> Posted by the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF)

The following is the third post in a four-part blog series on the financial inclusion of refugees and the internally displaced. The first post can be found here, and the second here.

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Overview of refugee populations in Lebanon

The multi-cultural and open economy of Lebanon is no stranger to the need to accommodate refugees. Over the years, Lebanon, which has a population of roughly 6 million, has generously maintained an open border policy and has, until restrictions were introduced in 2014-15 following the very large influx of Syrian refugees, permitted refugees to settle temporarily but freely across the country. The country’s experience in providing financial services to these refugees and internally displaced persons offers insights for financial institutions around the world on serving these vulnerable global populations.

Lebanon’s refugee populations are diverse. The largest refugee group is Palestinian, around half of whom live in the 12 recognized Palestine refugee camps. From Iraq, about 50,000 refugees arrived after American-launched military operations in Iraq in 2003. Many of the Iraqi refugees were at one time middle-class professionals who have self-settled in urban areas in Lebanon. Syrians, who have a long history as migrant workers in Lebanon, have never been counted as foreign workers, and many were known to work in Lebanon before the war in Syria. But when civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, an unprecedented number of Syrians emigrated to Lebanon. As of October 2015, close to 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Serving as a refugee in Lebanon requires the ability to navigate in an environment of extremely complex political, economic, social, and security-related volatilities. For example, Lebanese labor laws exclude Palestinian refugees from Syria from entry into formal employment, while newer restrictions allow for Syrian refugees to obtain work permits only in the traditional migrant worker sectors of agriculture and domestic services, where almost half of the Syrian refugee workers are employed, and in construction. The increased competition for low-quality, low-skilled jobs has resulted in depressed wage incomes and increased job insecurity, which is a key perceived stress factor for both refugee and host communities. These dynamics can trigger resentment and fear especially among lower-income Lebanese workers and entrepreneurs, including the traditional core clientele of financial service providers (FSPs) like Al Majmoua.

Al Majmoua – history and structure

Save the Children launched Al Majmoua (Arabic for “the Group”) was established in 1994 as a microfinance program with USAID funding to provide group loans to lower-income women entrepreneurs across disadvantaged areas of Lebanon. In 1997, it became an autonomous NGO. One of Al Majmoua’s strongly held values is inclusiveness; though Al Majmoua’s core clientele are women, it also serves lower-income men as well as individuals of “any nationality whether located in rural or urban regions; [it] also serve[s] refugees and reach[es] out to those living in remote areas and Palestinian camps all over Lebanon.” As of October 2015, Al Majmoua had 54,000 active borrowers holding USD 49 million in loans. Fifteen percent of these borrowers are non-Lebanese, including migrant workers, Palestinians, and Syrian refugees. Contrary to some fears that loans to refugees are high risk, as of 2015, each of Al Majmoua’s client segments, including the non-Lebanese, has a 30 day portfolio at risk rate below 1 percent.

Al Majmoua offers group and individual loan products for micro- and SME enterprises, information and communication technology (ICT) start-ups, and youth entrepreneurs. It also offers salary-guaranteed loans, home improvement loans, loans to pay school fees for children, and loans for the disabled.

Lessons learned from Al Majmoua on serving refugees

Expect initial staff and leadership resistance, but this can be overcome. Inclusion of refugees challenges stereotypes and preconceived ideas about ‘the other.’ This requires determined drive from the board and senior management. A good first step for institutions is to have an open-ended board discussion on why refugee populations in their country are – or are not – served by their FSP. Institutions might also consider a discussion on ‘why not refugees?’ with their national associations, and can meet with relevant external stakeholders such as protection agencies to get more information on refugee populations. Once the reasons for ‘why not’ are put on paper, a strategy session with management to convert obstacles into opportunities is a great next step.

Solicit and analyze feedback from institutions’ own staff and clients before offering services to refugee populations. Al Majmoua initiated a series of focus group discussions with existing clients to discuss the idea of offering financial services to Syrian refugees. These discussions revealed very significant negativity. A majority of clients feared being outpriced or losing jobs to Syrians willing to work more for less, and they did not think Al Majmoua should “help the competition.” Demand for rental housing was felt to be surging, affecting also rent costs for Lebanese. During 2012, the injection of relief funds in the economy was believed to inflate prices of basic commodities, while the increased demand for goods by refugees was seen to benefit larger businesses (for example, refugees were provided cash or vouchers to use in select, large supermarkets) at the expense of the small stores operated by Al Majmoua’s clients.

Develop and share the business case/strategy to secure buy-in. Developing the business case for serving refugees based on hard data can be difficult to do upfront, due to a big information gap. One path forward is institutions making it a point to compile all the questions and concerns for which they do not have an upfront answer and incorporate these into a ‘feasibility study’ to eventually build a business case that works for all stakeholders. As the business case is developed, it’s essential that all stakeholders are fully informed. For Al Majmoua, a key turning point came when clients and staff felt their concerns were being heard and addressed in the pilot project.

Market research is indispensable. Because culture, language, and traditions among the targeted refugee population differ from those in the host community, and thus also from FSP staff, market research is critical, as adaptation and adjustments to products or procedures may be necessary. Furthermore, market research can help make refugee populations become more visible to the FSP. A recommended starting point is consulting with protection agencies and local authorities, as they can usually assist with numbers, location maps, and basic socio-economic profiles of refugee populations. Al Majmoua suggests that FSPs focus their market research in the value chains where refugees have an advantage, such as in ethnic foods and handicrafts. Further, institutions supporting refugee associations offer another means for learning about and engaging with local populations. Institutions might also create opportunities for repeated informal meetings between refugees and existing clients and staff.

Do not outsource client selection. Protection agencies may refer the most vulnerable refugees, as they prioritize needs, even though FSPs can best serve the working or entrepreneurial poor. The experience of Al Majmoua suggests to not outsource or rely on referrals from other agencies for client selection or appraisals.

Non-financial services are relevant to refugees – and a good entry point. Offering non-financial services can be a great entry point for refugees who are often socially isolated, but  services must be based on actual, specific demand. Involve participants in the design of curriculum and activities, and take the time to find the right trainer – . Include the cost of transport to activities if possible, as transportation can be an access barrier to poor refugees. Finally, institutions should expect tension and be patient. Al Majmoua found that it took an average of two sessions among youth and four sessions among women for non-financial services participants to start feeling comfortable with each other.

Expand inclusive financial products to refugees. There is no need to develop specific ‘refugee products’ and in fact, segregated product access can be counter-productive and cause tension with existing clients. Refugees can perform as well as any other financial services clients, when well segmented and appropriately appraised.

Review and update the risk management regime. Lastly, during the pilot test period of serving refugees, institutions should review their risk management systems and risk mitigation measures to check that these accurately identify and mitigate risks appropriately.

The experience of Al Majmoua in including refugees in its portfolio of financial and non-financial products has been largely positive. The overwhelming message to other FSPs is not to be afraid: Appropriately segmented and appraised, refugees can be as good clients as any national low-income entrepreneur – and sometimes better.

This blog post was adapted by SPTF from the case study on Al Majmoua by Lene Hansen. To read the complete case study, please go to the ”Refugee Microfinance” page of the SPTF website.

Have you read?

Financial Inclusion of Refugees: An Introduction

Financial Inclusion of Refugees: Azerbaijan Case Study

Political Risk Is Keeping Microfinance CEOs Up at Night