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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Sub-Saharan African countries may be leading the world in mobile money and growth in access to accounts, but the state of financial consumer protection in Africa is in urgent need of attention.

In the EIU Global Microscope’s 2014 overall rating of the policy environment for financial inclusion, African countries scored very close to the global average (44 SSA vs. 46 Global out of a possible 100). However, these countries were substantially below the average on consumer protection indicators – market conduct (27 SSA vs. 43 Global) and grievance redress (35 SSA vs. 45 Global).

These numbers have human consequences. The Smart Campaign commissioned research in two African countries – Benin and Uganda – which revealed the frequently harsh environment in which microfinance is conducted. In Uganda, research on what happens to clients who default showed that, lacking regulatory oversight and the calming influence of credit reference bureaus, lenders in Uganda feel compelled to resort to practices such as rapid confiscation of a borrower’s assets. They are afraid that if they do not act quickly, the borrower may flee. In the research on client experiences from Benin, clients reported major gaps in trust and transparency. For example, many reported being surprised by fees that were not explained or expected, having no place to turn when problems arose, or being publicly shamed for late payments.

The research pointed to very low trust on both sides between providers and customers. In fact, in Smart Campaign conversations with African microfinance institutions about consumer protection, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Who will protect us (the lenders) from them (the borrowers)?”

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers? We explored this question in the context of Benin in a previous post, spotlighting results from the Smart Campaign’s Client Voices project. Now, let’s turn to another country investigated in the project: Pakistan.

The Client Voices project went directly to current and former microfinance clients and asked them about their experiences with their financial providers as well as their thoughts on what constitutes good and bad treatment. The project included qualitative and quantitative research in four diverse markets: Benin, Pakistan, Georgia, and Peru. Research partner Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) began its investigation in March 2014. It conducted surveys, focus groups, in-depth discussions, and photo association exercises.

So, what did we find in Pakistan?

Clients report satisfaction with financial providers, but do not have long-term relationships with them. In Pakistan, a country with a relatively advanced client protection environment, 85 percent of clients reported that they are either very or somewhat satisfied in their borrowing and savings experiences. In fact, only 5 percent of clients reported experiencing a consumer protection problem. (This compares to roughly 13 percent of clients in Benin.) However, clients in Pakistan usually only stay with their provider for a short period. On average, the studied clients had been borrowing with their current provider for just one year. Our research suggests that MFIs are weak at fostering long-term relationships with their clients compared to the other institutions, like savings groups, NGOs, and private schools. When asked about the future, clients indicated they’d rather start fresh with a new provider or discontinue borrowing altogether. Reasons cited included rigid repayment structures, lack of respect/empathy from loan officers, and being publicly disparaged in front of their neighbors.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Today we’re excited to announce that Alalay Sa Kaunlaran (ASKI) is the first financial institution in the Philippines to be certified by the Smart Campaign. Clients of financial services can face risks. They can get into too much debt, be taken advantage of, or sold the wrong services. Financial institutions can minimize harm to clients by implementing the Client Protection Principles, a common, global framework for client protection. By becoming Smart Certified, an institution demonstrates that it puts the principles into practice.

The non-profit institution earned its Smart Certification in late July following a mission conducted by Microfinanza Rating, and is being publicly recognized today in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Financial Inclusion Summit 2015, in Manila.

Established in 1987 in central Luzon to serve and empower the poor through microenterprise development, ASKI today serves more than 136,000 clients through 72 branches and 7,794 solidarity groups in 234 cities and towns.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers? The Smart Campaign’s Client Voices project went to the source and asked clients what they think. Clients were consulted on what they believe constitutes good and bad treatment and their experiences with microfinance providers.

The Client Voices project, a qualitative and quantitative investigation, covers four country markets: Benin, Pakistan, Georgia, and Peru. Today we are releasing the results from Benin and Pakistan, and this post focuses on the results from Benin. Stay tuned for another post on Pakistan soon.

