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The Smart Campaign is thrilled to announce that a new milestone for client protection in microfinance has been reached: there are now 50 financial institutions that have been awarded Smart Certification, recognizing their commitment to fair client treatment and responsible practices. In total, these institutions serve roughly 25 million clients.
The threshold was crossed with a handful of recent certifications – Fortis Microfinance Bank and Grooming Centre in Nigeria; Banco ADOPEM in the Dominican Republic; Fundacion Paraguaya in Paraguay; Pro Mujer in Nicaragua; and AgroInvest in Serbia. Each of these institutions worked over a several month process to assess and upgrade their operations to meet every one of the indicators signifying strong consumer protection practices.
Grooming Centre and Fortis Microfinance Bank collectively reach over a half million clients. Founded in 2006, Grooming Centre operates in 22 states in Nigeria with a network of 376 branches. Grooming Centre offers a range of financial services, including savings and credit, small business loans, agricultural loans, and clean energy financing. Fortis Microfinance Bank, along with offering financial services, provides clients with business support in areas including management, marketing, and administration.
> Posted by Ben Lebeaux and Jessica L. Cassel, Senior Communications Specialist and Staff Attorney, Accion
One of the fastest, most efficient ways to promote financial inclusion is to make sure that regulators create policy that encourages innovation and collaboration. Because regulators can singlehandedly affect everything from microfinance institutions to financial technology startups to credit bureaus, helping them make the best possible decisions is one of the best ways to help the two billion financially excluded people access savings accounts, credit, checking, insurance, and more.
That’s why the Microfinance CEO Working Group’s Model Legal Framework and Commentary for Financial Consumer Protection (MLF), published in the spring of 2015, is such a valuable tool. Regulators can use the MLF as a framework to either evaluate existing regulation or to adopt new best practices. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it allows policymakers to quickly find, adapt, and use the best available legislation.
Global law firm DLA Piper and its nonprofit affiliate, New Perimeter, were instrumental in creating the MLF. The firm’s dedicated team of roughly 20 lawyers has worked with the Working Group for the last two years, contributing nearly 3,000 hours of pro bono time to draft and refine the MLF. New Perimeter continues to support the project, traveling with Accion’s lawyers and financial inclusion experts to train Latin American regulators on the MLF, and plans to update it periodically.
We spoke with Sara K. Andrews, the Assistant Director of New Perimeter, and DLA Piper Associate Erik Choisy about how they got involved with the MLF, the work they did to support it, and why they dedicated such significant time and energy to support financial inclusion.
Accion: Tell us more about New Perimeter. Why did DLA Piper commit to providing international pro bono legal assistance?
Sara K. Andrews (SA): DLA Piper created New Perimeter in 2005 to expand the firm’s extensive pro bono programs beyond the United States, and to give our lawyers opportunities to address some of the critical issues confronting underserved regions of the world. One of our first projects was in Kosovo, helping to restore the country’s judicial and prosecutorial systems. Since then we have worked on over 100 multi-year pro bono projects involving more than 800 DLA Piper lawyers from across the firm.
> Posted by Center Staff
2015 was a year full of great reads (and listens). As we enter 2016, we wanted to take a look back at last year and what we were most excited to explore. Through our work writing the FI2020 Progress Report, which assesses global progress in five key areas of financial inclusion, we benefited from important research from many in the financial inclusion field. As part of this effort, we were eager to update our FI2020 Resource Library with the most informative reports and research outputs. We encourage you to check it out – and in the meantime to review the highlights listed below. The organizations responsible for these reports cover a wide array of stakeholder types, from support organizations, to telecommunication companies, to financial service providers – proof that progress in financial inclusion is being driven by many.
What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default? (January)
The Smart Campaign
Author: Jami Solli
This report looks in-depth at the enabling environment, the practices of providers, and customer experiences in Peru, India, and Uganda, to understand what happens when microfinance clients default on their loans. We were especially interested in the paper’s findings that demonstrate that effective credit bureaus give financial service providers the confidence to treat customers who default more humanely.
