> Posted by Larry Reed, Director, the Microcredit Summit Campaign, and Jesse Marsden, Research and Operations Manager, the Microcredit Summit Campaign

In collaboration with the CFI’s process to develop the Financial Inclusion 2020 Progress Report, the Microcredit Summit Campaign recently conducted interviews with microfinance leaders* around the world committed to reaching the most excluded. In this post, we share some of the insights from these conversations about how to ensure that the most invisible clients are financially included, directly drawn from the experiences of those who are doing it.

To set the stage, Luis Fernando Sanabria, General Manager of Fundación Paraguaya, made this central point: “Our clients need to be the protagonists of their own development stories. Our products should be the tools they use to meet their needs and empower their aspirations.” With that reminder of the purpose of financial inclusion, we begin the discussion by asking who are the most excluded.

In each country, people living in extreme poverty (below US$1.25 a day) make up the largest segment of those excluded from the financial system. We spoke with leaders from organizations that make intentional efforts to reach this large excluded market: Fundación Paraguaya; Pro Mujer; Fonkoze; Plan Paraguay; Equitas; Grama Vidiyal; and TMSS. These organizations not only address poverty, but also a host of other dimensions that lead to exclusion, including literacy, race, gender, physical disabilities, and age. Less frequently-discussed reasons for exclusion include sexual orientation, language barriers (especially among indigenous populations), and mental or emotional health issues. In India and Bangladesh, for example, those interviewed noted that the lack of personal identification often drove exclusion, especially among women, persons with disabilities, and the socially excluded, such as transgender individuals.

In order to reach the most excluded, you have to know who they are. “Often the poorest families are invisible in their own communities,” said Steve Werlin of Fonkoze in Haiti. “When we do the wealth rankings in a community, they aren’t even mentioned.” Fonkoze takes steps to make sure that all households get included in their surveys so that the community can see who they have left out. Creating this visibility is essential. On a wider scale, in government statistics on economic activity, data on people over 65 is simply discarded or never collected.

Everyone, and every client, is unique. One of the messages of the FI2020 Progress Report is that the base of the pyramid (BoP) is not a monolithic bloc. Arjun Muralidharan of Grama Vidiyal in India noted that “You need to have a particular and unique strategy to seek out and serve these groups. This begins with deciding who you are going after. Different populations have very different problems.”

Two key elements for including the most excluded populations are building trust and overcoming prejudice. Not only do the financially excluded need to become confident in their services providers’ ability to responsibly manage their money, but they often have to become comfortable participating in a society that has regularly closed its doors to them. “Working with disenfranchised groups is hard. We need to provide extra training and services to help overcome their self-exclusion,” said Muralidharan. Grama Vidiyal provides health services and legal rights training to members of the Dalit group (formerly known as untouchables) before including them in savings and lending groups. On the other side of the equation are financial services staff attitudes. “In order to include people with disabilities, we need to train our staff first, to get them to overcome their prejudice,” said John Alex of Equitas in India. Equitas provides disability awareness training for its staff and clients and encourages them to find people with disabilities in their communities to include in the institution’s borrowing groups. Equitas also adapted its training and application systems to be accessible for people who are blind, deaf, mute, or face other physical limitations.

Excluded groups may have financial needs that do not fit the typical cash flows of other clients. TMSS asked rural farmers in northern Bangladesh what programs the farmers felt would be best to introduce. This client-first approach led to new programs that combined loans and savings in sync with the growing season. TMSS also changed its policies and products to meet the needs of an aging population – eliminating its age limit for borrowers. The institution also provides savings services for these clients and training for the next generation of family members to make sure they will be cared for as they age.

Those excluded from financial services often face many other types of exclusion as well, leaving them with a range of constraints that they need to address:

  • Both Fonkoze and Plan Paraguay employ the Ultra Poor Graduation Model developed by BRAC that provides a combination of cash transfers, training, savings, an asset, mentoring, and access to credit.
  • Equitas works with homeless people and provides housing and financial capacity training before providing loans.
  • TMSS provides health services, financial capability training, and vocational training.

These organizations often partner with the government and others to make sure their clients have access to the range of services they need. Fundación Paraguaya uses its Poverty Stoplight monitoring system to assess its clients on a checklist of 50 items related to poverty, health, education, and employment. It uses this data to bring in government services for common areas of need. Equitas partners with local hospitals, and Grama Vidiyal works with the government health insurance system to provide for the health needs of clients.

Achieving financial inclusion requires consistent energy to attain, maintain, and measure progress. Fundación Paraguaya uses its Stoplight system to enable clients to define and measure their own achievements over time, and provides incentives to its staff based on these clients’ achievements. Equitas provides incentives to its account officers for including persons with disabilities and measures the progress of its clients along consumption and health indicators. Plan Paraguay and Fonkoze measure the success of their Ultra Poor Graduation programs based on the numbers of clients who “graduate,” having met a comprehensive set of indicators related to food security, income security, asset ownership, school enrollment, housing quality, etc. and having reached a level at which they can use unsubsidized financial services.

Financial inclusion has always been about going where others wouldn’t go, addressing the needs of people who were excluded because it was too hard to serve them, or too risky, or too unsustainable. The people we spoke with represent the many financial pioneers who use innovation to expand the boundaries of inclusion, reaching those assumed to be impossible to reach.

For more on addressing client needs, check out the interactive FI2020 Progress Report.

Persons interviewed for this post: Luis Fernando Sanabria, Fundación Paraguaya; Carmen Velasco, co-founder of Pro Mujer; Steve Werlin, Fonkoze, Haiti; Mariella Greco, Plan Paraguay; John Alex, Equitas, India; Arjun Muralidharan, Grama Vidiyal, India; Munnawar Reza, TMSS, Bangladesh.

Image credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Anowara Begoum (pictured) lives in Kazipara village in Bangladesh, and is a participant in BRAC’s Special Targeting Ultra Poor Program.

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