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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Next Thursday we’re launching the Client Voices project, our four-country research investigation that went to the source and directly asked clients about their experiences with financial providers and their thoughts on what constitutes good and bad treatment.

The four studied countries are Benin, Georgia, Pakistan, and Peru. You might have seen our spotlighting the release of the Benin and Pakistan country reports here on the blog in the fall. On Thursday, we’re sharing those for Georgia and Peru, as well as a “synthesis report” that summarizes and analyses the key findings, takeaways, and recommendations across the four comprehensive country reports.

We have a few launch event opportunities for you to participate in. But first, we wanted to give you a glimpse into what’ll be released on Thursday…

Transparency. One of the overarching findings across the studied countries was that clients have an inadequate understanding of the basic aspects of their microfinance products. For example, in Benin, Pakistan, and Peru, 50 percent, 49 percent, and 43 percent of respondents indicated that they either somewhat or didn’t at all understand loan terms at the time of taking out their loan. Even when institutions are following mandated disclosure rules, this lack of understanding persists.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

There are no final victories when it comes to providing equal opportunities for groups that have suffered from historic discrimination and exclusion. This is true in the United States. This is true everywhere else in the world.  Attitudinal barriers that belittle and marginalize, originating in class, racial, or religious prejudice, may triumphantly come down in one generation only to be resurrected in the next – or even sooner if some shock to the body politic is great enough.

Thus, watchdog groups like the Center for Financial Inclusion’s Smart Campaign, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League can never call it quits and declare victory. Backsliding into bigotry is more likely the rule than the exception with our tribal species.

To bolster this glum supposition is this example of the ongoing difficulties facing another beleaguered minority: Twenty-five years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there is new evidence about employment discrimination from researchers at Rutgers and Syracuse University.

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> Posted by Center Staff

2015 was a year full of great reads (and listens). As we enter 2016, we wanted to take a look back at last year and what we were most excited to explore.  Through our work writing the FI2020 Progress Report, which assesses global progress in five key areas of financial inclusion, we benefited from important research from many in the financial inclusion field.  As part of this effort, we were eager to update our FI2020 Resource Library with the most informative reports and research outputs.  We encourage you to check it out – and in the meantime to review the highlights listed below.  The organizations responsible for these reports cover a wide array of stakeholder types, from support organizations, to telecommunication companies, to financial service providers – proof that progress in financial inclusion is being driven by many.

What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default? (January)
The Smart Campaign
Author: Jami Solli
This report looks in-depth at the enabling environment, the practices of providers, and customer experiences in Peru, India, and Uganda, to understand what happens when microfinance clients default on their loans. We were especially interested in the paper’s findings that demonstrate that effective credit bureaus give financial service providers the confidence to treat customers who default more humanely.

Money Resolutions: A Sketchbook (January)
CGAP
Author: Ignacio Mas 
This working paper explores the underlying logic for how people make money resolutions, including how people organize their money and make decisions about financial goals and spending. The paper focuses on peoples’ approaches to making financial decisions – rather than evaluating the decisions themselves – identifying the inner conflicts they face in the process.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Transparency sounds simple – in business, government, relationships, and most areas of life. Take the business of offering financial products and services. As a provider, you inform prospective and current clients of everything they need to know about your product.  As a client, you use this information to make sound decisions about buying and using said product. Consequently, providers can claim full disclosure and hope to benefit from increased loyalty of clients. Clients have the information to make educated decisions and rest easy knowing exactly where that provider stands.

Similarly, in relationships, transparency (read: honesty) is always the best policy. The best practice is always to say everything that’s on your mind. After all, the truth will set you free… Except for maybe when your partner is already overwhelmed with information. Or when what you’re trying to share is incomprehensible. Or when your partner is trying to concentrate on something else. What I’m trying to get at is this: transparency may seem simple, but it’s not. Effective transparency provides information in a way that enables the person receiving the information to understand it and use it.

Inclusive finance providers need to hit the sweet spot – sharing the optimal amount of the most critical information with clients, in an understandable format, at appropriate times. To make matters more challenging, inclusive finance clients are often illiterate, poorly educated, or new to formal institutions.

