highlight footage from the inaugural seminar, as well as remarks from ABF fellows and staff on the program.

For more information on the Africa Board Fellowship, including details on how to apply, click here.

> Posted by Sonja E. Kelly and Misha Dave, CFI

Dhanalakshmi (far right), client at Equitas

If there is one thing we have learned from working on disability and age inclusion in financial services, it is that including these populations in financial services is in some ways easier than practitioners expect it to be but, in other ways, harder than it looks.

In our research on aging and financial inclusion, one of the key insights was that financial service providers of all sizes often apply age caps on credit products. However, many institutions we talked with did not know exactly where these standards came from. Some attributed them to concerns about life expectancy of older clients, some to institutional history (“that’s just the way we do it”), some to the increase of credit portfolio insurance it would incur, and some to a perception of older people as economically dormant.

Many of these concerns can be mitigated by better research and dispelling myths about the creditworthiness of older people. Easy, right? In fact, there are some institutions that apply creative ideas to providing credit to older people. Group guarantees and automatic withdrawal payments on loans from publicly administered pensions through government partnerships are both examples of this.

However, such institutions providing credit to older people seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Worse, convincing institutions to care about this population is not easy. One institution we spoke with in India was baffled by the idea of providing credit to people over the age of 55. “But [the older people] could die and wouldn’t pay the loan,” the product developers insisted. Doing the research and articulating the issue was the easy part — now the hard work begins of advocating on behalf of older people.

Similar attitudinal barriers exist in financial institutions for serving persons with disabilities. Let’s take stock: over one billion people around the world — 1 in 7 of us — have a disability and four-fifths live in developing countries like India. Despite this and the fact that many microfinance institutions (MFIs) claim to be dedicated to “serving the world’s financially excluded people,” less than 1 percent of their clients are persons with disabilities.

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Three questions every ‘pro-poor’ group needs to ask themselves

> Posted by Chris Dunford and Carmen Velasco

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

This month, the United Nations will celebrate achievement of Millennium Development Goal No. 1. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. How did this happen? Is it because of targeted anti-poverty programs, or is it due to broad-based economic growth, especially in China and India? If economic growth is the main cause, as it seems to be, further progress may be doubtful. Economic growth alone is unlikely to reach the residual hundreds of millions still living in extreme poverty.

Nor is it likely that anti-poverty programs, whether public or private, will lift this “bottom billion” from extreme poverty. For example, the U.S. poverty rate hovers around 15 percent of the population, nearly unchanged for decades, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on U.S. anti-poverty programs. For another example, in poorer countries, microfinance was billed as a self-financing solution to deep poverty and became a darling of international development donors in the 1990s and “social investors” in the 2000s. Then smart social scientists tested the claims with sound field research and found little to no impact on poverty.

Is it reasonable, however, to expect anti-poverty programs, by themselves, to lift large numbers of people above an arbitrary poverty line? Given that the poor must overcome many burdens before they can seize whatever economic opportunities are available, perhaps we should ask a different question:

Do anti-poverty programs ease the burdens of poverty?

While the recent research into microfinance shows little to no increase of annual household income, on average, the same studies very often show that the burden of poverty is alleviated by giving microfinance participants access to money when they really need it during the year. Economists call this impact “consumption smoothing.” In plain terms, it means people get enough to eat throughout the year instead of going without adequate food for a day, a week, or even months at a time. If so, this is an impact worth celebrating, is it not?

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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 Anne H. Hastings, Manager, Microfinance CEO Working Group

At a time when microfinance has fallen out of favor in mainstream development circles and when investors are asking to see metrics showing the impact of their funding, it is especially important to base our discussions of poverty outreach on empirical research. Grameen Foundation and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) recently published a study that does just this. Factors Influencing Poverty Outreach Among Microfinance Institutions in Latin America (available in English and Spanish) takes a close look at poverty outreach data from 14 microfinance institutions (MFIs) across six Latin American countries and is the first study of its kind in the region. The information analyzed includes data from Progress out of Poverty Index® (PPI®) surveys and a range of other relevant client profile variables such as socio-demographics and credit disbursement details.

