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> Posted by Robin Brazier, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

U.S. Capitol BuildingLately, so much has been happening in Washington, D.C. that it feels impossible to keep up. Every day is a whirlwind of new developments. The Smart Campaign has been keeping its eye on one bill in particular: H.R. 10, the Financial CHOICE (Creating Home and Opportunity for Investors, Consumers and Entrepreneurs) Act of 2017. Among its other provisions, the Financial CHOICE Act threatens to disarm the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and compromise the well-being of financial service consumers in the United States.

Introduced by House Representative Jeb Hensarling (TX-5) in April, the CHOICE Act, according to its sponsors, would loosen the allegedly burdensome and complicated regulations put in place by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 with the stated goal of increasing financial services access for small businesses and spurring economic growth. These small businesses are said to be having a difficult time getting loans from small banks due to Dodd-Frank, and the CHOICE Act would purportedly lessen these difficulties and allow more small banks to lend to small businesses.

However, from where the Smart Campaign is sitting, the CHOICE Act looks quite different.

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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

(click to enlarge)

What’s been happening with the Microfinance CEO Working Group (MCWG)? We’re glad you asked. Fresh-off-the-press is a new annual report from the MCWG, detailing the Working Group’s key accomplishments and activities of the past year. Consumer protection is among the standout areas for the MCWG for 2016. Over the course of the year, 14 local partners belonging to the MCWG network achieved Smart Certification, including BRAC Bangladesh, the first microfinance provider in the country and the largest in the world to reach the consumer protection milestone. In total, 21.9 million clients are served by 39 MCWG network Smart Certified institutions.

The MCWG is comprised of the leaders of 10 global microfinance organizations: Accion; Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance; BRAC; CARE; FINCA; Grameen Foundation; Opportunity International; Pro Mujer; VisionFund International; and Women’s World Banking. The newest member, added in 2016, is the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance and its General Manager Jesse Fripp. The MCWG also harnesses the expertise of more than 40 senior staffers across the member organizations, who meet regularly across seven Peer Groups focused on specific areas of microfinance, from digital financial services, to social performance, to communications, taxation, and others. Members and local partners work with more than 89 million clients in 87 countries, providing them with financial services as well as other support to help them succeed and lift their families out of poverty.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Senior Director, the Smart Campaign

The merits and pitfalls of mobile credit continue to be debated hotly in financial inclusion circles. Mobile products are making credit more accessible through branchless banking and alternative underwriting and business models. But experimenting with new ways of lending when your borrowers include those at the base of the pyramid brings steep risks and some models can be downright reckless. Which side of the fence are you on?

The Smart Campaign is seeking to assist the sector to develop a consensus about responsible online credit practice, and the good news is that these questions have recently become top-of-mind for a range of stakeholders. Quona’s Johan Bosini and Positive Planet’s Bezant Chongo gamely volunteered for an Oxford-style debate on whether mobile credit is good for its clients at the 4th Annual Mondato Summit in Johannesburg back in May.

The convenience and ease-of-access of mobile credit products are immensely beneficial to the unbanked, according to Bosini, speaking for the pro side. When juxtaposed to traditional lending products that take, for instance, in Benin, an average of almost 5 weeks to access (involving multiple trips), mobile credit seems supersonic, he emphasized. Using alternative data and analytics, mobile credit unlocks access for individuals without credit history. The reality for the poor, as elucidated by the Financial Diaries and other research, is that incomes fluctuate widely. Now with mobile credit, a person in a pinch can help smooth the inevitable bumps in income with a few clicks on the phone.

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CFI Fellow Patrick Traynor, Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, explains his research on the privacy and security of data in mobile lending applications.

We have all seen privacy policies before: sign up for a credit card and you receive a pamphlet with tiny print detailing your bank’s particular policy. Create an account at an online service and you will get a link to something similar from it, too.  These policies are supposed to provide consumers with detailed information about which pieces of their data will be stored, how they might be used, with whom they can be shared, and how they will be protected. Privacy policies are now mandatory for financial institutions in developed nations, and here in the United States we are provided protection by laws such as the “Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act” (also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999).

