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> Posted by Robin Brazier, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

This is the second in a series of blog posts exploring the impact of Smart Certification on the financial inclusion industry

Smart Certification recently reached the milestone of 100 certified financial institutions, which collectively serve 42 million clients around the world. Among our lessons learned along the way: consumer protection starts with listening.

When the demonetization crisis struck India in 2016, many clients were left with currency that was no longer valid and had no means to repay their loans. They worried that their financial institutions would treat them harshly. Sulthana, who owns a small shop in India, had a different experience with Ujjivan, a Smart-Certified small finance bank: “When demonetization happened…we told Ujjivan that we needed a few more days to repay it. They were very considerate and understanding, spoke politely and gave us a few more days [to repay the loan].”

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> Posted by Haset Solomon, Communications and Operations Associate, the Smart Campaign

La Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO), the common central bank of eight West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo) has prioritized financial inclusion in the region. A recently announced financial inclusion strategy led by BCEAO in partnership with the several national Ministries of Finance aims to include 70 percent of the adult population by the year 2020. Financial access rates range from 7 to 34 percent across the region, according to the Global Findex.

BCEAO is expanding its financial inclusion efforts, including in mobile and e-money, and financial inclusion is slowly progressing in the region, but the opportunities and challenges of the member countries vary significantly, and serious client protection issues remain, particularly among unregulated institutions and in countries with weak national supervision and enforcement. A recent IMF spotlight on Senegal calls for steps to strengthen the sector’s governance through technical assistance to improve supervisory capacities and training to improve reporting standards and practices.

Weak supervision can lead to problems like those the Smart Campaign uncovered during its Client Voice research in Benin, where illegal microfinance institutions collected and disappeared with clients’ savings.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Momentum for Smart Campaign Certification is accelerating. Today, we’re thrilled to announce that there are now more than 20 million lower-income clients whose financial service provider has been certified as meeting the Campaign’s standards for consumer protection.

Since February 2015, the number of clients served by Smart-Certified financial institutions (FIs) has grown by 6 million, to a total of 21 million, with the certification of an additional 11 institutions. To date, 39 FIs, from 19 countries across Latin America to Africa and Asia, have achieved Smart Certification, including some of the world’s best-known institutions dedicated to serving the poor.

As you might be familiar, the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Certification Program contains a core set of standards against which institutions are evaluated by independent, third-party evaluators. Smart Certification publicly recognizes those institutions providing financial services to microentrepreneurs with a standard of care that upholds the microfinance industry’s seven Client Protection Principles. Customers of Smart-Certified organizations can be confident that their financial service provider has policies and processes in place to ensure that they are treated responsibly.

“Twenty million clients is an exciting milestone – recognition of the fact that there’s growing momentum in the industry for client protection,” said Isabelle Barrès, Smart Campaign director. “These organizations are not just paying lip service to the concept of fair treatment, but actually working hard to improve practices,” she added.

In April 2015, having listened carefully to evaluation results and industry feedback, we launched certification program revisions to streamline the process while maintaining high standards. These revisions included an appeals and complaints system and a process for renewing certification validity. At the end of 2015, the Campaign will introduce an accreditation system to license existing and new certifiers, and a version 2.0 of the certification standards. Certification 2.0 standards remove duplication and ambiguity, and deepen standards for savings, insurance, and digital financial services.

Even as the coverage of the certification program approaches critical mass, the broader Smart Campaign continues to advance. For the Campaign’s next phase we are excited about working on the following:
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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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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.