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> Posted by Virginia Moore, Communications Director, CFI

Last week, the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) participated in LendIt USA, an annual conference that brings together leaders and startups in fintech, lending, and venture capital to discuss trends, innovations, and the future of the industry.

So, what were we doing there? We attended to help introduce what we do to this audience of over 5,000 people, partnering with LendIt organizers to launch its very first financial inclusion track. CFI managing director Elisabeth Rhyne spoke on a panel about responsible credit along with representatives from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Marketplace Lending Association, LendStreet, and AEO. Championing the Smart Campaign and consumer protections, Beth brought a global perspective on what responsible credit looks like in practice. She also debated the elephant in the room—or as she put it, “the dead cat on the table:” interest rates. Our director of research Sonja Kelly also moderated a lively session on how smartphones in emerging markets are expanding access to credit with executives from Branch, Cignifi, Juvo, and PayJoy. We’ll have more on these sessions soon.

It was exciting and satisfying to see so much interest in financial inclusion from conference attendees who may not readily know the definition of financial inclusion, appreciate its value, or recognize how they’re contributing to it.

What Is the Value of Financial Inclusion to Fintech and Investor Communities?

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> Posted by Center Staff

What’s better than blog posts? As a blogger, I’m inclined to assert that nothing is in fact better than blog posts. Alas, with self-awareness, I think we can all agree that interactive websites are cool. And that interactive websites about client protection in microfinance are especially cool!

Created by Nathalie Assouline of Alia Développement, a new interactive website offers users a media-rich experience for learning about the development of the microfinance industries in Cambodia and Morocco, with a special focus on client protection.

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

(click to enlarge)

Smart Certification requires a substantial commitment from the financial institutions that choose to seek it. These institutions face a thorough audit by an independent third-party and may be required to improve client-related policies and practices at multiple levels, drawing in staff from the executive suite to the field offices.

In short, is it worth it? Why would a financial institution elect to participate in such a program – especially if the institution is operating smoothly?

A new survey conducted by Deutsche Bank and the Smart Campaign captures the perspectives and experiences of over 24 Smart Certified institutions and yields insights on why nearly 80 financial institutions around the world have achieved Smart Certification, with many more on the path to be certified.

The surprising result is that in addition to the benefit of publicly affirming that financial institutions treat their clients well, Smart Certification helps energize corporate culture and shift it toward client-centricity.

First off, Smart Certification allows financial service providers to distinguish themselves from the competition by demonstrating to their market and the industry that they provide a higher level of service to their clientele. Smart Certified institutions have to exhibit to independent auditors that at every stage from product design through customer acquisition and service delivery, they are governed by standards that ensure clients are treated fairly. Financial institutions have found a wide audience for their newly certified status. Half of all certified institutions reported that their regulators took positive and formal notice of their certification. Additionally, the majority reported positive media attention.

Respondents agreed that the biggest benefit of Smart Certification was in helping them see the world from their clients’ perspective and infuse client protection into the DNA of their operations. Over 90 percent of certified financial institutions agreed that Smart Certification has helped them prioritize their clients’ rights and reshape their institutional culture around client protection.

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> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Project Associate, the Smart Campaign

On January 18th, 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed suit against Navient, the largest federal and private student loans servicer in the U.S., for “systemically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment.” Allegations include:

  • Misallocating student loan payments by failing to follow instructions from borrowers about how to apply their payments across their multiple loans.
  • Steering struggling borrowers toward multiple forbearances instead of lower payments via income-driven repayment plans. (Forbearance is an option that lets borrowers take a short break from making payments, but that still accrues interest.)
  • Providing unclear information about how to re-enroll in income-driven repayment plans.
  • Deceiving private student loan borrowers about requirements to release their co-signer (e.g. a parent or grandparent) from their loans, which can be advantageous given some lenders’ practices surrounding the death of a co-signer.
  • And failing to act when borrowers complained.

Navient currently services more than $300 billion in loans for more than 12 million borrowers.

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> Posted by Ros Grady

The following post was originally published on Ros’ website.

27204912422_277033d622_b2016 has seen a sharp-eyed global focus on clarifying what responsible digital financial inclusion means in practice. This is connected to the increasing recognition that digital financial inclusion brings new and significant risks for consumers, as well as considerable benefits.

