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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Analyst, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

The following post was originally published on the Accion blog. 

Accion client Ma San Htwe selling fish in Myanmar, one of the key areas discussed at European Microfinance Week 2016.

European Microfinance Platform is celebrating 10 years of supporting inclusive finance innovation, and hosted European Microfinance Week 2016 (EMW) in Luxembourg a few weeks ago. At the conference, I joined discussions about key organizations and challenges in the industry. Here are five of the main takeaways from the week:

1. The Underserved Refugee Population

The Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) is helping to provide financial services to the refugee population, which is now approximately 20 million people. In reality we don’t know very much about the socioeconomic needs of refugees, and much of the research is focused on humanitarian efforts. SPTF is working to research and provide guidelines to financial service providers to better serve the financial needs of this population. The guidelines will be published on SPTF’s website in the coming months. Learn more about leading organizations supporting refugees from CFI’s blog series on refugees.

2. Opportunity in Myanmar

Representatives from VisionFund, Advans, UNCDF, and M-CRIL provided a look at the economic landscape of Myanmar and the future of financial inclusion there. In Myanmar, 70 percent of the population was excluded from formal financial services until 2011, when microfinance rapidly expanded. After 2011, 267 licensed Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) opened. This opportunity comes with many barriers to inclusion, such as a lack of government regulation and funds and capacity-building issues. However, there is widespread optimism with an adoption of regulations proposed by the Smart Campaign, as well as further demand for microfinance in Myanmar. Investors should consider moving into the region for long term impact.

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> Posted by Center Staff

portfolios-of-the-poorEditor’s Note: A previous version of this post has been one of the CFI blog’s all-time most popular posts. We thought we’d update it with a few more books, and put it front and center once more for readers who might be stocking their bookshelves.

From time to time, we are asked what our go-to books are for understanding financial inclusion and the financial lives of the poor. If we were to list the top three classics that should be on everyone’s shelves, we would recommend the following (feel free to put these on your gift list as we approach the holidays):

  1. Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
  2. Portfolios of the Poor by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven
  3. The Poor and Their Money by Stuart Rutherford

What we love about these titles is the insight they provide into the client perspective, a foundational element for anyone working in or supporting financial services. If financial institutions approach their engagement with customers armed with an understanding of customer needs and customer behavior, the financial services industry can be both more responsive and more responsible.

As a refresher, the first five books on the last version of our must-read list were those cited by Stuart Rutherford as his top five on the subject of “The Poor and Their Money”. Rutherford has himself published some of today’s go-to references on this topic (which is why we added his titles above). Rutherford’s favorite books were chosen by him not only for their impact on his work, but also for their ability to place the client at the center of our conceptualization of microfinance. This is important because, as Rutherford himself explains, “microfinance has to find a way to adapt itself to the enormous complexity found in the lives of poor people, and not the other way around.” We continue to appreciate this sentiment, and still think the titles on his list are worth a read:
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> Posted by Hatem Mahbouli, Investment Officer, FMO

If you’re an impact investor, you probably want to do more in “green”. For instance, impact investing in microfinance, which constitutes a large portion of impact investing writ large, rarely incorporates environmental sustainability. You might think, my second bottom line is to help lower-income households get better access to financial services, why don’t I combine this with access to clean energy? Adding the third bottom line for investors targeting the base of the economic pyramid (BoP), unsurprisingly, has its share of issues and challenges. But, as we’re increasingly seeing, the business case for financing clean energy is strengthening.

What is in it for the microfinance institutions (MFIs)? Over the years, many MFIs have started green pilots and haven’t followed through. Why? Because they didn’t see an attractive enough business case. Because the clean energy infrastructure was not there. Because it was not the right time, internally or in the local market. And the list could go on. There are many reasons not to offer clean energy products and instead stick to traditional mainstream loans.

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> Posted by Center Staff

We’ve written about the unfolding demonetization situation in India a few times now (here and here). Demonetization, the government declaration on November 8, 2016 that Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes would become void on midnight of the same day, aims to curb black money and corruption, and support the uptake of digital financial services. However, demonetization has caused a range of harms. These consequences should have been foreseeable because: the declaration was massive in scope, affecting 86 percent of the country’s currency in circulation; the country’s banking industry was given no time to prepare, as the plan was kept secret until November 8; and the vast majority of the country’s labor force works in the informal sector, dealing almost exclusively in cash.

Our previous posts focused on the financial inclusion implications of demonetization and how the government’s move affects Indians’ ability to conduct their finances. But our posts haven’t discussed the non-economic ways that demonetization is affecting citizens. Let us be clear, with the massive population in India living at or below the poverty line, the financial shock caused by demonetization has meant life or death for many. Here is a list of some of the ways demonetization is causing more than economic harm:
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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

A customer waits to collect money at the Juba Express money transfer company in Mogadishu, Somalia. 

This post is part of a series examining the global phenomenon of de-risking and its impact on financial inclusion. To investigate this issue, CFI staff partnered with Credit Suisse Global Citizen Rissa Ofilada, a compliance lawyer based in the Philippines, to undertake a literature review and conduct interviews with key players in the conversation on de-risking.

This is not a rhetorical question—I really do want to know. As we’ve put out a modest blog series about de-risking, I’ve been thinking about regulations on anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT). Are stringent regulations and dramatic consequences for non-compliance really necessary? Is it fair to expect the financial system to bear so large a burden? Would it be better for everyone if the onus were on law enforcement to detect and eliminate illicit activity and financial institutions just had to cooperate where necessary?

