> Posted by Hatem Mahbouli, Investment Officer, FMO

Social Impact Bonds

A lot has been said on social or development impact bonds (SIBs), and the instrument evidently has acquired enough vintage to be subjected to an insightful review by the Brookings Institute on the promises and limitations of its applications.

To give a short description, SIBs are not bonds (too late to change the name apparently), but sort of a public-private partnership, where investors are only repaid by the donors or government commissioners if and when pre-agreed social outcomes are achieved, transferring the risk of failure from donors/government (outcome payers) to investors.

SIBs can change perspectives where social issues move from being budget issues to business cases. The proposal is very appealing for impact investors as it offers new opportunities to deploy capital for social impact, with a strong focus on accountability and credible measurement of the achieved impact.

Applicability to the financial inclusion space

To date, very few SIBs have been launched in low income countries, despite many parties closely watching deployments elsewhere. Issues range from legal constraints to high transaction costs, but let’s assume for a moment that there is enough will, incentives, and capacity to overcome those limitations and launch a SIB in financial inclusion. What would this look like?

For a SIB to work, it needs to tackle what we call a “SIB friendly” issue or segment. You cannot apply it to any problem. The intervention – to put it very shortly – needs to be limited in time, have a specific scope, and an output (or outcome) that is relatively easy to measure and to value. Of course, for the whole structure to make sense, there needs to be an outcome payer who is willing to buy those outcomes, and an investor willing to take the risk.

Let’s look at the main outcomes donors seem keen on achieving in the financial inclusion space: financial literacy, access to suitable financial services for the poor (including savings), development of payment services and technologies and specific products, penetration in particularly underserved and complicated areas, access to financial services for a specific segment (youth, women, farmers, etc.), and access to finance for a specific purpose (e.g. clean energy), to name a few. Other efforts, like those related to governance and regulation seem trickier to implement in the SIB context, since they tend to be longer term and more difficult to directly correlate with specific outcome metrics.

To go a level deeper, a good spot to start, usually, is to look at existing performance/results-based contracts in the financial inclusion space. In fact, many SIBs result from tweaking a result-based contract to allow investors to step in and finance operations upfront. On this blog, there has been a conversation on outcome-based projects related to financial literacy. IFC’s Performance Based Grants Initiative (PBGI) also seems to have disbursed to leasing and micro-lending related projects (we could not get more details at this stage).

For impact investors who are strongly involved in financial inclusion, such as FMO, the easiest way to try out this new instrument is to “plug” it into investments with our partner MFIs. Here we suggest a basic example of what might be a mix of a plain vanilla debt facility and a SIB component:

  1. The investor discusses a debt facility at 5 percent/p.a. with an MFI in India.
  2. The investor and the MFI partner agree with a donor to achieve a specific outcome. For the sake of discussion, let’s consider reaching 10,000 clients in a conflict area.
  3. The investor would accept to allocate 50 percent of its loan to this high risk area without an increase in rate, accepting to delay the reward until the impact is achieved.
  4. Once the 10,000 clients are reached, the donor pays for the outcome and transfers extra funding to the investor that accepted the transfer of risk upfront. The investor gets compensated for the extra impact it pushed for (“outcome dividend”). The donor only disburses once the results are reached.

SIBs present an attractive option for service providers that are looking for much coveted industry funding.

In short, it is about raising the bar for social outcomes, through upfront funding, while the donor money will only be dispensed when the outcome is achieved.

SIBs stimulate ideas of outcome-based finance, which will help parties involved be accountable on the actual social impact of their endeavors. For instance, an investor can agree on a set of social outcomes with an MFI and will only renew the facility if those outcomes are reached.

Of course, in theory, a stand-alone SIB should be feasible but we are more confident a pilot is easier to implement when mixed with existing relationships and processes.

Scalability and sustainability

Switching focus to the ultimate impact is not sufficient though, and the question of sustainability and scalability of such structures is often raised. However, we do believe that starting to think of the right structures and how to make the first pilots successful is a prerequisite to any long-term sustainability or scalability discussion.

We urge donors and service providers to start interacting more with investors of MFIs, as they might be willing to advance the capital, accept the transfer of risk, and channel more funding toward the strengthening of the sector. We strongly believe that SIB structures – whether standalone or “SIB inspired” – will help align the interests among the investor, the financial institution, the technical advisor, and the outcome payer, resulting in increased efficiency, innovation, greater impact, and no free riding. We are happy to continue the conversations toward such a goal.

If you would like to contact Hatem, you can reach him via email, here

Image credit: Accion

Have you read?

An Agile Approach to Impact Investing

Four Challenges for Impact Investing

What Impact Investors Could Learn from Microfinance