Money Resolutions: A Sketchbook (January)
Author: Ignacio Mas
This working paper explores the underlying logic for how people make money resolutions, including how people organize their money and make decisions about financial goals and spending. The paper focuses on peoples’ approaches to making financial decisions – rather than evaluating the decisions themselves – identifying the inner conflicts they face in the process.
> Posted by Center Staff
Last week, FI2020 Week created a global conversation on the key actions needed to advance financial inclusion, grounded in the findings of the recently launched FI2020 Progress Report. From November 2-6, 2015, stakeholders around the world participated in more than 30 events and shared their voices over social media, with #FI2020. As part of the week, global financial inclusion leaders offered calls to action. We started to provide highlights, but found that every single contributor had an important perspective to add, so this post includes all of their voices.
If there were any doubts about the potential to achieve global financial inclusion, it would be dispelled by the passion and sense of opportunity in the calls to action that were posted last week as part of FI2020 Week. A visionary tone was set by the inaugural posting by Ajay Banga of MasterCard, who declared that “financial inclusion is both economic and social inclusion and necessary for the future well-being of our planet.” Jean-Claude Masangu Mulongo, former Governor of the Central Bank of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, draws the link between financial inclusion, economic growth, and poverty reduction, while also—appropriately, given his role–noting the link to financial stability. Yves Moury of Fundación Capital heightens the urgency by stating that “poverty is the greatest scandal of our times,” and Martin Burt of Fundación Paraguaya adds that “poverty elimination must be the endgame of all financial inclusion strategies.”
This strong sense of social mission comes out in a call from Dr. William Derban of Fidelity Bank Ghana to “leave no one behind” in the march toward inclusion. Michael Miebach of MasterCard also talks about meeting the needs of all members of society, including women, and Bindu Ananth of IFMR Trust mentions smallholder farmers as another group that is often excluded. In light of breakthroughs in technology, Sonja Kelly of the Center for Financial Inclusion urges us to reach out to those who are traditionally excluded from technology, and not just early adopters. As Larry Reed of the Microcredit Summit Campaign puts it, “We need to approach the challenge with the end in mind, designing a system that can sustainably reach clients in the most remote areas and who transact in the smallest sums.”
FI2020 Week is a global conversation on the key actions needed to advance financial inclusion, grounded in the findings of the recently launched FI2020 Progress Report. From November 2-6, 2015, stakeholders around the world are participating in more than 30 events and sharing their voices over social media, with #FI2020.
We’re two days in! FI2020 Week thus far has been a whirlwind few days, with events all over the world, a handful of public webinars, and robust social media conversations. We hope you’ve had the opportunity to take part in the action!
To get you up to speed, though certainly not comprehensive, here’s a snapshot of what’s been happening.
In Bangladesh, BRAC conducted an internal debate about the impact and benefits of its own microfinance program. Answering tough questions like “Does BRAC risk doing more harm than good by using microfinance in its model of fighting poverty?” staff shared their perspectives, providing insights into how to improve the program. Check out some of the presented arguments on BRAC’s Twitter feed.
In Nigeria, Accion and Accion Microfinance Bank discussed financial inclusion strategies for the country. The three biggest industry gaps identified were the lack of mobile and agent banking infrastructure, human capital in the microfinance banking sector, and a spirit of collaboration and partnership among the various players. Moving forward, the discussion participants will apply greater focus on savings as a necessary service offering that can be improved.
The World Savings and Retail Banking Institute (WSBI) conducted a webinar on the lessons drawn from a six year project (2009 – 2015) carried out with 12 WSBI member banks aimed at creating usable savings services in the hands of the poor. One call to action from the webinar was the need for greater connectivity to combat the challenge of reaching clients in rural communities. As WSBI aims to add 400 million customers to its network by 2020, it will need to partner with more organizations in order to reach very remote village groups.
> Posted by Alex Counts, Founder, Grameen Foundation
I have written extensively about how I believe practitioners and researchers can work most effectively together in reducing poverty, often using some of the missed opportunities for this kind of collaboration in microfinance as a point of departure. In the process, quite a few people have come to believe that I am opposed to randomized controlled trials (RCTs). Perhaps part of the issue is the tendency of many people, especially those in the media, to reduce a point of view to whether it is “for” or “against” something else.
