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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

A lot of money is being spent on financial education—and we’d like to see it spent more effectively. We still don’t know all that is needed about what works, but based on our scan of the current landscape for financial capability-building innovations, we can already recommend six major shifts in how financial capability resources are deployed.

The first three recommendations relate to who is building financial capability.

1. Bring financial capability efforts closer to the actual use of financial services by enabling providers to take a greater role.

2. Shift the expectation that the government is responsible for financial capability to an expectation of shared responsibility among all stakeholders, including financial service providers and other institutions.

3. Engage organizations serving BoP constituencies, from government social service agencies to employers to non-profits.

This calls for “all hands on deck.” We argue, first and foremost, that providers can and should take a primary role in building financial capability, as they are best equipped to reach customers at teachable moments and to help them learn by doing. Many providers are already spending significant resources on financial education. They could have a much greater return on their investment if they focused those resources on embedding financial capability into product design and delivery, looking at all the touch points in the customer experience as opportunities to help customers use products more successfully.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

For a brief moment on Monday, all eyes in Tbilisi, Georgia were on the Smart Campaign and its findings on the well-being of microfinance clients. The Campaign presented its Client Voices report in a high-profile event at the Georgian Parliament. Joining the event were 12 Members of Parliament from both majority and minority factions of the Government; leadership from the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Agriculture; a multitude of microfinance practitioners; press and three television stations. This was the first time government representatives of the majority party, minority party, executive branch, industry, and Central Bank all got together to talk about how microfinance clients are treated. Needless to say, it was immensely encouraging to witness this demonstrated interest in the fair and responsible treatment of microfinance clients in Georgia.

The Client Voices project is a four-country research investigation that directly asked microfinance clients about their experiences and treatment. Along with Georgia, the studied countries are Benin, Pakistan, and Peru. Georgia was selected because its market hosts strong and representative institutions conducive to consensus building, and the industry’s decision-makers are currently working to update its regulatory and legal framework. The launch of the Client Voices report positioned the market to act on the project’s recommendations.

The event was co-hosted by the Business and Economic Center (BEC), a non-partisan, not-for-profit institution that works to facilitate understanding and discussion among MPs around financial, economic, and business topics. Following opening remarks by Natia Katsiashvili, Executive Director of BEC, and Giorgi Volski, MP and Chairman of the majority Georgian Dream faction (think Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives), the main findings from the Client Voices project were presented. Here are a few of the key findings:

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

“Would you like to save $10 today?” In the United States, it seems you can’t shop anywhere these days without hearing this question at the checkout counter. According to Card Hub, there are at least 134 large retailers in the U.S. offering credit cards. And of course, these offers usually sound great. Who wouldn’t want to save money on purchases? All you have to do is fill out a short form on the spot… It’s easy.

These savings can come at a price. Here are a few of my concerns about credit cards offered by the likes of Target, Macys, Sears, TJ Maxx, and others.

  • Confusion between Rewards and Credit Cards – Many retailers provide rewards or loyalty card programs. For instance, you can earn points at CVS with a card or get gas reward points at Stop and Shop. These rewards and loyalty cards are often similar to retail credit cards in that they are offered at the register, you fill out a short form to join, and you present the cards when checking out. For customers with limited financial literacy or limited English language skills, the difference between reward/loyalty cards and retail credit cards can be very confusing. It’s blurred even more by the fact that most credit cards also offer rewards – like cash back or bonus air miles. Of course, there are big differences between a card that one swipes to simply “earn points” and a card that allows one to make purchases on credit.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

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.

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> Posted by Caitlin Sanford, Bankable Frontier Associates, and Alexandra Rizzi, the Smart Campaign

“Sandra” from Lima described her experience talking to a loan officer:

“You don’t understand anything [the microfinance staff members] says, because of how fast he talks.  It is almost as if his tongue is twisted. You end up not understanding in the end. [He says] ‘But ma’am I’ve explained it to you, why can’t you understand? I’ve been very clear.’”

New Client Voices research from the Smart Campaign and Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) finds that although microfinance providers may be complying with disclosure regulations, clients are not adequately absorbing information about their financial products.  A regulatory compliance-based approach to consumer protection in which providers focus on meeting minimum disclosure requirements risks losing sight of the main objective of transparency— that clients understand what they are signing up for. With clients inadequately informed about many aspects of microfinance, even in countries with strong transparency regulations like Peru and Georgia, the Client Voices findings demand a radical rethinking of transparency.  Namely, emphasis should widen from what information is provided to how much clients understand.

In the Client Voices project we solicited input from clients about what they consider good and bad treatment in their interactions with microfinance service providers, and assessed the prevalence of consumer protection problems in Benin, Pakistan, Peru, and Georgia.  We found that clients in all four countries have an inadequate understanding of the basic attributes of their microfinance products.  Although most clients do receive some information about their loan products, overall they report low levels of understanding of their loan terms and conditions, regardless of education level.  In Benin, Pakistan, and Peru, 50 percent, 49 percent, and 43 percent of respondents respectively report that they understood loan terms only somewhat or not at all at the time of taking out the loan. Self-reported understanding of loan terms and conditions is highest in Georgia, where 79 percent reported understanding the terms and conditions. Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What do microfinance clients in Peru think about their experiences with financial services? A few weeks ago the Smart Campaign released its Client Voices reports, a four-country research investigation that directly asked microfinance clients about their experiences. After previously spotlighting Benin, Georgia, and Pakistan on this blog, today we’ll take a look at findings from the fourth country in the project, Peru.

