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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Associate, CFI

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Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, struck Southeast Asia in early November 2013, creating unspeakable devastation. In the Philippines alone, where the typhoon’s wrath was concentrated, over six thousand people lost their lives. One microfinance institution, ASA Philippines, sprang into action only a day after the typhoon hit, demonstrating not just microfinance’s social mission, but also how providers in the industry are evolving to support their clients through more than just credit.

Typhoon Haiyan affected 16 provinces where ASA Philippines had operations, spanning 72 branches and 104,708 active borrowers amounting to a loan portfolio of roughly 365 million Philippine Pesos (~US$7.5 million). Fast forward to the present, about two years later, ASA Philippines has almost a 99 percent collections rate and the institution is thriving. How did the institution manage this crisis? Hint: It wasn’t because of merciless collections practices.

The day after Haiyan hit, ASA Philippines’ president traveled to Tacloban, a city that was largely destroyed by the typhoon, to visit the local ASA Philippines office. For the staff, the president’s presence underlined the ambitious and important relief work ahead of them. Under normal operating circumstances, ASA Philippines’ offices are open 24/7, reflecting the institution’s motto of BWYC: Be with Your Clients. ASA Philippines works towards a culture of immediate response, during the typical day-to-day operations, and during times of tragedy. I recently spoke with a few ASA Philippines staff members and they drew a link between support for clients and client trust. Clients will remember the first person that helps them, I was told. This connection fosters trust and connection, which in turn supports efforts to repay loans.

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> Posted by Debashis Sarker, Senior Manager, BRAC Microfinance Program, Bangladesh
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Microfinance institutions in Bangladesh have more than 30 years of glorious experience of serving poor people with the twofold objectives of women’s empowerment and poverty alleviation. The proven microfinance lending model has been replicated in many developing countries, and more people in Bangladesh have become financially included over time. But what about financial inclusion of a most vulnerable group, persons with disabilities (PWD)?

People with disabilities simply did not get access to the leading lending sources in Bangladesh because of discrimination and accessibility barriers. Regular discrimination, taking the forms of negative attitudes, social exclusion, lack of economic opportunities, and unpaid or underpaid work, has long been an integral part of the lives of PWD. Extremely poor disabled people in rural Bangladesh mostly work in the informal sector with minimum wage rates, reflecting severe discrimination in the workplace. Family members often see them as burden. They may be turned down when trying to rent houses in urban areas. People with disabilities, especially women, are disadvantaged when it comes to education, employment, and even marriage. They may be left out of decision-making and participation in social occasions. In fact, many Bangladeshi people see disability as a curse and cause of shame to the family, and at the national level, Bangladesh has not yet passed an anti-discrimination law.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi and Alyssa Passarelli, Deputy Director and Communications and Operations Assistant, the Smart Campaign

The Smart Campaign has worked tirelessly for over five years to embed the Client Protection Principles into the microfinance sector, and increasingly, the broader financial inclusion community. Yet until now, the Campaign has had minimal input from the very clients whose well-being drives the entire movement.

In order to better understand the concerns and experiences of the individuals who use microfinance, the Campaign has launched a client voice research and learning project. Through listening directly to clients, market stakeholders can raise awareness, dialogue with each other to identify potential issues, and in turn integrate this learning into their work. The Smart Campaign has a unique role in shining a light on potentially harmful or negative experiences that low-income users of financial services have had and bringing those experiences to the attention of those who can do something about them.

To conduct this project, the Campaign will be working with Daryl Collins and her team at Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA). BFA has conducted extensive global research with low-income households, including projects with an explicit focus on consumer protection. The client voice project will be conducted in four markets – Pakistan, Benin, and two others to be chosen this summer. The markets are selected based on geographic diversity as well as engagement by local stakeholders with the Smart Campaign. In Pakistan and Benin for example, the project is working closely with the Pakistan Microfinance Network and the Alafia Consortium, who have helped convene local stakeholders to give feedback on project design, research locations, and results. This ensures that the research has input and support at all stages from local expertise and will be used by those who are best placed to take action in response to the findings.

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> Posted by Andrea Horak, Program Coordinator, CFI 

The Investing in Inclusive Finance program at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion explores the practices of investors in inclusive finance. Across areas including risk, governance, stakeholder alignment, and fund management, this blog series highlights what’s being done to help the industry better utilize private capital to develop financial institutions that incorporate social aims.

When you hear the word “democracy,” you probably think of equality, elected representatives, voting rights, and so on. You probably also think of specific contexts. In the United States, for example, many of its citizens pride themselves on living in a democratic country. But what about democracy in business? Or more specifically, democracy in microfinance institutions (MFIs)? Should democracy extend to the decision-making in their governing boardrooms?

