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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 Center Staff

MeetingRoom_MENA.pngYou’d be hard-pressed to list all the ways corporate governance can make (or break!) an organization. In the financial inclusion sector, strong boards ensure effective strategic planning, manage sustainable growth, bolster attractiveness to investors, balance risks, develop client centric products and delivery channels, and, increasingly, act as “strong digital sparring partners for management.”  Yet, a recent study sponsored by the Sanabel Network and the IFC that inspected risks confronting the microfinance sector in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) found that half of their interviewees perceived corporate governance risk as “high” or “very high.”

Being a board member or CEO of a financial inclusion institution is a great responsibility, and can also be a complex task. All boards have different dynamics and governance best practices can sometimes be nebulous. To address these challenges, Calmeadow, Sanabel and the CFI are hosting a “Governance and Strategic Leadership Seminar” this March in Amman. This seminar brings together CEOs and board members of leading financial institutions serving the financially excluded in the MENA region to strengthen board capacity through peer learning and exchange. If you’re a leader in MENA’s inclusive finance sector, please consider attending this seminar to contribute your unique experiences and perspectives, and also to learn from the experiences of your peers.

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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 Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

If someone asked you, “In the past 12 months, have you ever been afraid of your spouse?” how do you think you’d respond? I would personally hope you’d be able to say “never”. I wouldn’t want to hear you say, “often” or even “sometimes”.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about domestic violence and microfinance. This topic came out of the 2014 Microcredit Summit in Mexico where we were talking about health indicators. Carmen Velasco suggested we’d forgotten to add an indicator related to domestic violence to the list, since conceptually it feels that if we don’t include domestic violence under the theme of health, it might continue to not get covered anywhere.

Since the Summit, Freedom from Hunger has had a chance to ask the question I asked you above in three countries. While most demographic and health surveys and other standardized surveys on domestic violence may go through a series of questions about whether a person has experienced physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, or other types of abuse, we were looking for something less invasive, if that’s possible. When I found the above question in an Indian survey, it felt right. I actually had a personal reaction to it. At one point in my life, if someone had asked me this question, I might have said “sometimes” or even “often.”

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> Posted by Hannah Sherman, Project Associate, CFI

Last Thursday the Institute of International Finance (IIF) and the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) launched The Business of Financial Inclusion: Insights from Banks in Emerging Markets. Based on in-depth interviews with 24 banks in emerging markets, the report explores the challenges and opportunities banks face in reaching unbanked and underbanked customers. It shines a spotlight on banks as leaders in advancing financial inclusion and discusses specific strategies related to technology, data, partnerships, financial capability, and other key issues, and concludes with recommendations for action.

In the following video, the report’s primary author Susy Cheston interviews Dr. William Derban, Director of Inclusive Banking & Corporate Social Responsibility at Fidelity Bank Ghana and one of the 24 bankers interviewed for the report. In their informal and in-depth conversation, Ms. Cheston and Dr. Derban discuss, among other topics, why Fidelity Bank Ghana has decided to engage in financial inclusion (hint: it’s not just about CSR), their commitment to always putting the customer first, their plan to reach viability, and the benefits they have gained through technology and partnerships.

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> Posted by Saquiba Aziz, Social Responsibility Associate, Pakistan Microfinance Network

Loan officers, who form the base of organizational hierarchy of a typical microfinance organization, are instrumental in expanding the outreach of microfinance and building goodwill with microfinance clients. Hence it is extremely important that the right kind of social and financial message is conveyed through them. However, despite the critical role that loan officers play in an organization, their voices and their challenges in the field are largely ignored when it comes to literature on microfinance.

Realizing the need to study and document the ground realities and perspectives of this fundamental human capital of microfinance providers, the Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN), with financial support from the State Bank of Pakistan and the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund, recently undertook a qualitative study on loan officers, titled, “Loan Officers’ Voices: Perspectives and Lessons from the Foot Soldiers“. For the research, PMN conducted focus group discussions and in depth interviews with loan officers from 10 institutions that volunteered to participate.

Some very interesting findings emerged from the study. Most of the loan officers were found to be aware of the vital role that they were entrusted with, i.e. the growth and risk management of their institutions. Their work, primarily based in the field, is premised upon assumptions of self-surveillance, monitoring, and discipline to achieve the targets set for them. Loan officers shared diverse visions about the job at hand: responses differed from helping the underprivileged to seeking experience in client handling. Another group viewed their jobs in terms of the authority and social power it brings to them as they monitor clients’ usage of loans. This improves their self-esteem as they feel good about the fact that they are in a position to oversee and help people.