The findings are important. In-depth interviews with the MFIs surfaced an interesting hypothesis that was supported by the data. High levels of competition and over-indebtedness of clients, two interlinked factors, seemed to be driving MFIs to pursue poorer clients. In regions where wealthier clients are already served by commercial banks (e.g., urban areas), MFIs service poorer clients, likely in order to avoid the pitfalls of over-indebtedness and to seek untapped markets. However, the MFIs service relatively wealthier clients in regions that have a higher rate of unbanked (e.g., rural areas). It seems, in others words, that MFIs tend to focus first on whomever is excluded regardless of poverty level, but some will extend their poverty outreach when there is greater penetration among the formerly excluded.

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> 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 Alex Counts, Founder, Grameen Foundation

On Sunday, August 23, as I was enjoying some of the final days of summer visiting friends in New Hampshire, I noticed that I had been tagged in a tweet by Dean Karlan, the founder and president of Innovations for Poverty Action.  He provided a link to an article about FINCA that included extensive quotes from its CEO, Rupert Scofield.  He asked Rupert if he really believed microfinance could reduce terrorism, and asked me what I thought (“whatcha think?” was the precise formulation of his question).  He tweeted again on Monday, asking whether I was “still going to stand by [my] claim that no microcredit leaders make grandiose and overselling impact claims?”

First of all, I have never said that no microcredit leaders have ever exaggerated impact claims.  I believe that those exaggerated claims have been rare and atypical, especially in recent years.  In other words, the tendency for practitioners and advocates to make exaggerated claims not backed up by data has itself been quite exaggerated.

But I don’t think Twitter is the best medium for exploring such topics.  So I was grateful when the Center for Financial Inclusion agreed to publish this response to Dean’s public queries of me, in which I could address some related issues about microfinance advocacy and research.  (This post builds upon some of the observations I made in reviewing Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s impressive but flawed book, More Than Good Intentions.)

Regarding the article Dean tweeted about, I am supportive of Rupert’s statements and encourage others to read it and come to their own conclusions.  (Having been the public face of an international humanitarian organization for 18 years, I also realize that journalists sometimes focus on a very small part of what someone says in an interview, often on those things that are potentially the most controversial.)  For the most part, Rupert comments on specific microfinance clients he and the journalist met and on his past experiences and how they shaped his view of microfinance.  It’s impossible to challenge any of those observations and recollections.  They are statements of personal experience and opinion.

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> Posted by Rafael Chapman, Analyst, UpSpring

Based on the latest report from the Giving USA Foundation, philanthropy efforts in the United States hit a record high in 2014 with total contributions reaching about $360 billion. Charitable giving is on the rise in the United States, as this figure represents a 7 percent increase over 2013. However, contributions to nonprofits serving Native American communities remain persistently low, representing well under 1 percent of philanthropy in the country.

The need is growing, however. The Native American population grew 27 percent from 2000 to 2010, almost three times the national average. Based on 2012 data, there are over 5 million people in the U.S. who identify themselves as American Indian or Alaskan Natives, and this number is expected to exceed 6.5 million by 2020.

More than 20 percent of Native Americans live on reservations where living conditions are far from tolerable. In these lands that have been inhabited for centuries, the average unemployment rate is well over 10 percent and nearly a third of reservations consider themselves considerably overcrowded. Moreover, due to lack of formal financial history records and conventional employment information, most residents in these reservations lack access to the traditional banking system, which has contributed to a severe unmet need for accessible capital among Native American communities.

All of this leads to the question: If living conditions are so deplorable in this growing community, why haven’t we increased our charitable contributions and attentions towards Indian country?

Myth #1: Indian gaming brings a lot of money to Native American communities

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