The September 2016 McKinsey Global Institute Report – How Digital Finance Could Boost Growth in Emerging Economies – suggests that widespread use of digital finance (payments and digital services delivered via mobile phones and the Internet) could add $3.7 trillion to the GDP of emerging economies – or six percent – by 2025. Which in turn could create around 95 million jobs.

So responsible digital financial inclusion is important.

But what was new in 2016? Consider these important developments:

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> Posted by Pablo Antón Díaz, Research Manager, CFI

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Scott Graham, Daniel Rozas, and Pablo Anton-Diaz at the “Preventing Overindebtedness in the Microfinance Sector in Mexico” panel, XV National Microfinance Summit, Mexico City, Mexico, November 2016

For the past decade, in part fueled by regulatory changes in the financial sector, there has been an explosion in the availability of credit to low-income individuals in Mexico. The Mexican microfinance sector has become increasingly concentrated and highly competitive. In 2015, the 10 largest microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the country represented 81 percent of the total market size, with more than 1,500 smaller MFIs sharing the remaining 19 percent.

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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign

A keynote speaker at a recent conference I attended described consumer protection as “incredibly important,” before adding that it was also “boring.”  Palpable excitement buzzes around new products or technologies, but consumer protection can be a real buzzkill. After all, it is often viewed as a dry, bureaucratic subject, costly for providers, and entailing barriers to pace of change and convenience.

As the Smart Campaign’s Africa team lead, I’m excited about client protection! And that’s not because it’s my purview. First, I think that client protection should not be seen as pumping the breaks on financial inclusion’s momentum. Rather, it guarantees a longer, more enjoyable ride. Secondly, client protection need not be a dull compliance exercise. It too can crowdsource, beta-test, gamify, and so forth to hack innovative, agile, disruptive approaches. But seriously, as an industry we can consider and engage in client protection practices that are data-driven, and that use behavioral economics, human-centered design, fintech, and other disciplines to not only ensure fair consumer treatment but strengthen financial bottom lines.

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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

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Screenshot from VisionFund International’s webinar (click to watch)

This post is part of Financial Inclusion Week, a week of global conversation on advancing financial inclusion. This year’s theme is keeping clients first in a digital world. Throughout the week participants will share their thoughts in events and webinars, on social media, and through blog posts. Add your voice to the conversation using #FinclusionWeek.

On day three of Financial Inclusion Week 2016 we were excited to see conversations happen around the world, including in Rwanda, Bangladesh, and Australia. We offer a rundown of these events and the vibrant online conversation below.

The week is nearing a close but there are still plenty of upcoming events and ways to get involved. Be sure to share your thoughts on Twitter with #FinclusionWeek, join tomorrow’s webinar with Innovations for Poverty Action, or submit a client quote and photo to our collection of client insights.

What’s Happening

VisionFund International hosted a webinar (two webinars, in fact, to accommodate for different timezones) focused on the future of digital financial services. The webinar centered on how VisionFund is using technology to lend to smallholder farmers at the right level, and at the right time. During the webinar, Tom Allen and Justin McAuley, Director of Change and Programs and Director of Global Digital Architecture at VisionFund, highlighted a new application they developed which uses available geographic and market data to better extend their products to smallholder farmers and manage risk. You can watch the full webinar here.
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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign

Almost two years ago, the Smart Campaign surveyed financial service providers in Uganda as part of our study, What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default (WHTCWD). In summarizing what they described, we did not mince words, reporting the environment as “Hobbesian” at the time. Providers in Uganda described default as a major issue of concern for them. Borrowers in arrears would skip town or change their name, behaviors enabled by the lack of government IDs and credit bureaus.

MFIs often adjusted for these thin credit envelopes and their high distrust of clients by meting out harsh, inflexible punishments on an immediate basis to those who missed a repayment. For instance, providers, suspecting customers of being at flight risk often seized collateral immediately after missed payments in ways that contrasted sharply with the Client Protection Standards and best practices guidance. Some providers explained that they had to act quickly because borrowers have multiple loans and if they didn’t seize the collateral quickly, another lender would swoop in, leaving them with nothing. Unfortunately, all of this was occurring in an environment of weak due process and slow legal enforcement, and we heard about instances where lenders were paying off local law enforcement, turning to local councils to pressure defaulters, and even getting clients thrown in jail.

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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.