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> Posted by Kyle Burgess, Executive Director and Editor in Chief, Consumers Research

From cash to digital currency

Image Credit: FamZoo Staff. No alterations made. CC BY-SA 2.0

Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain protocol, introduce a technical platform for a new global payment infrastructure that has the potential to level the playing field for the 2.5 billion people across the globe who are unbanked or underbanked. The immutable and distributed nature of digital currencies and a number of the platforms built on top of blockchain protocols can provide improved security, efficiency, affordability, privacy, and transparency in financial transactions, as well as a whole host of other transfers of value or information. Furthermore, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, blockchain-based digital currencies can even remove the middleman, and serve as a bank in your pocket. However, fully removing a third party intermediary comes with significant risks, as there’s no one to call if you lose your private key (which functions as your password), break your hardware wallet (which acts as your digital vault), or want to dispute a payment because the goods you purchased are damaged (because digital currency transactions are irreversible). Like any other product, consumer protection must be at the forefront of the development and implementation of digital currency and blockchain-based financial services.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

The role of data is increasingly crucial as the financial services industry shifts to digital delivery, alternative analytics, targeted marketing, and data-driven customer segmentation. As outlined in the recent Accion report, Unlocking the Promise of Big Data to Promote Financial Inclusion, the future of financial inclusion will include higher volumes of better quality and more wide-ranging data to expand access, lower prices, reduce bias, and drive innovation. However, the use of big and alternative data in financial inclusion is not a value-neutral trend—nor should it be.

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> Posted by Sabine Spohn, Senior Investment Specialist, Private Sector Operations Department, Asian Development Bank

The following post was originally published on the Asian Development Bank blog.

In late 2016, many presumed Indian microfinance institutions would be adversely affected by India’s sudden demonetization law. Surprisingly, events unfolded quite differently to expectations.

On November 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the withdrawal from circulation of all Rs500 and Rs1,000 bank notes in a bid to combat black money and curtail the use of counterfeit cash. The objective was also to slowly introduce the country’s population to a digital economy. The action was driven by good intentions, although it initially caused many disruptions in the economy.

In India, where ADB’s Private Sector Operations Department has been carrying out the Microfinance Risk Participation and Guarantee Program since 2012, many of our partner microfinance institutions temporarily stopped lending to low-income people as they were not clear how those loans would get repaid – in particular in rural areas. In the first few days and weeks, collection rates dropped to as little as 10-20 percent.

Five months after demonetization, the uncertainty has started to fade.

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> Posted by Patrick Traynor, Associate Professor, the University of Florida

CFI Fellow Patrick Traynor, an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) at the University of Florida, is launching his research effort on the security of data in mobile lending applications.

Mobile phones and networks are transforming the world of financial inclusion. However, we know that we cannot simply “copy and paste” traditional financing mechanisms into this mobile context and expect widespread inclusion. For example, the traditionally-excluded often lack the standard data lenders use to underwrite credit decisions (such as government audited tax forms, formal pay stubs, property deeds, and so forth). A plethora of companies are attempting to measure creditworthiness using alternative data – including the data trail created through mobile money applications. Alternative data for underwriting holds the potential to dramatically expand access to credit if successful, but it also poses new challenges.

For instance, how secure is data used in digital credit?

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

What a marvel it is that a couple living in a remote region of the world, despite limited education and financial means, could use their cell phones to receive money from their children in the capital city! Like many techno-wonders of our world, the mobile financial services people all over the world use operate atop a complex set of distinct technologies zipped together. A host of systems work beneath every successful transaction, each driven by and subject to forces specific to that system, not all of which prioritize mobile money. It’s not a wonder, then, when things sometimes fall apart.

CFI Fellow Leon Perlman has the technical chops to unpack these systems, and this is exactly what he has done in his research for us. He went to 12 countries and tested multiple mobile financial services, the main handset brands available, and their component hardware and software. CFI just released his report, Technology Inequality: Opportunities and Challenges for Mobile Financial Services, and I recommend it to the technology savvy and novice alike.

I suggest using Perlman’s work as a mobile money technology primer. For example, do you understand the difference between Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD), SIM Application Toolkit (STK) and Java-based applets used in mobile financial services? I didn’t. Now I know that each technology has its own merits and shortcomings, and that in the dynamic telecoms market the relevance of each is continually shifting. Leon’s paper explains these interface technologies, along with handset features and mobile signaling technologies—and more important, how they work together, or sometimes don’t. Along the way, readers are introduced to the many companies and government bodies involved: telecoms regulators, banking authorities, competition regulators, MNOs, handset manufacturers, operating system providers, user interface designers and financial institutions. These organizations have a wide range of objectives, interests and constraints, making it challenging to bring all the requirements together into a functional operation and viable business model.

