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Gail Buyske, Advisory Committee, Microfinance Information Infrastructure Project

> Posted by Center Staff

Convening of Stakeholders

Several weeks ago we learned that MFT has suspended its operations. Moody’s has discontinued its Social Performance Assessment Program. The MIX is trying to increase revenue through its MixGold program. Should we care about these developments? What are they telling us about the state of microfinance’s information infrastructure?

The Center for Financial Inclusion undertook an analysis of these issues to follow up on Elisabeth Rhyne’s provocative blog of March 11, 2014, in which she argued that the microfinance industry needs an “infrastructure fix.” Today’s blog summaries the key issues, which will be discussed at a stakeholder discussion in DC on April 14, followed by one at a later date in Europe.

Let’s start by thinking about why we should care about microfinance’s information infrastructure. Information and its natural outcome, transparency, have been guiding principles of the microfinance industry practically since its inception. These are not just feel-good concepts: they played a fundamental role in the development of microfinance. Information and transparency were critical in microfinance’s early days in enabling donors and investors to identify promising MFIs that they could support. Readily available information enabled MFIs to benchmark their performance and set goals to improve their performance. And we can never forget that a commitment to transparency is a pact between MFIs and their clients.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

Last June, in my hotel room in Delhi, I read in the Sunday edition of the Times of India that hiring white girls to work wedding parties is the new status symbol in Bangalore. Though this might sound surprising, alabaster skin as the ideal of beauty (and the status that goes with it) is neither new to nor specific to India. This is not a trivial matter but a deadly serious business.

One need only look at skin whitening products, like Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely”, which are great sellers in the beauty product category in India, Bangladesh, and Thailand—indeed, in 30 countries around the world. The Unilever Sri Lanka website reads: “Today, 250 million consumers across the globe strongly connect with Fair and Lovely as a brand that stands for the belief that beauty empowers a woman to change her destiny.”

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi and Sonia Arenaza, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign and Director of Accion Channels and Technology

This is the first of two blog posts about responsible digital financial services, on the occasion of the Responsible Finance Forum in Perth, Australia.

The Smart Campaign has watched with excitement as new forms of digital financial services (DFS) stand poised to bring financial access to millions of lower-income households previously excluded from the financial system. The potential benefits of this new ecosystem are enormous and include an array of positive outcomes ranging from lowered transaction costs to consumption-smoothing, among many others. Nevertheless, the excitement over new possibilities must not obscure the need to evaluate and respond to new risks to clients.

In an ongoing mapping exercise conducted by the Smart Campaign and Accion’s Channels and Technology team, we identified various things that can go wrong for clients of DFS, such as:

  • Clients lose their funds after an agent fails to take proper security measures or after a service outage
  • Agents charge unauthorized fees for transactions under guise of complicated pricing and fees
  • Clients lack or are not offered adequate customer care channels
  • Lack of data privacy due to clients not being informed or misinformed on how their data and history is being used or shared
  • Agents lacking liquidity serve only their favored clients

While these risks are grounded in anecdotes from the field, there is still much more evidence needed on the consumer harms that actually happen, including where they happen and how often. The Responsible Finance Forum in Perth will host several sessions that present demand-side evidence to help identify high priority risks.

But, what then? Once risks are known, how best to try to minimize them?

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> Posted by Anne Hastings and Tyler Owens, Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s blog, 100millionideas.org.

Since its inception in the spring of 2011, the Microfinance CEO Working Group has worked diligently and collaboratively to define the concept of Responsible Microfinance around the globe and lead by example to try to fulfill this vision. It has focused on three key pillars on which Responsible Microfinance is built: client protection, pricing transparency, and social performance management. A responsible microfinance institution (MFI) is one that, at a minimum:

  • Does all in its power to protect its clients from harm;
  • Is transparent about fees and interest rates; and
  • Implements best practices in social performance management including monitoring effectiveness in achieving desired client level outcomes.

An MFI can achieve this by complying with the industry-developed standards of the Smart Campaign, MicroFinance Transparency, and the Social Performance Task Force, known as the Universal Standards for Social Performance Management.

