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> Posted by the Microfinance CEO Working Group

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What’s been happening with the Microfinance CEO Working Group (MCWG)? We’re glad you asked. Fresh-off-the-press is a new annual report from the MCWG, detailing the Working Group’s key accomplishments and activities of the past year. Consumer protection is among the standout areas for the MCWG for 2016. Over the course of the year, 14 local partners belonging to the MCWG network achieved Smart Certification, including BRAC Bangladesh, the first microfinance provider in the country and the largest in the world to reach the consumer protection milestone. In total, 21.9 million clients are served by 39 MCWG network Smart Certified institutions.

The MCWG is comprised of the leaders of 10 global microfinance organizations: Accion; Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance; BRAC; CARE; FINCA; Grameen Foundation; Opportunity International; Pro Mujer; VisionFund International; and Women’s World Banking. The newest member, added in 2016, is the Aga Khan Agency for Microfinance and its General Manager Jesse Fripp. The MCWG also harnesses the expertise of more than 40 senior staffers across the member organizations, who meet regularly across seven Peer Groups focused on specific areas of microfinance, from digital financial services, to social performance, to communications, taxation, and others. Members and local partners work with more than 89 million clients in 87 countries, providing them with financial services as well as other support to help them succeed and lift their families out of poverty.

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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 Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Communications Specialist, CFI

Phones are making everything more convenient, but are they also reducing costs? That depends on which service and whose wallet you’re talking about. If it’s the consumer’s mobile money wallet, well, the verdict is still out. In a CGAP paper published last year, Rafe Mazer and Philip Rowen lamented that pricing transparency practices in mobile money services are wholly inadequate across payments, credit, and other product lines. They assert an urgent need for standards and policy to impose better practices on mobile money providers. It’s critical to know how prices are tabulated and what fees are incurred – for the betterment of customers and the industry.

In Kenya, arguably the world’s most robust and dynamic mobile money market, we’ve seen a few recent steps in the right direction.

As of May 2017, per a directive issued by the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK), telcos and financial institutions providing mobile money services were required to ensure that their users are informed via real-time notifications of the price of their transactions – after they are initiated by the user, but before the transactions are completed and money is transferred. This order by the CAK was permitted to be carried out in stages: first, mobile money providers were asked to let users know the price of their money transfers and bill payments after their transactions occurred; then, providers were required to provide pre-transaction pricing for these two services; and finally, this pre-transaction price disclosure was extended to “value-added” mobile money services like micro-loans and micro-insurance. The new rule applies to mobile money services offered through apps, USSD codes, and SIM toolkits.

You might not think that getting notified about relatively small fees is a big deal. After all, mobile money services in Kenya like M-Pesa are used so often that users probably have a strong grasp on pricing. But this is unclear. When CGAP queried mobile money users in Kenya on M-Pesa pricing changes in 2014, despite claiming to be aware of current pricing figures, many respondents in fact were not.

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> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Senior Program Associate, Africa, the Smart Campaign

Smart Campaign Uganda convening participants

Smart Campaign Uganda convening participants

Earlier this year, the Smart Campaign co-hosted a financial inclusion and consumer protection event in collaboration with the Microfinance CEO Working Group and the Association of Microfinance Institutions of Uganda in Kampala, Uganda. With more than 100 people in attendance representing diverse stakeholder groups, the event served as a platform to exchange ideas and commit to greater partnership to progress financial inclusion policies and practices, and consumer protection in Uganda.

The goal of the event was to provide an opportunity to obtain clear commitments in support of the key themes and objectives of Uganda’s developing national financial inclusion strategy, and to place consumer protection at the heart of its roll out. The convening brought a variety of stakeholders together, including financial service providers, donors, researchers, government ministries, and the Bank of Uganda, to support the country’s consumer protection goals and facilitate better collaboration.

After hearing the perspectives and inputs of the key sector stakeholders in attendance, we took stock of our three-year strategy for the country. Going forward, the Campaign’s approach will focus on the following:
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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, the Smart Campaign

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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 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 the Smart Campaign

The Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion announced today a $4.4 million, three-year partnership with The MasterCard Foundation to tackle the challenges facing consumer finance in an increasingly digital world. As a reader of this blog, you’re almost certainly familiar with the work of the Smart Campaign. The Smart Campaign is a global campaign committed to embedding client protection practices into the institutional culture and operations of the financial inclusion sector. Since 2009, we’ve worked globally to create an environment in which financial services are delivered safely and responsibly to low-income clients. The partnership marks a shift in strategy for the Smart Campaign, as well as a deepening of its footprint in Sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, the Smart Campaign’s flagship certification program has certified over 68 financial institutions, serving 35 million clients worldwide. Recent certifications include Opportunity International Colombia, ENLACE in El Salvador, and BRAC Bangladesh, part of the world’s largest anti-poverty organization.

Under the partnership, the Smart Certification program will continue. But with support from The MasterCard Foundation, the Smart Campaign will increase its focus on convening a broader range of players in the financial services field—including regulators, industry associations and financial technology firms—to take on client protection issues emerging from new technologies, to elevate the voice of the clients they serve and to effect change at the national level.

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

The following is part of the Smart Campaign’s #FintechProtects series. We’re raising awareness about responsible digital financial services, spotlighting work from the Smart Campaign and others, and engaging with industry actors on how fintech can move forward in a way that’s best for clients. For more information on #FintechProtects, and to get involved, click here.

In financial inclusion circles there is palpable excitement around the promise of digital financial services (DFS) – most recently quantified by the McKinsey Global Institute as the potential for 1.6 billion individuals becoming banked, $2.1 trillion in loans disbursed, and 95 million new jobs. Yet, in order for this potential to be achieved, customers must trust the service. For instance, India-based MicroSave conducted research showing that while 85 percent of DFS customers said they would recommend DFS to others, they thought of it as a Plan B due to lack of trust. Issues that can erode or prevent trust from building include gaps in data protection and security, service downtime, insufficient transparency, agent misconduct and unauthorized fees, among others. As Graham Wright of MicroSave writes, “It is clear that there are immediate potential wins for DFS providers who address consumer protection issues.”

In this post the Smart Campaign spotlights a fast-growing fintech company, JUMO, that is helping to define what responsible digital finance means.

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

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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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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.