The good news is that around the world, including in Mexico, the inclusive finance industry is hard at work to embed transparency effectively. In 2014, the Mexican government passed widespread financial reform that emboldened the role of the consumer protection agency, CONDUSEF, and made its rules mandatory for all credit institutions. CONDUSEF was enabled to issue and publicly publish recommendations to financial institutions. In the last year, CONDUSEF imposed important new regulations in areas of transparency and money laundering, and ended up revoking the operating permits of 1,449 non-regulated (SOFOM) institutions that did not meet the standards.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Associate, CFI

India has received much fanfare for its financial inclusion efforts in recent years. A few weeks ago we declared it our Financial Inclusion Country of the Year for 2015 in recognition of the major steps it took, which resulted in achieving the greatest improvement in its Global Microscope score between 2014 and 2015. It recently granted new bank licenses that dramatically diversify and grow the country’s services landscape, widely applied new cost-saving technologies like biometric identification, and rolled-out historically ambitious public programs like PMJDY that dramatically reduce the portion of the population that is unbanked.

“Never waste a good crisis” said Royston Braganza, CEO of Grameen Capital India, at the Inclusive Finance Summit in Delhi last month, referring to the Andhra Pradesh crisis of 2010. The recently-released Responsible Finance India 2015 analyses the current state of practice on responsible finance and social performance management in India. In light of that report, Braganza questioned, “Have we learned from our mistakes?”

Responsible finance centers on client protection and market conduct, and has been extended in recent years to include many other good corporate citizenship issues such as employee management, governance, and social performance monitoring.

By way of context, here are a few numbers on the present-day BoP Indian finance landscape:

  • Across MFIs in India’s MFIN network, which represent roughly 90 percent of MFIs in the country, loan books grew by 64 percent in the last fiscal year, compared with 43 percent in the year prior and 4 percent in the year before that.
  • In total, MFI outreach in the country accounts for about 100 million clients.
  • Reportedly, through PMJDY 180 million new bank accounts have been opened over the past year, and adjacent schemes covering insurance, pensions, and credit have been implemented, as well.
  • For the first time in a decade, the RBI granted new bank licenses last year – to Bandhan Bank and IDFC. Bandhan now has 500 branches and over 2,000 service centers across 24 states. Sixty-five percent of IDFC’s first 23 branches are located in rural areas of Madhya Pradesh.
  • Under the RBI’s newly created categories of payment banks and small finance banks, 11 and 10 providers, respectively, have received new licenses, further expanding the network of providers serving the poor.

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> Posted by Center Staff

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On Tuesday, the Smart Campaign recognized five Indian financial institutions with Smart Certification, acknowledging their high standards of client care: Arohan, Grameen Koota, Janalakshmi, Sonata, and Utkarsh.

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 institutions providing financial services to low-income clients with a standard of care that upholds the microfinance industry’s seven Client Protection Principles. The Principles cover such critical practices as transparency, fair and respectful treatment, responsible pricing, and prevention of over-indebtedness. This is the third year in a row that the Campaign has recognized Smart-Certified Indian institutions at the annual Inclusive Finance India Summit in New Delhi.

Arohan Financial Services is a Kolkata-based MFI operating in five states and serving over 400,000 clients. Grameen Koota serves more than 673,000 rural clients through 222 branches located across the country. This is Grameen Koota’s recertification, as it was first Smart Certified two years ago, and through a recertification check-in, it has been able to extend the validity of its certificate for two years. Janalakshmi Financial Services is India’s largest urban microfinance organization, operating in 15 states through 229 branches, and has recently been awarded a Small Finance Bank licence by the RBI. Based in Lucknow, Sonata Finance has become one of the fastest-growing NBFC MFIs in northern India, with a network of 162 branches. Utkarsh Micro Finance serves over 170,000 clients through 92 branches in the northern states of India and has also recently been granted a Small Finance Bank license. Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by Center Staff

International Day of Persons with Disabilities is a global occasion to promote awareness and mobilize support for critical issues relating to the inclusion of persons with disabilities (PWD). To mark the day, we wanted to share with you a new Accion video spotlighting the story of Reshma Babu. At five months old, Reshma contracted polio and lost the use of her legs, yet today, she lives independently. That’s partly due to her job at Accion partner Vindhya, where four out of five workers have some kind of disability. Vindhya is a business process outsourcing company that widely employs PWD to deliver high-quality and competitive services to companies spanning multiple sectors, including microfinance. Vindhya exemplifies how inclusion for PWD is a sustainable model for social enterprise at the base of the pyramid.

Along with partnering with Vindhya, here are some of the ways that Accion and CFI are working to achieve disability inclusion:
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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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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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