Although good governance has become a top priority for microfinance investors, donors, and regulators worldwide (CGAP’s Microfinance Gateway lists it as a Hot Topic), the structures of boardrooms and views on governance vary from institution to institution, country to country, and continent to continent. None of these structures, however, seem to be “democratic” in the way we define the word – representative of all parties involved. For example, as we covered in a previous blog post, the Anglo-American model of governance empowers CEOs to also serve as chair of their corporate board, which can result in management dominance of decision-making.

At the CMEF’s most recent meeting in April in Lima, Peru, a portion of the discussion was dedicated to asking why the client voice is not heard in the boardroom. Although it was generally agreed that financial institutions should strive to incorporate clients at the governance level in some way, the response on “how” varied greatly.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

Client Protection Certification sealAs the market for the Smart Campaign’s recently launched Client Protection Certification Program kicks off, we’d like to acknowledge the important role that investors will play in the success of the program. What we mean by success is the creation of a viable, sustainable market for certification that encourages the industry’s standards of practice to improve. As suppliers of funds to retail financial providers who serve the poor, investors are in a key position to incentivize their portfolios to improve practices and work towards certification. And by encouraging their investees to get certified, they are helping them to meet public, industry-wide standards of practice that can be understood by everyone – including indirect investors, regulators, and ultimately even clients.

Certification can help investors distinguish among retail providers, particularly in complicated markets where the microfinance label is applied to actors with varying motivations. While it is not meant to replace the investigative rigors that funders conduct prior to an investment, certification conveys that an organization has met a concrete set of operational standards. “We see the Smart Campaign’s Certification Program as similar to a Fair Trade standard for microfinance. It weaves client protection into all aspects of the business relationship between a customer and a financial institution,” said Asad Mahmood, Managing Director of the Global Social Investment Fund at Deutsche Bank.

The Smart Campaign has long enjoyed support from the investor community, with over 200 investors and donors having endorsed the Campaign. Investors have also provided co-financing for activities like assessments and tool creation. But now that certification is available, there are additional ways that investors can support the program and build the market:

  • Urge your investees to seek certification.
  • Support organizations to become certification-ready through self-assessments, third-party assessments, and other tools available to diagnose and improve practices. Most providers will require improvements in practice to become certification-ready. Certification is achievable for most providers with time and effort, but each institution will have its own timeframe.
  • Reward and highlight organizations that become certified in whatever ways are available. For example, it may be possible to offer margin reductions to organizations that have achieved the high standards set by the Campaign.

We’ve been excited by the enthusiasm from the investor community, particularly the examples of Oikocredit and Deutsche Bank, who are taking concrete steps to incorporate certification into their work .

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> Posted by Alexia Latortue, Deputy CEO, CGAP

The Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion is building a movement toward full financial inclusion by 2020. This blog series spotlights financial inclusion efforts around the globe, shares insights from the FI2020 consultative process, and highlights findings from “Mapping the Invisible Market.

When I was young, the word “camp” was synonymous with freedom and fun. These days are long gone. Today, the word conjures images of debate at best and of self-righteous positioning at worst. There seems to be a tendency in many fields for participants to divide themselves into opposing factions. Even in the field of financial inclusion, where we may share a common vision of full inclusion, there are at least two camps with deeply held beliefs about how to get there.

Some people are in a camp that is all about the economics of supply. They posit that if we can find ways to offer insurance to poor and low-income people profitably, the rest will follow. If we can collect tiny amounts of cash in cost-effective ways, bingo, small balance savings accounts will be available to all. The promise of cost innovations, combined with increasing incomes among base-of-the-pyramid customers may be all that is needed. This is the “If We Build It, They Will Come” camp.

Another camp is all about deepening our understanding of clients. We need to empathize, focus group, observe, and ethnographically study more and more deeply. We need to get into the clients’ shoes, probe their needs, and predict their behaviors. If only we understood clients better, we would serve them better. This is the “If We Understood Better, They Would Be Better Served” camp.

I don’t particularly want to play in or debate on behalf of either camp.

We have seen savings accounts opened that remain dormant, and payment systems that are not leveraged. The “If We Build It, They Will Come” camp just doesn’t do it for me. We have also seen organizations that possess deep insights about their clients and potential market, but have no idea how to translate the knowledge or deliver anything at scale. The “If We Understood Better, They Would Be Better Served” camp also doesn’t do it for me.

