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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

I recently attended the annual meeting of the Microfinance Network (MFN), which was hosted by the Alexandria Business Association in Alexandria, Egypt. MFN is a global network of some of the largest and leading microfinance institutions, and its annual meeting has long been known for candid and in-depth sharing of experience among the leaders of these institutions, as this post demonstrates.

Ask a microfinance CEO what’s making his or her life hard these days, and the answer is likely to be politics.

That’s hardly surprising when the speaker is Motaz Tabaa, CEO of the Alexandria Business Association (ABA), one of the largest microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Egypt. On January 28, 2011, when the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo held the world’s attention and led to the resignation of then-President Mubarak, it became impossible for ABA to operate. But before the week was over, staff were back on the streets, collecting and disbursing loans, and sleeping at the office to guard the cash that couldn’t be deposited in banks, which remained still closed.

Nearly every MFI in the group had a similar encounter with crisis – consider the political violence (and/or natural disaster) that has touched Uganda, Nigeria, Armenia, Mexico, Haiti, and Bangladesh in recent years. Today, Al Majmoua in Lebanon and Tamweelcom in Jordan are overwhelmed with the attempt to serve the Syrian refugees that have crossed their borders. The CEOs who have experienced such upheaval agreed about the role of MFIs in responding quickly to help clients obtain cash, keep their businesses open, and then rebuild. Given how prevalent political and natural crises are, organizations have developed protocols for responding quickly. Even while we met, Enrique Majos of Compartamos received news of a tornado in Mexico, and sent the Compartamos natural disaster team into action.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Larry Reed, director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, recently sat down with Susy Cheston, senior advisor to FI2020, and Anton Simanowitz, co-author of the new book The Business of Doing Good, to discuss how organizations can do good work and turn a profit, particularly in the microfinance sector.

In exploring this question, Simanowitz draws on key insights from the new book, in which he and co-author Katherine Knotts studied the success of AMK, a social enterprise which has touched the lives of millions of people living in poverty in rural Cambodia. This study revealed six powerful strategies to improve business to do good:

  1. Don’t just offer products; respond to client needs
  2. Ask good questions and have good conversations
  3. Do what it says on the tin
  4. Motivate staff to do difficult work in an excellent way
  5. Own the dirt road
  6. Adapt to the changing landscape

Find out more about the thinking behind these insights, here.

In the latter half of the book, the authors explore the disconnect between theory and practice and the resulting implications for client value. AMK’s success is largely attributed to its recognition of the distinction between client wants and client needs, which are rooted in the meaningful conversations the organization has with its clients. The authors observe, through their exploration of AMK, that vision is ensured only when it follows intent, instead of being constrained by conventional wisdom.

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> Posted by Andrew Fixler, Freelance Journalist

Atikus, a new financial inclusion-focused enterprise, is gearing up to launch an underwriting platform and a credit insurance product in Rwanda for micro, small, and medium enterprise (MSME) credit. The insurance product is designed and brokered by Atikus, and ultimately backed by a local insurance company. I recently sat down with Kate Woska, co-founder and CEO of Atikus, to discuss financial innovation and her company’s work.

Microfinance has long benefited from careful experimentation and innovation. Initiatives that are targeting the base of the pyramid tend to be consumer-focused (e.g. micro health insurance or mobile payments development); however, according to Woska, these initiatives may be populating an industry that also suffers from institutional and market-level inefficiencies.

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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 Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

Account Use (Developing Economies) - Click to Enlarge

Account Use (Developing Economies) – Click to Enlarge

Especially since the Global Findex report made headlines around the world with its finding that the number of financially excluded dropped from 2.5 billion to 2 billion during the period 2011-2014, I have been increasingly uneasy with equating account access as financial inclusion, and especially as equivalent to the essential concept of full financial inclusion as defined by CFI. The Center’s new publication “By the Numbers” does an excellent job helping people to digest all the publicly available data about financial inclusion, and make sense of them. It also reinforces my unease.

Despite the progress in account openings, the report makes it clear that the number of people actually using accounts is unfortunately not growing. Even more worrying, it argues that most accounts “are not really functioning as the hoped-for ‘on-ramp’ to financial inclusion.” The risk, as I see it, is that by adopting a stunted definition of financial inclusion that emphasizes account openings, we may be measuring and incentivizing the wrong things. The report wisely urges “caution regarding the value of mass drives for account opening, such as mandated no frills accounts…”

While the available data may overstate progress in some areas, the data may understate it in others due to the tendency to focus only on transactions at formal financial institutions. As the report notes, the percentage of people in low and middle income countries who save increased from 31 percent to 54 percent — quite a jump! — over three years, but this “is not reflected in a commensurate increase in saving in financial institutions.” Global surveys tend to miss savings groups and microfinance institutions, which in many markets play important roles. The alarming gaps in data related to access among vulnerable populations are also noted.