The Working Group is a collaborative effort of the CEOs of Accion International, FINCA International, Freedom from Hunger, Grameen Foundation, Opportunity International, Pro Mujer, VisionFund, and Women’s World Banking. At the Microcredit Summit in Manila in October 2013, the Working Group publicly encouraged its collective 224 affiliated MFIs around the globe to embrace Responsible Microfinance by sharing a list of commitments. Since making those commitments, the group has made significant headway toward strengthening each one of the pillars of Responsible Microfinance.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

A proactive step for client protection was recently taken in Laos when the country’s Microfinance Association (MFA) established an industry code of conduct focused on client protection. Laos’ code centers on the client protection principles and the accompanying Smart Certification standards, which designate how institutions can instill fair client treatment in their practices. The code was developed by the MFA following a Smart assessor training in late 2013, and was reviewed by the Campaign to ensure accurate reflection of the client protection principles and standards. In April, the code was presented at an MFA member meeting, where all members present committed to embedding it throughout their institutions. This new code fills an important gap, given that client protection regulation for financial services is not well developed in the country.

Established in 2007, the Microfinance Association and its members represent a growing share of the country’s industry. Members include MFIs, as well as donors, training institutes, and individual experts and advocates. The 32 MFIs that are members make up roughly 50 percent of Laos’ formal microfinance industry by number of clients.

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> Posted by Laura Galindo and Alexandra Rizzi, Senior Associate and Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

A few days ago a post on this blog detailed debt collections practices in the United States. The Smart Campaign, led by Jami Solli of Consumers International, is working to shed light on provider practices in microfinance through exploratory research in Peru, India, and Uganda.

Once a client becomes seriously delinquent and moves into default, the possibilities for serious consequences for the client arise. Yet little is known about how microfinance institutions treat clients at these later stages. What alternatives do providers offer to clients who are in protracted arrears? How are clients treated when they are defaulting on multiple loans? What do clients experience during this difficult and stressful stage? And after the default, are client debt obligations resolved? Is there a concerted effort to rehabilitate or re-include defaulters?

In September, the Smart Campaign kicked off a research project to explore what happens to clients who default. The project focuses on how microfinance practitioners treat defaulting clients. It is scanning for best practices around the world – like debt mediation projects in Europe and middle-income countries – and examining practices in detail through interviews with practitioners and regulators in Peru, India, and Uganda. Interviews were also conducted with credit bureaus, debt collections agencies, consumer advocacy/protection groups, and researchers specialized in those markets. These countries were chosen, in part, because of their variation in credit bureau infrastructure and the hypothesis that this would have significant impact on provider practices.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

The following post was originally published on the IFMR Trust Blog

The Mor Committee Report offers a radical take on client protection, built around the concept of a legal right to suitability. After describing the recommendations briefly, I would like to tell IFMR’s readership why I’m excited about the approach (two big cheers), provide some thoughts on how to make it work (and how the Smart Campaign could assist), and raise a couple of questions.

Suitability is about ensuring that clients are sold financial services that are appropriate for their circumstances. A suitable product is one the client can be expected to manage with a low probability of serious hardship and a reasonable prospect that it will provide value. The concept has been present for some time in financial consumer protection regulation, most notably in the UK and Australia. The Mor Report proposes a unique approach to implementing suitability, which places responsibility on the service provider to install processes to ensure that clients are sold suitable products, e.g., client targeting and underwriting procedures that adequately assess repayment capacity. Regulation would hold the board of directors responsible for approving and overseeing the implementation of these processes, subject to external review. Hand in hand with this, the report recommends an energetic grievance redress system (which I will not address here), including both internal and external mechanisms to cope with individual problems.

The first big cheer goes to the decision to focus on suitability as the heart of client protection. This directs attention exactly where the greatest potential for harm occurs. Overindebtedness, is perhaps the greatest failure of suitability, resulting from selling loans that exceed a client’s debt threshold. This is why the Smart Campaign places Appropriate Product Design and Delivery and Prevention of Overindebtedness as Client Protection Principles #1 and #2, even ahead of Transparency. Among all the standard client protection problems, only overselling of credit has repeatedly caused sector-wide crisis and collapse, and thus if there is to be a focal point, this is the right one. (The report discusses the relative merits of suitability vs. disclosure as the core of consumer protection policy, which raises both practical and philosophical issues – an engaging topic for another day’s post.)