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> Posted by Miranda Beshara, Arabic Microfinance Gateway

Alex Silva, Executive Director, Calmeadow

Governance is a business imperative, and investors are willing to pay a premium for effective corporate governance. This was one of the key takeaways from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Governance and Strategic Leadership Seminar, held recently in Amman, Jordan. We’ve seen this stated priority of governance in the MENA microfinance market exhibited elsewhere, too. A joint IFC-Sanabel report assessing the top perceived risks facing the microfinance industry in the Arab world uncovered that the market’s stakeholders viewed weak corporate governance structures as one of the more threatening risks out of roughly 30 risk categories. Financial service providers in particular perceive this risk to be rising.

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> Posted by Elissa McCarter-LaBorde, CEO, Vitas Group

Alex Silva and Jeffrey Riecke’s recent blog post entitled “What’s ‘Responsible’ about Impact Investing Exits?” hits squarely on the head a critical issue facing our industry. But it doesn’t go far enough. They ask “What if responsible investors sell their stake to an investor that doesn’t place priority on the social mission?” They argue for investors to take a “pragmatic” course and find “a buyer in the middle,” meaning something in between the “high-priced but questionable offer” and the “capital-starved social investors.” This left me wondering, who exactly is in the middle?

In the past, the NGO founders of what are today profitable microfinance banks were expected to be the keepers of a social mission, if not through ownership then through some form of continuing sponsorship or governance role. Compared to five years ago, today we see term sheets that force NGO shareholders out in the name of successful exits. In fact, even the large open-ended funds, presumably more socially-responsible leaning ones, and the development finance institutions (DFIs) that technically don’t require tighter exits of 5-7 years, are coming with term sheets that require a put option (an option contract giving the owner the right to sell assets at an agreed price) in 5-7 years back to the NGO founder or the company, or that include a drag-along right that forces a majority sale to a future “strategic buyer.” In other words, if the minority investor finds a strategic buyer who wishes to buy a majority stake or to acquire the whole company, the investor can drag other shares along to constitute a majority sale.

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> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Specialist, CFI 

Join us in accelerating financial inclusion conversations globally!

We are excited to announce the third annual Financial Inclusion Week, an initiative to drive the global conversation around financial inclusion. In 2015 and 2016, over 70 partner organizations brought together thousands of people worldwide to discuss the most pressing actions needed to advance financial inclusion globally. In 2017, from October 30 to November 3, we will continue the conversations from last year and engage an even wider community of stakeholders to explore this year’s theme: New Products, New Partnerships, New Potential.

Around the world, digital channels are revolutionizing the way that customers access financial products and transforming the landscape of the financial inclusion industry. Financial service providers are harnessing an array of new technologies, data, and schools of thought to re-configure their products and how they offer them. New providers, including fintech startups, are entering the inclusive finance fold and legacy providers are increasingly partnering with them to expand service offerings and reach previously under-served customer segments. These new products and new partnerships bring great potential for creating a more inclusive global financial ecosystem. However, they may also bring new problems – such as issues surrounding data security, transparency on mobile platforms, and discrimination in alternative credit scoring. During Financial Inclusion Week 2017, partner organizations around the globe will hold conversations focused on how new products and partnerships are advancing financial inclusion.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Internet privacy rules have just been overturned in the U.S. by Congress and the Administration, and at the same time, struggles over banking privacy are taking place. There are striking similarities as well as crucial differences. As a consumer protection advocate, I am struck by how the narrative about these kinds of conflicts primarily centers on where competitive advantage lies, and which company or industry is made the winner or loser, rather than about the rights of consumers.

The internet case pits telecoms and cable companies, like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, against internet companies, like Google and Facebook. The Obama-era rules that were just overturned required broadband providers to ask customer permission before tracking, sharing and/or selling their data. These companies complain that the rules disadvantage them relative to internet-based companies, which can collect data without such rules.

The banking case, as reported in The New York Times, pits major banks against fintechs and data aggregators. The question is whether banks will transfer consumer data – at the consumer’s request – to companies that provide personal financial management tools, like Mint, Betterment, and Digit (or to data aggregators that facilitate the transfer – like Plaid and Yodlee). Without this data the financial management apps cannot build the complete portrait of a person’s financial life they need to provide analysis and advice. But banks are reluctant, even after specific consumer requests. You might think this reluctance is to protect their customers or because of data privacy rules for banking, but actually, according to The Times, it’s because the customer data reveals details about banks’ own business models – like pricing and products. The banks fear, probably correctly, that the personal financial management companies will use the information to undercut bank products with their own offerings.

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> Posted by Tess Johnson, Project Associate, CFI

When you receive a chain letter, it usually promises that you will receive great rewards, but only if you don’t break the chain. When you do break the chain, it’s generally because you don’t trust those promises. While blockchain technology offers a different equation, trust in its promises is equally important.

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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.