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> Posted by Shameran Abed, Director, BRAC Microfinance Program

Shameran Abed, BRAC’s Director of Microfinance, joined the Microfinance CEO Working Group in January. He joins the Working Group’s efforts to support the positive development of the microfinance industry and brings tremendous insight into the discussion on pathways out of poverty.

This month, the results from six randomized control trials (RCTs), published in Science magazine highlighted a model of development that is an adaptable and exportable solution able to raise households from the worst forms of destitution and put them onto a pathway of self-reliance. The graduation approach – financial services integrated within a broader set of wrap-around services – is gaining steady recognition for its astonishing ability to transform the lives of the poorest.

These findings can be contrasted with the results of six RCTs published in January by the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, which cited limited evidence of “microcredit” alone transforming the lives of the poor.

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> Posted by Debashis Sarker, Centre for European Research in Microfinance (CERMi) and University of Mons, Belgium

With estimates indicating that less than 1 percent of microfinance clients around the world are persons with disabilities (PwDs), it’s clear that sizable barriers exist to the financial inclusion of this largely unbanked population segment. One such barrier is discrimination on the part of microfinance institutions. Two features of microfinance lending make it especially hard to reach definitive statistical estimates of discrimination. One is the complex stages of the microfinance lending process. The second is the self-reinforcing cycle of exclusion that results from the legacies of discriminating microcredit organizations.

A pilot project conducted in Uganda in partnership with the Association of Microfinance Institutions in Uganda (AMFIU) and the National Union of Disabled Persons of Uganda (NUDIPU) demonstrates the discrimination that often occurs in microfinance practices. The project worked with AMFIU microfinance institutions, applying interventions to combat practices discriminatory to PwDs. Along with addressing PwD exclusion by microfinance staff, the initiatives targeted exclusion by other microfinance clients, low self-esteem, product design, and informational and physical barriers. In two years, since the sensitization and accessibility efforts began, attitudes of MFI staff towards PwDs improved and, across eight queried MFI branches, there was an average 96 percent per MFI increase in clients with disabilities. Another study, also based in Uganda with AMFIU and NUDIPU, examined biases against PwDs across different MFI staff. Surveying eight MFIs between 2008 and 2009, staff were asked questions on aspects including risk of loan default among PwD clients. The responses of credit officers indicated they were more biased against PwDs than other MFI staff.

Given these findings, what measures can be taken to combat this?

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> Posted by Alison Slack, Associate, CFI

As CEO of the South Sudan Microfinance Development Facility, Elijah Chol is tasked with helping develop the financial inclusion sector in his fledgling country. Elijah is a member of the inaugural class of the Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) program, who begin their six-month fellowship in June in Cape Town, South Africa. We recently sat down with Elijah to learn more about his work in microfinance, and the governance challenges he faces.

South Sudan is a country striving to emerge from decades of crises on many fronts. “Post-conflict countries like ours have unique problems,” says Elijah. “One of the most pressing issues for us is that of education, especially in the villages and rural areas.” Because the education situation is so desperate, it is difficult to find board members with the skills necessary to effectively guide institutions.

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> Posted by Center Staff

In two weeks the first class of the Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) program will kick-off the fellowship in Cape Town, South Africa. The convening seminar marks the start of the inaugural fellowship, a six-month program aimed at strengthening the governance expertise of microfinance leaders in sub-Saharan Africa. The first class is composed of 31 board members and CEOs, coming from 13 institutions throughout 12 countries in Africa. Given the diversity of backgrounds and experience these fellows bring, in addition to our seasoned faculty, advisors, and subject expert staff, we are confident that the opportunities for peer learning and exchange will be plentiful in Cape Town, and throughout the fellowship. The profiles of our inaugural class of fellows are now available on the ABF website. Please join us in welcoming these fellows to the program!

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> Posted by Julia Arnold, Research Consultant

After two weeks of speaking with bank and microfinance institution staff, entrepreneurs, social investors, policymakers, and tech companies in India, my once clear understanding of how to build financial capability has now been completely scrambled. Building financial capability – that is, helping clients change (knowledge, skills, and ultimately behaviors) to make good financial choices – has taken on many layers of complexity and challenges in the context of, and in the face of, the realities of India’s poorest people.

But that is, of course, the fun of travel.

To briefly put India’s banking services in context – many villages in rural India still do not have a bank. According to the latest World Bank Findex data, half of rural Indians and nearly half of all Indians remain completely unbanked. Even if a bank exists in a village, social constraints often prohibit women from using it due to both limited mobility and lack of knowledge about and decision-making power over household finances. Basic access and usage of mobile phones remains limited. From my own earlier research with Cashpor Microcredit, I know that numeracy and literacy, as well as access, remain barriers for women to save with mobile technology.

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