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> Posted by Jaclyn Berfond, Senior Associate, Network Engagement, Women’s World Banking

Women have long been the face of microfinance, a fact reflected by the mission and goals of the institutions that serve them. According to the Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX), most microfinance institutions (MFIs) claim to target women (74 percent) and just over half declare women’s empowerment or gender equality as an objective.

Big commitments are all well and good, but if we are going to espouse the importance of serving low-income women, we must be able to hold ourselves accountable. How do we do that?

For many years now, the microfinance industry has focused on financial performance, with sustainability and later profitability driving outreach. In the wake of crisis – often the consequence of rapid growth – the industry has re-focused on social performance, getting back to the basics of ensuring that financial institutions adhere to their mission of serving low-income clients. We strongly believe that there must be a balance between financial and social performance, and that in order to achieve either, the industry must take a good look at their clients – still predominantly women. By truly analyzing this client base, MFIs can both build the business case for serving women, and ensure that they are serving these women well. This is gender performance.

In 2011, Women’s World Banking launched the Gender Performance Initiative (GPI) to develop a framework that defines what it means to serve women and measures how effectively MFIs do so. We wanted to establish a set of indicators that would enable MFIs to consider not only how many women they serve, but how they can enhance their understanding of customers to tailor products, marketing strategies and delivery channels to meet women’s needs. The initiative also set out to demonstrate the benefits of financial inclusion for women and their households, as well as the benefits of gender diversity among staff, management, and board.

Developing the indicators. There is no easy place to start when it comes to measuring performance, and we wanted to be sure that the metrics we chose would truly tell us whether an institution was serving women well. First and foremost, we needed to start with the right questions, in the areas that matter most to women. Beyond outreach, we looked at product design and diversity, service quality, and client protection, as women have specific life-cycle needs and goals that must be considered. For example, women may need a convenient and confidential way to save for children’s education expenses, or an insurance product that offers cash benefits for hospitalization to cover lost income from time away from their business (and includes maternal health coverage). We also looked at the diversity of staff and management, because we believe that in order to be the best place for women customers, a microfinance institution should be a place that welcomes women employees and women leaders. Finally, we wanted to understand how serving women clients contributes to institutional financial sustainability, as well as outcomes for clients.

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> Posted by Calum Scott, Program Impact Director, Opportunity International 

An Opportunity International client talks with her loan officer while examining her cocoa beans.

As a network of 40 microfinance institutions in 22 countries, Opportunity International is well positioned to play a powerful role in supporting the positive development of the microfinance industry. For client protection, we believe that the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification represents the highest standard of assurance that an institution’s practices are responsible.

To promote client protection and certification among our network, we’ve engaged the support of MicroFinanza Rating – a specialized microfinance rating agency and one of the Smart Campaign’s licensed certifiers.

The agreement with MicroFinanza will facilitate our network partners to undergo certification missions, and promote the sharing of lessons learned from certification experiences across our network of institutions. This agreement also demonstrates our confidence in the quality of the work that MicroFinanza does.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

Smart CampaignOver 165 investors and donors have endorsed the Smart Campaign and the Client Protection Principles. But our Campaign staff wanted to dig deeper: what does this support mean in practice? Are investors using the Client Protection Principles in their everyday work? How? Earlier this year, we embarked on a project to find out.

The Campaign worked with three Virtual Volunteers from Credit Suisse – Lloyd Yetton, Meha Jain, and Nicolas Vucekovic – to create a short survey aimed at understanding how investors incorporate client protection into their due diligence, post-investment monitoring, and reporting. The virtual volunteers spoke with representatives from 12 of the leading microfinance investors.¹ The findings, highlighted below, will help the Campaign shape its engagement with this pivotal stakeholder group.

Client Protection Universally Important But Not Uniformly Applied

All the investors interviewed stated that client protection was important to them from both a social perspective and for their bottom line. Most had seen first-hand the positive influence from strong client protection practices as well as the problems and instability that sprang up in their absence. Such universal recognition is an encouraging step forward from earlier days of the Campaign. In addition to understanding the importance of client protection, nearly all respondents said that client protection was already explicitly incorporated into due diligence. Investors are indeed scrutinizing a microfinance institution’s client protection practices before investing in it.

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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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