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> Posted by Ben Mandell, International Programs Manager, Water.orgAccess to safe drinking water and hygienic sanitation are true necessities for healthy families. Yet, access rates for water and sanitation remain stubbornly low in most low-income countries. The negative health implications can be dire and include diarrheal disease which can result in premature mortality and childhood malnutrition and stunting.  From an economic perspective, “The health consequences of poor sanitation are substantial and contribute to over US$50 billion in GDP loss annually,” according to a new India focused learning note jointly developed by Water.org and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP).

In the learning note, Water.org and WSP, both active globally in working to expand access to water and sanitation, collaborate to share their research and findings on how household lending can help drive improved water and sanitation uptake as well as provide economic and social benefits to local financial organizations.

Water.org, through its WaterCredit program, provides capacity-building grants and technical assistance to create, pilot, and scale water and sanitation financing. Currently, WaterCredit provides funding to microfinance providers and NGOs to support the creation of programs and these partners then leverage funding from banks and capital markets to disburse loans to people in need. Accordingly, “Water.org has provided US$11.3 million in subsidies to financial institutions and NGO partners worldwide, which in turn have disbursed over US$120 million in loans reaching 2.4 million people.”

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Smart CampaignToday, the Smart Campaign released for public comment new draft Client Protection Standards – which will be the basis for what we term Certification 2.0. The new standards streamline the previous Client Protection Standards, and reflect the evolving financial inclusion industry. They incorporate client risks pertaining to insurance, savings, and digital financial services. The standards operationalize where the financial inclusion industry sets the bar in terms of the minimum behaviors clients should expect from their financial service providers. Now open, the public comment period extends through November 30, 2015.

We’d love your feedback!

The new standards build off of the first set of Client Protection Standards, released in January 2013, as the basis for the introduction of Smart Certification. The standards and their corresponding indicators, which put the Client Protection Principles into practice, are used to benchmark institutions seeking Smart Certification.

Like the first iteration, the development of Certification 2.0 standards has been a highly collaborative process. Over the past 18 months, the campaign consulted a wide array of stakeholders and up to 30 experts to strengthen and update the standards and indicators.

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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

In three days the Center for Financial Inclusion will unveil the FI2020 Progress Report. In it, we define progress made toward financial inclusion and make predictions about the most critical issues facing the industry.

This web-based report has been a year in the making, the result of FI2020’s monitoring of industry trends, interviews with experts, and an analysis of financial inclusion data from both the supply and demand side. We organized the report around the five areas identified in the 2013 Roadmap to Financial Inclusion: Addressing Customer Needs, Client Protection, Credit Reporting & Data, Financial Capability, and Technology.

Perhaps the most fun—and most debatable—aspect of the report is the rating we will reveal for each area, marking where we are on the road to financial inclusion along these five dimensions. The financial inclusion community around the world will have the opportunity to weigh in with their vote – and we expect there will be some disagreement with our opinions. We hope you will not only mark your own rating, but also leave comments with your views. Most of all, we hope this thought exercise will help focus all of our attention on how to close the gaps to get to a 10 in each area.

To offer a sneak preview of the content, I thought I would reveal how we rated progress made on client protection:

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Three questions every ‘pro-poor’ group needs to ask themselves

> Posted by Chris Dunford and Carmen Velasco

The following post was originally published on NextBillion.

This month, the United Nations will celebrate achievement of Millennium Development Goal No. 1. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by more than half, from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015. How did this happen? Is it because of targeted anti-poverty programs, or is it due to broad-based economic growth, especially in China and India? If economic growth is the main cause, as it seems to be, further progress may be doubtful. Economic growth alone is unlikely to reach the residual hundreds of millions still living in extreme poverty.

Nor is it likely that anti-poverty programs, whether public or private, will lift this “bottom billion” from extreme poverty. For example, the U.S. poverty rate hovers around 15 percent of the population, nearly unchanged for decades, despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on U.S. anti-poverty programs. For another example, in poorer countries, microfinance was billed as a self-financing solution to deep poverty and became a darling of international development donors in the 1990s and “social investors” in the 2000s. Then smart social scientists tested the claims with sound field research and found little to no impact on poverty.

Is it reasonable, however, to expect anti-poverty programs, by themselves, to lift large numbers of people above an arbitrary poverty line? Given that the poor must overcome many burdens before they can seize whatever economic opportunities are available, perhaps we should ask a different question:

Do anti-poverty programs ease the burdens of poverty?

While the recent research into microfinance shows little to no increase of annual household income, on average, the same studies very often show that the burden of poverty is alleviated by giving microfinance participants access to money when they really need it during the year. Economists call this impact “consumption smoothing.” In plain terms, it means people get enough to eat throughout the year instead of going without adequate food for a day, a week, or even months at a time. If so, this is an impact worth celebrating, is it not?

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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.