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Smart Campaign> Posted by Center Staff

Big news from the Smart Campaign camp. Today, the Campaign, the global movement you’ve come to know for embedding a set of client protection principles into the fabric of the microfinance industry, is announcing enhancements to its Client Protection Certification Program designed to improve and accelerate the certification process.

The Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification Program contains a core set of standards against which institutions are evaluated by independent, third-party raters. Certification publicly recognizes those institutions providing financial services to low-income people whose standards of care uphold the seven Client Protection Principles. The certification process aids institutions in strengthening their practices, and becoming certified helps institutions demonstrate to industry stakeholders – including clients, investors, and other institutions – their commitment to responsibly serving their clients. The Client Protection Principles cover important areas such as transparency, fair and respectful treatment, privacy, and prevention of over-indebtedness.

The Certification changes will enable the program to better meet the growing global demand for certification among microfinance institutions, while ensuring that certified institutions demonstrate high standards and the program maintains strong governance and quality control. Several enhancements will take place immediately:

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> Posted by the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM)

How has the microfinance industry leveraged regulation and supervision to safeguard client wellbeing? In priority areas like over-indebtedness, acceptable pricing, and transparency, what progress has been made to ensure that institutions are operating responsibly? And in cases where regulatory actions have been taken, how have they been implemented? A recent research project conducted by EY and the Platform for Inclusive Finance (NpM) investigates these questions across 12 country markets and assesses the current state of client protection regulation in microfinance.

The growth of the inclusive finance sector has helped create significant opportunities for low-income people around the world. However, when not done correctly, access to financial products also has the potential to bring harm. Of the increasing importance of client protection and sound regulation, EY Senior Manager and one of the report’s authors, Justina Alders-Sheya remarked: “The sector is growing and to do so responsibly, it is necessary that supervisory authorities perform their role.”

Drawing on questionnaires completed by local stakeholders, the study examined whether laws and regulations on client protection have been implemented in any way in the 12 studied countries: Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Cambodia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, Russia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The study also examined the regulatory and supervisory landscape for client protection in each country. It investigated who is creating the regulations, how they’re being enforced, and the role of industry players like microfinance associations and credit bureaus.

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> Posted by Khadija Ali, Social Analyst, Pakistan Microfinance Network

The Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN) – a national association of over 50 microfinance providers (MFPs) – has supported its members in conducting third-party client protection assessments using the Smart Campaign’s Smart Assessment tool. To date, 18 assessments have been conducted, covering over 60 percent of the market in terms of overall outreach to active borrowers. These assessments have been made possible with funding support from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) through the UK Aid-sponsored Financial Inclusion Program (FIP). The assessments provide a unique opportunity for PMN to observe the state of practice in client protection among member MFPs. For participating MFPs, the assessments provide an opportunity to evaluate their practices in comparison with globally accepted standards of client protection, and seek recommendations for institutional improvements to better comply with the standards. They also indicate whether an institution is ready to pursue Smart Certification, a designation recognized across the global market that an institution successfully integrates the Client Protection Principles into their practices. After undergoing an assessment and acting on its results, Kashf Foundation (KF) recently became the first microfinance institution in Pakistan to achieve Smart Certification.

The Pakistan Microfinance Network, a strategic partner of the Smart Campaign, sat down with Roshaneh Zafar, Managing Director of Kashf Foundation, to talk about the certification experience.

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> Posted by Maria May, Senior Program Manager, BRAC

Babita Akhtar, BRAC customer service assistant, Kawalipara branch, Bangladesh

Babita Akhtar, BRAC customer service assistant, Kawalipara branch, Bangladesh

Even when introducing herself, Babita’s enthusiasm is contagious. “Maybe you think that you can’t change how you manage your money. It’s too hard. Well, I used to think that I could never get up in front of a group of people and give a presentation. But here I am. BRAC taught me how. So if I can do this, then you can do anything.”

Babita Akhtar is one of 900 women recruited by BRAC as a customer service assistant. She greets every person who walks into the branch office—people coming for loans, seeking support from BRAC’s legal aid clinics, teachers or community health promoters coming for training, and even visitors. Before loan disbursement begins, she runs a short orientation session for all borrowers that covers important information about the loans, BRAC’s services, and good financial practices. The branch manager comes in at the end to answer any questions and greet the clients personally.

The messages provided in this orientation are timed for maximum impact. Pranab Banik, who heads BRAC’s Financial Education and Client Protection Unit, said, “The time when clients are waiting at the branch to take a loan seems the best moment to deliver basic financial awareness at scale and cost effectively. Our pre-disbursement orientation is an integral precondition for comprehensive client protection; it is intended to empower all clients to better understand their options and manage their finances responsibly.”

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

When clients are facing loan default, they’re often in the most precarious financial position of their lives. As we detailed on this blog last week, navigating the default process can be exceedingly complex for clients. It can be complex for providers, too. No doubt, on both ends the stakes are high. In a new Smart Campaign research report released last week, What Happens to Microfinance Clients who Default?, we examined how providers behave at this juncture and the factors informing these practices.