In fact, my position has always been that RCTs have an important place in improving development policy and practice. I have, however, been uneasy with the way they have been promoted – dare I say “over-hyped”? – as a “gold standard” and also with the misleading assumptions and comparisons some of its proponents routinely make. The limitations of RCTs are frequently minimized, as are the potential contributions of other research methodologies.
In the case of microcredit, the way RCT studies have been digested, interpreted, and acted upon has done considerable and unnecessary damage to policy and practice, even as it has increased our knowledge of some important issues. No one group bears responsibility for this damage, but too many continue to ignore or minimize it.
Enter Angus Deaton
Like many others, I have struggled at times to articulate the source of my unease. Now comes powerful commentary on RCTs and related topics by 2015 Nobel laureate economist Professor Angus Deaton in his interview with Tim Ogden of NYU’s Financial Access Initiative.
> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger
Known as the “hardest interview you’ll have with a client,” the interview you have with a client who is leaving is also, however, one of the most important interviews for a microfinance institution – and likely any organization or company concerned about the costs of client acquisition and retention.
The latest debates on the success of microfinance have encouraged Freedom from Hunger to dig deeper into our repertoire of “impact stories” and critically review the reasons why microfinance clients whose lives were not improving were dropping out, particularly since critics often suggest that microfinance tends to result in negative outcomes among participants.
Since 2007, Freedom from Hunger has been developing and testing an “impact story” methodology to discover client experiences that are representative of the entire clientele of an MFI or even multiple institutions, ranging from success to failure and whatever is happening in between.
Thus far, Freedom from Hunger has collected over 700 client impact stories from 25 local partners located in ten countries throughout Latin America, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Six countries were visited a second time after an interval of three or four years to re-interview the impact story participants. This is a significant effort to take qualitative interviews and conduct them with a small random selection of clients and use the information for fairly meticulous research purposes.
With these impact stories, we wanted to answer some basic questions. Why are some clients successful and why are some not? Why do some clients drop out? Are all the reasons for drop-out negative and does the drop-out result in a client being worse off than if they stayed a client? Can we tell if microfinance is to blame for their negative status? What can we do to improve?
> Posted by James Militzer, Editor, NextBillion Financial Innovation
The Smart Campaign was born in the midst of extraordinary upheaval in the microfinance sector. Its launch in 2009 was sandwiched between the 2008 global financial crisis, repayment crises in several microfinance markets, and the 2010 debtor suicides in Andhra Pradesh. Yet the turmoil served to amplify the campaign’s main point: that microfinance needs to focus on customer protection. In the succeeding years, it has labored to unite microfinance leaders and practitioners around this goal – most notably through its efforts to convince microfinance institutions (MFIs) to undergo the process of Smart Certification, in which independent evaluators verify that they are “doing everything [they] can to treat [their] clients well and protect them from harm.”
Over time, these efforts have started to gain traction. The campaign – which is steered by a group of prominent leaders in the industry and housed at Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion – has certified 39 microfinance institutions. (Note: Accion is a NextBillion Content Partner.) Certified institutions include a number of leading MFIs in markets around the world, from Equitas in India to Kompanion in Kyrgyzstan. And the campaign calculates that certified MFIs now serve slightly more than 20 million clients. In a recent interview with NextBillion, its director, Isabelle Barrès, called the 20 million client mark “an exciting milestone, recognition of the fact that there is momentum growing in the industry for client protection – not just paying lip service to it, but actually working hard to improve practices.”
But achieving this momentum hasn’t been an easy task for the campaign – or for the industry whose practices it’s trying to improve. Barrès discusses the challenges it has faced – and the controversy it has sparked – in this two-part Q&A.
James Militzer: Do you have any data on which markets have the highest percentage of Smart Campaign-certified MFIs?
Isabelle Barrès: I think Kyrgyzstan probably is the one where we currently have the most right now – 60 percent of microfinance clients are served by organizations that have been certified. This shows that when there are some substantial efforts that are put towards improving client protection – whether it’s at the market level or at the regulatory level, or through market infrastructure, such as supporting a good credit bureau – it can make a difference for the entire industry.