Unfortunately, the reality of such policies is often not so clear. Many of these policies are written by attorneys with the sole intention of being consumed later on by other attorneys. That means that, in some cases, even highly educated individuals without a degree in law may not be able to fully understand what they are reading. What chance does the common consumer have to understand such policies?

You would think that consumers would be up in arms. But, let’s be honest – most people have never actually read these privacy policies, yet alone tried to understand them. Have you?

So then why is it important to examine the state of privacy policies?

Let me offer first an insight into the role of studies like ours and then some comments on why privacy policies for digital credit matter.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Specialist, CFI

Phones are making everything more convenient, but are they also reducing costs? That depends on which service and whose wallet you’re talking about. If it’s the consumer’s mobile money wallet, well, the verdict is still out. In a CGAP paper published last year, Rafe Mazer and Philip Rowen lamented that pricing transparency practices in mobile money services are wholly inadequate across payments, credit, and other product lines. They assert an urgent need for standards and policy to impose better practices on mobile money providers. It’s critical to know how prices are tabulated and what fees are incurred – for the betterment of customers and the industry.

In Kenya, arguably the world’s most robust and dynamic mobile money market, we’ve seen a few recent steps in the right direction.

As of May 2017, per a directive issued by the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), telcos and financial institutions providing mobile money services were required to ensure that their users are informed via real-time notifications of the price of their transactions – after they are initiated by the user, but before the transactions are completed and money is transferred. This order by the CAK was permitted to be carried out in stages: first, mobile money providers were asked to let users know the price of their money transfers and bill payments after their transactions occurred; then, providers were required to provide pre-transaction pricing for these two services; and finally, this pre-transaction price disclosure was extended to “value-added” mobile money services like micro-loans and micro-insurance. The new rule applies to mobile money services offered through apps, USSD codes, and SIM toolkits.

You might not think that getting notified about relatively small fees is a big deal. After all, mobile money services in Kenya like M-Pesa are used so often that users probably have a strong grasp on pricing. But this is unclear. When CGAP queried mobile money users in Kenya on M-Pesa pricing changes in 2014, despite claiming to be aware of current pricing figures, many respondents in fact were not.

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> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Senior Program Associate, Africa, the Smart Campaign

Smart Campaign Uganda convening participants

Smart Campaign Uganda convening participants

Earlier this year, the Smart Campaign co-hosted a financial inclusion and consumer protection event in collaboration with the Microfinance CEO Working Group and the Association of Microfinance Institutions of Uganda in Kampala, Uganda. With more than 100 people in attendance representing diverse stakeholder groups, the event served as a platform to exchange ideas and commit to greater partnership to progress financial inclusion policies and practices, and consumer protection in Uganda.

The goal of the event was to provide an opportunity to obtain clear commitments in support of the key themes and objectives of Uganda’s developing national financial inclusion strategy, and to place consumer protection at the heart of its roll out. The convening brought a variety of stakeholders together, including financial service providers, donors, researchers, government ministries, and the Bank of Uganda, to support the country’s consumer protection goals and facilitate better collaboration.

After hearing the perspectives and inputs of the key sector stakeholders in attendance, we took stock of our three-year strategy for the country. Going forward, the Campaign’s approach will focus on the following:
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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Analyst, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

How does a microfinance institution know what transformation will be like from an NGO to a formal financial institution? In an increasingly complex industry with competition from commercial banks and the entrance of fintechs, many microfinance NGOs are considering transformation to realize their growth potential and help attract investment. However, the road to transformation can often be bumpy, as noted in the Center for Financial Inclusion’s publication Aligning Interests: Addressing Management and Stakeholder Incentives During Microfinance Institution Transformations.  Regulatory compliance issues, information technology hurdles, and aligning with the needs of the NGO and investors can often complicate the process. For Enda Tamweel, the largest and oldest microfinance organization in Tunisia, the decision to transform has come with external pressures, operational challenges, and a focus on maintaining their mission. Read the rest of this entry »

> 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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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.