The research team selected three very different markets to compare – Peru, India, and Uganda.¹ An analysis of three markets does not represent the entire sector. However these three countries represented great diversity in legal and regulatory systems, market infrastructure, in particular credit reporting, and use of group versus individual loans, among other factors. These three countries are also locations where the Smart Campaign has cultivated supporters and partners, which persuaded providers to share information on sensitive debt collection practices.

In total, we conducted interviews with 44 providers. In addition to MFIs, the most helpful interviews were with credit bureaus. Fonts of information, they helped us understand the topography of market debt as well as the information MFIs have when making decisions. And, as we came to understand, information was a critical determinant to what actions MFIs took when a client defaulted.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research and Evaluation Specialist, and Kathleen Stack, Vice President, Programs, Freedom from Hunger

Recently, Dean Karlan published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “The Next Stage of Financial Inclusion.” The key points of his article are that while non-profits led the way in developing microcredit for the poor and started the movement for financial inclusion, for-profit companies have increasingly found it worth their while to offer financial services for the base of the pyramid. The entrance of new players to the market, Karlan offers, is a testament to the success of the early microfinance-focused non-profits. However, Karlan suggests that non-profits still have an important role in continuing to innovate in the financial services space. We agree. This is particularly true for extending financial services to people that banks still consider unprofitable: “the too rural, the too poor and the too young.” We would add disabled populations and the “too old.”

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Senior Africa Specialist, the Smart Campaign

The risks associated with the recent U.S. boom in subprime auto loans for the working poor are compounding, a series of articles recently published by The New York Times indicates. The articles report on the Times’ extensive investigation on the subject, which included the examination of over 100 bankruptcy cases, dozens of civil lawsuits against lenders, and hundreds of loan documents. The series draws attention to companies lending to those on the financial margins who often have questionable or missing credit histories and who are purchasing typically pretty old, low-quality cars. Lenders have lowered credit standards to widen their pool of borrowers, a risky practice incentivized by an influx of money from investors looking for a hot market and keen to securitize. Subprime auto loans have increased by 130 percent in recent years, and in 2014 they accounted for one in four auto loans.

In addition to viewing this through our did-we-learn-nothing-from-the-subprime-mortgage-crisis?! glasses and seeing potential systemic repercussions, one can take the consumer rights vantage point and see the scary picture of a world in which the underbanked or financially excluded are given two kinds of options: bad and really bad. We decided to score the features of this market against the seven Client Protection Principles of the Smart Campaign. Since the Client Protection Principles are a do-no-harm standard, we expect markets to meet seven out of seven principles to earn our endorsement. Let’s see how subprime auto loans stack up.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director of the Smart Campaign, and Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

Imagine you are a new microfinance loan officer in a rural area of your country and extremely proud to have found a stable, well-regarded job. Your sales territory, while requiring significant travel, is familiar – this is where your father’s extended family is from, and in fact, a few of the borrowers in your portfolio are distant cousins. You manage a portfolio of just under 300 borrowers, most of whom you see on a weekly basis.

This week, at one of the repayment meetings, you are approached by a client in distress and near tears. She apologizes that she is unable to pay back the outstanding balance on her loan due to circumstances out of her control, and asks for an additional six months to repay. Her fellow group members have been covering for her for the past two weeks and seem to be losing patience with her. Given that this was the woman’s first loan and that your country’s credit bureau covers only five percent of the microfinance market, you have no information on her credit history or current debt burden.

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> Posted by Juan Blanco, Associate, Financial Inclusion 2020, CFI

In the client protection section of the FI2020 Roadmap to Financial Inclusion, a specific recommendation was made for financial providers to embrace consumer protection as part of their professional identity, and applying a “financial consumer bill of rights” was identified as a key action point.

Looking into the state of this industry area for our upcoming FI2020 Progress Report on Financial Inclusion, I came to realize that the subject of consumers’ bills of rights is not as straightforward as it seems. Although the recommendation from the roadmap was aimed specifically at providers, the truth is that this is an area where a diversity of players is getting involved. I found a range of approaches: codes of conduct, codes of ethics, charters of rights, and bills of rights, coming from a wide spread of stakeholders, from MFIs to global associations to governments. At the heart of each of these initiatives was the same objective: for service providers to operate ethically and responsibly.

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> Posted by Karin Malmberg, PIIF Manager, PRI

How do institutional investors in inclusive finance ensure that their investee institutions manage their social as well as financial performance? How do these investors contribute to the sustainable growth of the industry? And, perhaps most importantly how do they ensure that end clients are fairly treated and adequately protected?

The Report on Progress in Inclusive Finance 2014 by the Principles for Investors in Inclusive Finance (PIIF) Initiative addresses these questions, analyzing data submitted by inclusive finance investors on their responsible investment practices.

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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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