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Eradicating ultra-poverty for 394 million people globally will require urgent action across sectors. The recently-released Global State of Ultra-Poverty (GSUP) outlines concrete recommendations for each stakeholder group.

> Posted by Anne H. Hastings, Global Advocate, Uplift

When you hear the word “ultra-poverty”, what does it mean to you? Here’s how one woman described it, after she was able to make her way out of it:

“When you live in ultra-poverty, you are a person who has fallen into a hole with no light. No one recognizes you. You are humiliated. You endure all your pain by yourself. Society has forgotten you. If you don’t find someone to take your hand and help you out of that hole, that is where you will stay.”

Ultra-poverty is not the same thing as “extreme poverty” as defined by the World Bank, which includes anyone living under $1.90/day purchasing power parity. Rather, according to most of us who work on ultra-poverty, it looks like this: in ultra-poor families, everyone goes without food for days at a time, children aren’t in school and have no access to health care, and the family has no productive assets to make a living – no land, no livestock, no job, no small commerce.

Around the globe, 193 nations have committed to Sustainable Development Goal #1: ending poverty in all its forms by the year 2030. That means ending ultra-poverty too. Can we do it? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that we know how to do it. The evidence can be found in the Science magazine issue published 15 May 2015 or in the Policy in Focus issue of July 2017. The programs described in these documents, usually referred to as graduation programs for the ultra-poor, have been proven to work, especially when integrated into a country’s social protection strategy. Graduation programs are characterized by their: (1) time-bound nature, usually 24-36 months of direct assistance to a family; (2) carefully sequenced, holistic programming combining social assistance, livelihoods training and financial services; (3) the “big push” they provide the family, often in the form of a transfer of productive assets; and (4) the mentoring and staff accompaniment participants receive.

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> Posted by Center Staff

Are you working to expand quality financial services access? The 2018 Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance is accepting applications for what will be another exceptional week of learning and exchange among world leaders in financial inclusion. The program will take place March 25-30, 2018 at the HBS campus in Boston, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll join us!

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> Posted by Iftin Fatah, Investment Officer, Overseas Private Investment Corporation

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The 2017 Annual Impact Investor Survey from the GIIN showed that respondents, which make up a diverse and active group of impact investors, committed more than $21 billion to impact investments in 2016 and planned to commit 17 percent more capital than that in 2017. Geographically, however, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) only makes up 2 percent of assets under management.

Islamic finance is largely concentrated in three markets – Iran, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia – but it spans nearly every part of the world, including MENA, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. For its part, Islamic finance has grown over the past two decades, with total assets reportedly totaling roughly $2 trillion. Despite this growth, Islamic finance still makes up a small share of the global financial market. These two areas of Islamic finance and impact investing are ripe for potential collaboration. Out of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, 650 million are living on less than 2 dollars a day.

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> Posted by Nancy Widjaja and Maelis Carraro, Accion Venture Lab and BFA

When we met Miguel Duhalt, CEO of Comunidad4Uno in Mexico City, he was working day and night to launch a company that sought to change the financial lives of domestic workers. His goal was building a platform that could offer financial services such as insurance, direct payments, and bank account access to low-income domestic workers in Mexico. With Comunidad4Uno, people who employ domestic workers in their homes would be able to sign up for the service and, with a small annual fee, insure their domestic workers and give them access to medical check-ups. They would be able to pay their employees electronically via a smartphone app into a newly-opened bank account. Leveraging technology and the personal relationships between workers and employers, Miguel wanted to formalize access to insurance and other financial services for domestic workers in Mexico.

But to achieve his ambitions, Miguel needed two things: to raise enough capital to take his enterprise off the ground and to validate his idea in the market with more users. Like many other startup founders, he faced a Catch-22. Investors wanted to see traction and a proven business model before endorsing his company, but his small team had a hard time focusing on reaching proof points because they needed to raise capital to keep the lights on. Raising seed funding is particularly challenging in Mexico and many other emerging markets. Moreover, challenging regulatory environments, inefficient infrastructure and connectivity, costly supply chains, and consumer distrust add to the operational difficulties.

So Miguel, like other talented entrepreneurs, needed to find an aligned investor who could look beyond quick financial returns and help meet important milestones to attract institutional funding at a later stage.

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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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> Posted by Allyse McGrath and Dennis Ferenzy, Analyst at CFI and Associate Economist at IIF

Contrary to popular rhetoric, banks do not view fintechs primarily as competitors. Increasingly, they seek them as partners. This is the message of How Financial Institutions and Fintechs Are Partnering for Inclusion: Lessons from the Frontlinesa new joint report from the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) and the Institute of International Finance (IIF). The report, launched today, finds that banks, insurers and payment companies don’t see fintechs as “little more than pinpricks for a banking mastodon with trillions in assets,” as The Economist colorfully described the fintech-bank relationship in 2015. The relationships between these players are more symbiotic than combative, because fintechs and mainstream financial institutions bring different strengths. With partnerships, fintechs get to scale their technology and access capital, while financial institutions gain assistance to improve product offerings, increase efficiency, and lower costs.

