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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.
> 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.
> 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.
> Posted by Amitabh Brar and Paul DiLeo, Investment Manager and President, Grassroots Capital Management
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.
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.
> 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).
> 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…