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> Posted by Jayshree Venkatesan, Financial Inclusion Consultant

On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister of India made an announcement that notes of denominations Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 would become illegal tender overnight in a move that was termed demonetization. In turn, the government would issue a note valued at Rs. 2000, which would replace the notes taken out of circulation. According to the RBI’s most recent annual report, the total currency in circulation in India was INR 16634.63 billion (~USD 256 billion). The withdrawn notes constituted nearly 85 percent of this currency.

Phasing out old notes and replacing them with new ones is a standard practice followed by central banks globally. In the Indian context, however, there were two factors that contributed to this standard practice resulting in chaos and an economic shock on the poor.

The first was the short span of time given to react. The announcement was made on television after business hours on November 8, and the affected tender was rendered illegal by midnight of the same day. As a result there is enormous pressure on the banking system, and a frenzy of citizens trying to make the necessary adjustments. The second factor was the disproportionately small share of Rs. 2000 notes ready to replace the phased out currency. While the short span of time resulted in an instant shock to several segments of the population that predominantly operate in the cash economy, the limited Rs. 2000 notes translated into a cash crunch that has brought large parts of the economy to a grinding halt.

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> Posted by Center Staff

In its second year, Financial Inclusion Week expanded its reach and once again displayed how the financial inclusion community is engaged and working for better services for the un- and underserved.

We are excited to share an electronic magazine which captures the Week’s vibrant conversation.  In this roundup e-zine, we hope to capture the energy and insights of Financial Inclusion Week 2016. Inside, we share event photos and videos, and dive into the conversations of the week’s events, while highlighting the client perspective.

We are excited to share insights on this year’s theme, keeping clients first in a digital world. The Financial Inclusion Week conversation covered a breadth of topics and geographies – from the role of digital media in financial literacy in Nepal to the client protection risks associated with nano-loans in Rwanda. As we listened to the many conversations, two words showed up again and again. Throughout all of the perspectives shared, we observed that many stakeholders are looking to new digital channels to help them understand and engage clients.

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> Posted by Misha Sharma, Project Manager, IFMR LEAD

Last week was a rather challenging one for the Indian economy. On November 8, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a dramatic demonetization exercise that rendered all Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes void starting November 9, with the objective of curbing black money, corruption, counterfeit notes, and the financing of terrorism – all of which has leveraged these larger currency notes (with values equivalent to about US$7.50 and $15.00).

The next morning saw newspapers flooded with advertisements by e-wallet companies thanking the Indian Government for its visionary move and congratulating the Prime Minister on “taking the boldest decision in the financial history of Independent India.” They even claimed Indians to be the biggest beneficiaries in this exercise, indicating this was a positive step towards solving the problem of financial inclusion and encouraging more and more people to transition to the digital world. Several banks printed front page advertisements praising this move as progress towards a cashless India. A full-fledged commercial bank endorsed the move with the tag line –Who says you need cash to get by in life?

All I could think while reading these advertisements and endorsements is that we couldn’t be any more oblivious, as we are forgetting the plight of those who remain excluded from the formal economy.

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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, the Smart Campaign

This is the fourth and final blog entry in a series exploring how financial services can be leveraged to assist refugee populations. This entry will consider the future of refugee financial services and what our sector can do to ensure that the future is an inclusive one that serves genuine needs and protects refugee rights.

Syrian refugees shop at a market with their bank card given by the Turkish Red Crescent.

It is worth asking whether the financial inclusion sector is at the forefront of the movement to financially include refugees. The humanitarian sector has long struggled to determine how to provide assistance during a crisis in a way that is sustainable, effective, and accountable. Recently, humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have begun considering whether it’s possible to use payments as an on-ramp for financial inclusion of refugees. Cash transfers have historically facilitated corruption and failed to make it into the hands of the people who needed it most. In-kind donations of goods such as tents, food, sleeping material and other items undermined local merchants who made their livelihoods selling these very goods. In response, the sector has begun experimenting with digital financial payments. In Afghanistan, for example, the World Food Program (WFP) has issued e-vouchers and mobile money to cover food aid. The first e-voucher pilot was carried out on a small user base of 603 recipients in Kabul for a three-month disbursement cycle from April to June 2014. The total value of e-vouchers disbursed was US$72,360. The program proved successful and the WFP launched several follow-on pilots across the country in the subsequent year.

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> Posted by Ellen Metzger, CFI

Community savings groups are at the heart of successful rural banking

Before joining the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion, I spent four years in rural East Africa managing an ultra-poor graduation program. At Village Enterprise, we focused on savings group creation and distributed conditional cash transfers rather than livestock (as is customary with graduation programs) in order to empower choice and facilitate ownership among our participants. Over years of traveling the bumpy back roads of Uganda and Western Kenya meeting with hundreds of savings group members, I met very few participants who went beyond their local savings groups to take loans from financial institutions such as MFIs. Those few who did created great success stories. In light of the recent article “Your Inflexible Friend” in The Economist, which offers a review of microlending’s history, I reflect on why we don’t see microlending in the rural areas of Uganda and Western Kenya and how that can change.

A good reputation is critical. In these areas, tragic stories of delinquencies and defaults travel faster and are remembered longer than stories of success. In Kenya especially, where there is more competition in rural areas among financial institutions than in Uganda, reputation precedes the products and services. These reputations can vary dramatically every 5 kilometers you travel. When groups are asked about being linked to a particular financial institution, one community will trust the organization, the next community a few kilometers away will cringe at the name. Microfinance institutions are extremely sensitive to fluctuations in trust, so it’s imperative for them to design trustworthy products and ensure adequate follow-through on their services every time.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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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.