Over the past six years, the Smart Campaign has worked extensively with financial institutions, regulators, networks, rating agencies, and other financial inclusion industry actors to strengthen client protection policies and practices. But until now, we had not heard directly from clients. To embed the process in the local scene and ensure it would be actionable, in each country, the Campaign convened a group of researchers and market leaders to provide local insight and guide the research. In March 2014, the Campaign and its research partner Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) began investigative efforts, which included focus groups, in-depth interviews, photo association exercises, and surveys.

So, what did we find in Benin?

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> Posted by Haset Solomon, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

I rarely think about the cost of convenience. I often use my phone’s navigational system, seeking turn-by-turn directions, but I usually don’t consider the trail of data I’m leaving behind – and even if I do, I decide the benefit outweighs the cost. We live in an age where leaving myriad digital footprints is almost inescapable. Increasingly, we hear of big data analytic companies that “liberate data” or “democratize data” for the purpose of improving products and services or making them more widely available. There are true benefits to advancing our society’s data capabilities and unearthing new patterns and insights. (The phone that tracks my travel can give me advice on promising restaurants nearby.) But the costs can be high. Here in the U.S., the anonymity of “meta” data sets is continually being challenged. Fortunately, in this country consumer advocacy groups and institutions such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Bureau of Consumer Protection at FTC, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are working to address and remedy breaches of privacy and data rights.

In most of the world, similar institutions are nonexistent or under-developed. The fast uptake of technology has opened up large population segments to new possibilities, while leaving them vulnerable. Digital financial services users in developing countries are often choice-less and voiceless on how their data is used.

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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 Saran Sidime, Operations Assistant, the Smart Campaign

Technology has brought safe and simple financial solutions to Somalia, a place where, until the past few years, they were completely non-existent. In June 2015, MasterCard became the first international payment network to enter Somalia, a country that hasn’t had a formal banking or financial system since the collapse of its government in 1991. MasterCard issued its first 5,000 debit cards to be used by Premier Bank, one of the few commercial banks in the country. The cards will be compatible with Premier’s ATMs, whereby customers can conduct cash withdrawals. MasterCard’s products will be the first domestically-issued debit cards in Somalia, the last remaining country in Africa not under sanctions that the company hasn’t worked in yet.

Somalia has been mired in decades of conflict since 1991, and the government continues to battle al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabaab insurgents. Despite the formation of a federal parliament in 2012, creating a more stable government, turmoil continues to severely restrict development of the banking system. For example, the country installed the first ATM machines in the capital, Mogadishu, only last year.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Momentum for Smart Campaign Certification is accelerating. Today, we’re thrilled to announce that there are now more than 20 million lower-income clients whose financial service provider has been certified as meeting the Campaign’s standards for consumer protection.

Since February 2015, the number of clients served by Smart-Certified financial institutions (FIs) has grown by 6 million, to a total of 21 million, with the certification of an additional 11 institutions. To date, 39 FIs, from 19 countries across Latin America to Africa and Asia, have achieved Smart Certification, including some of the world’s best-known institutions dedicated to serving the poor.

As you might be familiar, the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification Program contains a core set of standards against which institutions are evaluated by independent, third-party evaluators. Smart Certification publicly recognizes those institutions providing financial services to microentrepreneurs with a standard of care that upholds the microfinance industry’s seven Client Protection Principles. Customers of Smart-Certified organizations can be confident that their financial service provider has policies and processes in place to ensure that they are treated responsibly.

“Twenty million clients is an exciting milestone – recognition of the fact that there’s growing momentum in the industry for client protection,” said Isabelle Barrès, Smart Campaign director. “These organizations are not just paying lip service to the concept of fair treatment, but actually working hard to improve practices,” she added.

In April 2015, having listened carefully to evaluation results and industry feedback, we launched certification program revisions to streamline the process while maintaining high standards. These revisions included an appeals and complaints system and a process for renewing certification validity. At the end of 2015, the Campaign will introduce an accreditation system to license existing and new certifiers, and a version 2.0 of the certification standards. Certification 2.0 standards remove duplication and ambiguity, and deepen standards for savings, insurance, and digital financial services.