The research was carried out by Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) and IPM Research. A qualitative research phase was first conducted, which included focus group discussions, individual interviews, and a photography exercise to allow clients to visually describe how they view good and bad treatment. The quantitative survey that followed included a sample of 1,000 current and former microfinance clients.

What did the clients say? In Peru, a well-regulated market, a different set of problems emerged from those we found in less-protected Benin and Pakistan. While severe abuses have been curtailed, emerging problems in Peru tended to arise from aggressive competition for customers.

Overall, clients in Peru are satisfied with their providers, suggesting that they’re benefitting from the industry’s well-regulated, competitive market and effective credit reporting system. Less than 10 percent of respondents rated their experiences with microfinance providers as either “bad” or “very bad”. In an exercise where respondents ranked various formal institutions in terms of how they treat clients, microfinance providers scored above commercial banks.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What’s the state of client protection in Georgia? A few weeks ago we launched our Clients Voices project, a four-country research investigation that directly asked clients about their experiences with financial providers and their thoughts on what constitutes good and bad treatment. The four countries studied in the project are Benin, Pakistan, Peru, and Georgia. After previously spotlighting Benin and Pakistan on this blog, today we’ll take a look at some of the research findings specific to Georgia.

The research was carried out by Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) and IPM Research. In the qualitative research phase, they used focus group discussions, individual interviews, and a photography exercise to understand what constitutes good and bad treatment by MFIs from the clients’ perspective. The quantitative survey that followed included a sample of 800 current microfinance clients and 200 former clients.

What were the results?

Overwhelmingly, microfinance clients in Georgia are satisfied with their MFIs. The large majority of respondents rated their experiences as “good” or “very good,” with only 5 percent of all respondents expressing a “bad” or “very bad” experience. In Georgia, clients appear to value maintaining a long-term relationship with MFIs. Sixty-six percent are happy with their institutions and stay with them for a long time. In the quantitative survey, approximately 60 percent of respondents had taken multiple loans with the same MFI over time. This is in contrast with findings in Pakistan showing that clients maintain short-term relationships. Microfinance institutions’ service and treatment was ranked as matching or exceeding that of commercial banks. Clients repeatedly ranked microfinance organizations as among the institutions (both financial and non-financial) that treated them best.

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> 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.

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> Posted by Caitlin Sanford, Bankable Frontier Associates, and Alexandra Rizzi, the Smart Campaign

Caitlin Sanford presenting at the Client Voices launch event last week.

Caitlin Sanford presenting at the Client Voices launch event last week

“A ciega lo hacía…hacía mis préstamos a ciega.” – “Mariana”, microfinance client in Peru

“I was blind… I took out the loans blind.”

Mariana is a 42 year old single mother living in the outskirts of Lima. Microfinance loans have helped her to start a business, put herself through school as an adult, and even leave her philandering husband. When we met her, Mariana’s main financial goal was to pay tuition for her daughter, “Yessica”. (Names have been changed to protect identity.)

However, Mariana had fallen behind in her microfinance payments after the family was a victim of an extortion scheme that caused the loss of most of the family’s savings. Mariana felt that her microfinance provider (MFP) was indifferent to her plight, and was surprised to learn that she would have to pay late penalties associated with her loan. She said, “They did not inform me very well… the girls [MFP employees] that call you for the loan say, yes, we will give you this loan, and this and that, and they don’t explain in much detail… They give you the payment schedule, but then [if you have a problem] you will be surprised.” As Mariana describes it, she took out these loans “blind” because she did not understand the interest rate or fees.

Although she struggles with her existing credit payments, Mariana is constantly tempted by offers for new loans. She says that representatives from MFPs, banks, and retail stores often stop her in the street or call her cell phone offering loans. Recently, Mariana bought anti-theft insurance on the street because the salesperson was persuasive, but Mariana does not know how she would make a claim if she were to be robbed.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers?

Today the Smart Campaign is proud to present the results from the Client Voices project, a four-country research investigation that directly asked clients about their experiences with financial providers and their thoughts on what constitutes good and bad treatment.

Today’s release includes the main synthesis report as well as country reports from Georgia and Peru. The Campaign has already released comprehensive country reports for the other two countries in which research took place, Benin and Pakistan.

The Campaign commissioned Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA), as research partner on the project, to talk with thousands of lower-income microfinance clients face-to-face in the four diverse country markets. The intent was to hear from clients in an open-ended way, without pre-judging their concerns, and then to follow-up this qualitative work with quantitative surveys to determine how representative the concerns expressed were. The intensive research captures, first-hand, clients’ interactions with the institutions that lend them money and keep their savings, and are therefore instrumental in their lives.

Through the project, the Campaign sought to learn whether assumptions made about what constitutes problematic treatment of poor clients (such as those embodied in the Client Protection Principles) rightly reflected what clients themselves worry about. The research was conducted so that it might serve as a catalyst for improvement in client protection by financial service providers, regulators, industry associations, consumer advocacy groups, and others – not only in these four countries, but as guidelines for the protection of lower-income clients around the world.

Here is some of what we found.

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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.