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> Posted by Miranda Beshara, Arabic Microfinance Gateway

Alex Silva, Executive Director, Calmeadow

Governance is a business imperative, and investors are willing to pay a premium for effective corporate governance. This was one of the key takeaways from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Governance and Strategic Leadership Seminar, held recently in Amman, Jordan. We’ve seen this stated priority of governance in the MENA microfinance market exhibited elsewhere, too. A joint IFC-Sanabel report assessing the top perceived risks facing the microfinance industry in the Arab world uncovered that the market’s stakeholders viewed weak corporate governance structures as one of the more threatening risks out of roughly 30 risk categories. Financial service providers in particular perceive this risk to be rising.

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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, FMO, 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 Lizzy Bolze, CFI Analyst, with contributions from Alex Silva, Calmeadow Foundation

Are you a microfinance institution in the Middle East or North Africa (MENA) region? Would you like to improve your bottom-line and attract more investors? Here is one simple trick: improve your governance! A recent International Finance Corporation (IFC) paper focusing on MENA, Corporate Governance Success Stories, concludes that “good corporate governance can help companies improve their [financial] performance and gain access to capital,” and various stakeholders, such as institutes and regulators have been actively promoting strong corporate governance in the MENA region. As a result many MFIs in MENA have experienced an increase in access to finance, higher profitability, a reduction in organizational inefficiencies, and an increase in impact on sustainability, among other important growth factors.

One such MFI is the Pakistan-based NRSP Microfinance Bank, which went through a rigorous transformation in 2007 and set goals to improve corporate governance. NRSP focused on restructuring board and management roles, establishing board committees and governance policies, and developing a risk management framework with internal audit functions. Within two years of implementing these governance changes, NRSP saw a $1.7 million profit in the first year, a credit rating improvement from “stable” to “positive”,  and an increase in board effectiveness with the inclusion of women and independent directors. At the same time its ability to leverage equity increased. Access to finance grew to four times equity.

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> Posted by Center Staff

PCMA CEO Abeer Odeh and PMA Governor Jihad Al Wazir

Last week Palestinian government officials announced plans to create a national financial inclusion strategy, an initiative that would put it on a short list of two countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that have nationwide, government-led inclusion plans (Morocco being the other).

The Palestine Monetary Authority (PMA) and the Palestine Capital Markets Authority (PCMA), the country’s central bank and a national regulating body will co-lead the project along with support from the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) and other public and private groups.

The policies and guidelines of the strategy will aim to facilitate greater access, improve awareness and financial education, and reinforce client protection. An area inviting particular attention is access to credit, which is low for both individuals and SMSEs. The strategy will build on inclusion principles endorsed by the G20, World Bank, AFI, and the OECD Principles on National Strategy for Financial Education.

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> Posted by Timothy Nourse, President, Making Cents International

Financial Inclusion 2020 Blog Series banner imageThe 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.

Last week, I participated in a Youth Financial Inclusion workshop for the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region, organized by Silatech and CGAP. Financial institutions in the MENA region are unfortunately the least inclusive in the world. Global Findex Data indicates that only 18 percent of the population has accounts at formal financial institutions, compared to a developing economy average of 41 percent, and among youth ages 15-24, the rate is even lower, reaching only 13 percent when the developing country average is 31 percent. The youth statistics are particularly distressing, considering that the Middle East’s youth bulge is quickly becoming a liability, rather than a demographic dividend.*

During the conference, participants debated how to respond. To what degree should the focus be on credit or savings, the policy environment or product delivery, and financial or non-financial services? In particular though, they wondered whether they should even make specific (and perhaps expensive) efforts to expand youth access. After all, microfinance institutions were already serving youth at a higher level than banks, why not just continue to grow broadly, and to use an economics metaphor – let the tide lift all boats?

Back in the office, I thought about how the youth-inclusive financial services field has been discussing these issues over the past few years, and I wanted to share some of the emerging recommendations that respond to these questions:

  1. Start with savings. USAID and other research indicates that teens and young adults in developing countries are already economically active, have financial resources, and demand tools to manage their money. Although credit is one of these tools, and is appropriate for young adults with entrepreneurial aspirations, savings should be the entry point for the vast majority. Besides encouraging asset accumulation and serving as an appropriate entry point for a relatively vulnerable population, savings has been linked to the development of critical long-term planning and goal setting skills in youth.
  2. Remove legal impediments to access. Many youth are left out of the financial system by laws that prevent them from opening accounts on their own and identification requirements that are difficult to fulfill. Revising these laws to reduce the age of majority or working with central banks to provide flexibility for proof of identification would improve youth access to financial services. For example, in Zambia, Natsave Bank, working with Making Cents, received a waiver from the Bank of Zambia to allow co-signers to help establish the legal identity of account holders under the age of 19. Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Tarazi and Nadine Chehade of CGAP’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional team are hosting a live web chat on financial inclusion in the Arab world tomorrow. The chat will be held from 10:30 to 11:00 AM EST, wherein Michael and Nadine will take participants’ live questions.

After the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, 2012 was a year of advancing new governments that promote inclusion. Tomorrow’s chat is an opportunity to discuss the financial inclusion progress that was made in 2012 and what to expect in 2013. Michael and Nadine, along with Mayada El-Zoghbi, wrote a post on this topic that ran on the CGAP Blog last week. To check out the post, click here. For more information on tomorrow’s web chat – including how to register – click here.

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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.