Even as the coverage of the certification program approaches critical mass, the broader Smart Campaign continues to advance. For the Campaign’s next phase we are excited about working on the following:
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> Posted by James Militzer, Editor, NextBillion Financial Innovation

The following post was originally published on NextBillion, in two parts, here and here

The Smart Campaign was born in the midst of extraordinary upheaval in the microfinance sector. Its launch in 2009 was sandwiched between the 2008 global financial crisis, repayment crises in several microfinance markets, and the 2010 debtor suicides in Andhra Pradesh. Yet the turmoil served to amplify the campaign’s main point: that microfinance needs to focus on customer protection. In the succeeding years, it has labored to unite microfinance leaders and practitioners around this goal – most notably through its efforts to convince microfinance institutions (MFIs) to undergo the process of Smart Certification, in which independent evaluators verify that they are “doing everything [they] can to treat [their] clients well and protect them from harm.”

Over time, these efforts have started to gain traction. The campaign – which is steered by a group of prominent leaders in the industry and housed at Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion – has certified 39 microfinance institutions. (Note: Accion is a NextBillion Content Partner.) Certified institutions include a number of leading MFIs in markets around the world, from Equitas in India to Kompanion in Kyrgyzstan. And the campaign calculates that certified MFIs now serve slightly more than 20 million clients. In a recent interview with NextBillion, its director, Isabelle Barrès, called the 20 million client mark “an exciting milestone, recognition of the fact that there is momentum growing in the industry for client protection –  not just paying lip service to it, but actually working hard to improve practices.”

But achieving this momentum hasn’t been an easy task for the campaign – or for the industry whose practices it’s trying to improve. Barrès discusses the challenges it has faced – and the controversy it has sparked – in this two-part Q&A.

James Militzer: Do you have any data on which markets have the highest percentage of Smart Campaign-certified MFIs?

Isabelle Barrès: I think Kyrgyzstan probably is the one where we currently have the most right now – 60 percent of microfinance clients are served by organizations that have been certified. This shows that when there are some substantial efforts that are put towards improving client protection – whether it’s at the market level or at the regulatory level, or through market infrastructure, such as supporting a good credit bureau – it can make a difference for the entire industry.

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> Posted by Anne H. Hastings, Manager, Microfinance CEO Working Group

As a member of the Smart Campaign Steering Committee, I had the pleasure last week of attending the first ever Certification Summit held in Turin, Italy. The CEOs of 24 client protection certified microfinance institutions (MFIs) came together to discuss with one another their experiences with certification, their practices for preventing over-indebtedness, collections and grievance redressal, and their thoughts on how the certification process could be made more valuable.

I tried my best to talk with each and every participant there in order to get their honest thoughts about certification. I was surprised but pleased to discover that, without exception, every one of them said how happy they were that they had gone through the process and achieved the recognition. Some examples of the types of comments I heard are:

  1. Client protection has always been part of our DNA. It’s who we are. The certification process helped us align our practices with our values – and come closer to what we aspire to be.
  2. It has allowed us to improve our relations with the regulators in our country more than we imagined. They now turn to us for advice!
  3. It was great for our employees. It was a truly motivating exercise for them . . . and the recognition that comes with certification made them feel very special. Our employees are proud to be associated with a responsible institution.
  4. There was a cost to it, no question – but the process convinced us that it was well worth the investment.
  5. We wanted third-party validation of our practices, and this gave us that validation.
  6. The process was excellent. I have tremendous respect for the rating agency that conducted our mission. It was far more rigorous than I anticipated, and it did result in our making some very significant changes, especially to our disclosure practices.
  7. Our customers have told us that they appreciate the changes we made that were clearly visible to them. They especially like the improvements we’ve made to our grievance redressal mechanism.
  8. Certification must be seen as a risk management tool because that’s what it is. We need more MFIs to go through the certification process in order to control risk in our market. We need to engage more closely with investors and regulators about what it means and how it acts to mitigate risks.
  9. The process helped us to get back to our fundamentals, for the reason we were formed. This was something we had needed to do, without really realizing it, for a long time.
  10. There’s no question that it contributed to our ability to get new capital from our local bank.

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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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