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> Posted by Dave Grace, Managing Partner, Dave Grace & Associates

The Financial Inclusion 2020 campaign at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion is building a movement toward full financial inclusion by 2020. This blog series spotlights financial inclusion efforts around the globe, shares insights from the FI2020 consultative process and highlights findings from “Mapping the Invisible Market.

“Pushing financial access is great, but what are clients being pushed into?” This has been the common refrain I’ve heard from regulators in Basel, the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, and central bankers in the Caribbean, where I’m sitting now when I talk about the prospects for full financial inclusion within the decade. Given what the financial communities in Europe, India, and the U.S. have been through, we should not be surprised by this common-sense reaction. Consumer protection must be a key component of the Financial Inclusion 2020 platform. Together with a team of policy, technology, regulatory, and financial institution executives, and a former lobbyist for financial cooperatives (um, me), we’ve developed a framework of actionable recommendations that seek to balance access with protection.

We, in the FI2020 Client Protection Working Group, can foresee that even in a state of full financial inclusion, incentives persist for providers to look out for their own interests at the expense of clients, due to certain information, power, and structural imbalances in financial services. The challenge of client protection therefore is to reduce these imbalances and provide countervailing incentives or requirements for positive behavior.

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> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

The painful crawl toward full inclusion of all citizens in all realms of activity is one of the major storylines in American history. It is a key measure of the success of our democratic experiment that we, the people of the 21st century, continue to work with uneven success to perfect our society. How far we have come from the republic of our 18th century founders when only white male property owners enjoyed the privileges of full citizenship! But the advances toward equal rights and opportunities for women, African Americans, gays, persons with disabilities, and other minorities have come through the hard work over many generations of devoted citizen activists fighting for their causes and constituencies.

The point is that rights are not obtained by one Presidential decree, like the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in Confederate territory, or one legal remedy, like the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that enshrined women’s right to vote. These were essential milestones that secured progress, but they were preceded by decades of struggle and would have proven ephemeral if the generations that followed had not persisted in that struggle. There were many setbacks and detours along the way. Nothing was automatic or achieved without extraordinary persistence and sacrifice.

In pursuing financial inclusion, the Center for Financial Inclusion works toward this ideal of non-discrimination, with a special emphasis on economic equality and opportunity for poor people around the world. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the “Responsible Treatment of Clients” principle, one of the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Principles for customers of financial institutions.

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> Posted by Sergio Guzmán and Sonja E. Kelly, Smart Campaign Lead Specialist and Fellow, CFI

Some call them the lower middle class, some call them assets-poor, some refer to them as the 4-10s for their earning average of $4 to $10 per day. In a publication released this year, the World Bank called this group the “vulnerable class,” bridging the gap between a class they refer to as “poor” and the class traditionally known as the “middle class.” Two of the lead authors on the publication, Dr. Augusto de la Torre and Dr. Julián Messina, presented their findings at a recent event at the Inter-American Dialogue, a forum for research and conversation centered on Latin America.

The authors distinguish between two economic strata. The first is the vulnerable class, which is above the poverty line, but is still in danger of losing their discretionary income. The second is the middle class, which is firmly above the poverty line, and is unlikely to lose their discretionary income. The vulnerable class is defined by a narrow dollar range—only $4 to $10 per day. Despite this narrow income definition, in the last decade this class has grown to now contain the highest proportion of the Latin American population when compared to other economic classes. (The same phenomenon is appearing in other regions, as well, although that is a story for another day.) The graph below comes directly from the authors’ presentation (for more on the report’s methodology, see the publication here).

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> Posted by Mary Ellen Iskenderian and Rupert Scofield, Co-Chairs of the Microfinance CEO Working Group

As co-chairs of the Microfinance CEO Working Group, we are pleased to share with you a joint statement from the Working Group in support of the recently announced Smart Campaign Client Protection Certification Program. Certification will offer public recognition for institutions that meet adequate standards of care in appropriately protecting microfinance clients, as verified by an independent evaluation. It marks a clear step forward in ensuring the microfinance industry puts the treatment of its clients first.

Since we began meeting in early 2011, many of the Working Group’s discussions have focused on the fundamental question of what the microfinance industry requires to flourish in the future. We believe that client protection is central to the answer. It is common sense – and good business practice – that a fair and respectful relationship with clients is required to develop trust, reduce risk, and serve them appropriately. As leaders of FINCA and Women’s World Banking, we are especially concerned with the fair treatment of women clients, the traditional backbone of the microfinance industry, who are often more vulnerable to exploitation.

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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.