As it turns out, these are all goals with special relevance to low-income customers who look for products and services that are more convenient, less expensive, and higher quality. That makes financial institution-fintech partnerships a crucial strategy for meeting the financial needs of the unbanked and underbanked around the world. During our in-depth interviews with over 30 industry participants, both mainstream financial institutions and fintechs, CFI and IIF identified dozens of effective bank-fintech partnerships working at the base of the pyramid in emerging markets. The report highlights 14 of them.
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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Director, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Where were you in 2006? I was living with friends in a “beach house” in San Diego. Since then, I lived in China, went to grad school, shifted careers, married, and had two kids. So much has changed in my life over the past decade. The same cannot be said on the topic of valuing socially-focused financial institutions.

In 2006, Clay O’Brien wrote the first-of-its-kind paper on “Valuing Microfinance Institutions.” This paper surveyed members of the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) – which was then called the Council of Microfinance Equity Funds (CMEF) – and concluded that:

  • There was not enough transparency in terms of methodologies and benchmark data;
  • There was a need for a more robust, standardized valuation methodology; and
  • The social value of double-bottom line investments was not accounted for – or was accounted for negatively – in the valuation.

FIEC recently revisited the topic of valuing double-bottom line investments with its valuation working group to better understand how the topic has evolved over the past decade. What was found? Despite changes in the broader industry (new players, adjacent sector investments, etc.), very little has changed in terms of valuing financial inclusion investments. Our findings are compiled in a brief paper, Valuing Microfinance Institutions: Where Are We Now.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

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WeBank started piloting facial recognition for KYC (“know your customer”—verifying that a customer is who they say they are) last year—we heard about it when we talked with Jared Shu, a partner with McKinsey, as part of our deep dive about the different ways banks pursue financial inclusion. At that point, the technology was mere possibility, with some question about whether the regulator would allow it. Now, it seems, facial recognition is indeed serving as a form of identity in China. With the help of technology, customers can quite literally authorize a transaction using their face.

Alipay, a mobile payment app launched by Alibaba in 2004 and used by 120 million people in China, is partnering with Face++ (pronounced “face plus plus”) to allow people to use their face as a credential to make payments. The technology is a natural extension of using a fingerprint to verify a person’s identity, and it is far more secure than just comparing a signature on the back of a credit card to a signature on a receipt.

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

In the aftermath of the Panama Papers, the words “offshore” and “tax-haven” are often taboo rhetoric within the investment industry. Perhaps even more so in the impact investing space, where fund managers have both fiduciary and social responsibilities. The Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC; of which CFI is the secretariat) recently published the report Offshore Financial Centers for Financial Inclusion: A Marriage of Convenience to better understand attitudes and practices when it comes to how equity impact investors use offshore financial centers (OFCs). To dive into this topic CFI and consultants Daniel Rozas and Sam Mendelson interviewed FIEC members from the U.S. and Europe. Conversations resulted in varying opinions on the practice of using OFCs, with three key considerations for doing so: administrative efficiency; tax liabilities; and transparency and ethics.

Among all FIEC members interviewed, administrative efficiency was unanimously a primary driver in making the decision about where to domicile funds. Fund managers cited the importance of understanding local regulatory requirements, the presence of embassies, bank relationships, management facilities, remittance corridors, and convenience of location as important considerations in their decision. The reality is many low income offshore countries lack the infrastructure and capacity for supporting the administrative requirements of investments. Additionally, there are increasingly stringent AML/KYC requirements that disproportionately affect lower-income countries creating administrative burdens. The new CFI report states: “…this is at least one of the goals of using OFCs – not to avoid the regulators, but to outsource some of the reporting burden to entities that specialize in this service that have relationships to do it efficiently.”

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Path to Bhutan’s top government offices

Path to Bhutan’s top government offices

In 2014, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (RMA), the country’s central bank, made a commitment under the Alliance for Financial Inclusion’s Maya Declaration to develop a national financial inclusion strategy. It backed the overall pledge with specific commitments detailing the main pieces of the strategy. Since then, it has diligently put these pieces into place. Over the past three years, the RMA created regulations for microfinance organizations (deposit-taking and non-deposit taking) and agent banking. It set up a mobile payments system, a credit bureau and a collateral registry. This is an impressive set of accomplishments for a country starting from a relatively blank slate in these areas.

But is it enough? I wonder whether these initiatives will spark the provision of financial services that contribute to the inclusive economic growth Bhutan is seeking.

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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.