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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

In ethics, there is a commonly shared thought experiment called the trolley problem. You are standing next to trolley tracks, and a trolley is coming. In its current trajectory, it is going to run over five people who are tied to the tracks. You could divert the train using a lever in front of you, but then the trolley would hit one person tied to the tracks. Do you become active in this scenario and sacrifice the one person? Or do you abstain from involvement and watch the five people get run over?

I don’t mean to be morbid here, but this is a thought experiment that I have been mulling over when it comes to financial inclusion.

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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 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 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 Vitas Argimon, Credit Suisse Global Citizen Volunteer

This post is part of a multi-post series focused on partnerships between commercial banks and financial technology startups.

(click to enlarge)

Today’s financial sector narrative pits the new guy against the old guy. In the case of financial services, this narrative, as it is often portrayed, places commercial banks, the legacy providers, in direct competition with startups, with both parties vying for customers in a game defined by technological advances. While this narrative sometimes plays out in real life, it leaves out the complex ecosystem of interaction between the old and the new. In fact, when it comes to reaching new customer segments, old players are increasingly turning to startups.

In The Business of Financial Inclusion: Insights from Banks in Emerging Markets, CFI and the Institute of International Finance reveal that commercial banks are partnering with fintech startups in their efforts to reach the unbanked and underbanked. As challenges by tech-enabled competition mount, banks are seeking to link-up with startups as they see opportunities to reach new markets, bring down costs, and/or enhance their service offerings. Startups offer agility, a proclivity for risk-taking, and a disruptive mindset. On the other hand, banks already have the customer scale, comprehensive product portfolio, robust infrastructure, deposit insurance, branding, and experience/expertise. (See a full list of the relative strengths of banks and startups at right.) The combination of these strengths can be especially enabling when seeking out previously unreached population segments because the business models for serving those segments often depend on technologies that bring down costs. Startups can offer banks the tools they need to serve lower-income customers that would be difficult to serve within the confines of their traditional banking models. At the same time, many startups need access to customers and financial resources that banks can provide.

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> Posted by Center Staff

banana.skins.coverWhat do industry leaders feel is the biggest risk facing their institutions in 2016? This question is the focus of the latest Banana Skins report for the financial inclusion sector, Financial Services for All: It’s All about Strategy. The report ranks the top perceived risks facing those providing financial services to un/under-served people in emerging markets. Produced by the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation (CSFI), and sponsored by Citi and CFI, the study examines the rapidly changing and expanding financial inclusion landscape to better understand how providers view challenges like new technologies, new market entrants, client repayment capacity, and macro-economic risks.

This year’s report, the sixth in the series surveying risks facing the inclusive finance industry, embraces a broader scope than previous editions, which focused exclusively on microfinance institutions. The new report reflects the advances in the provision of financial services to the base of the economic pyramid and encompasses both established providers and newer entrants like commercial banks, technology companies, and telephone and communication companies. A survey with respondents spanning practitioners, investors, regulators, and other industry stakeholders comprise the report’s findings. It’s important to note that in addition to the Banana Skins report series on inclusive finance, there is also a Banana skins report series on insurance and on banking.

So, what were the results?

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

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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 Magauta Mphahlele, CEO, National Debt Mediation Association (NDMA)

A few weeks ago, South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry published new proposed regulations pertaining to the National Credit Act limiting fees and interest rates on short-term and unsecured loans along with credit cards. The public may lodge comments to the draft regulations up until 30 days after its publishing date of June 25th. The intelligence used to inform the proposals have not been released so it is not clear what policy, cost, or operational factors were taken into consideration to arrive at the outlined changes. Meanwhile, the microfinance industry in the country, which has been lobbying for the flexibility to charge significantly higher interest rates and fees, seeks to understand the regulators’ rationale.

The draft regulations were published after a protracted court battle where one of the industry associations representing micro-lenders requested the court to force the regulator and policymakers to review the fees requirements of the National Credit Act. The fees and interest rates hadn’t been reviewed since the Act became effective in 2007 – a concern when taking into account factors like inflation.

Credit providers have responded with dismay and concern about the proposed changes, especially the interest rate caps on unsecured loans. They have expressed the fear that the proposed interest and fee changes will affect the cost of administering credit, reduce profits, and constrict access to credit for borrowers. Other commentators have viewed the reductions favorably considering consumers are already over-indebted to a large extent and the interest rate cycle is predicted to start trending upwards. On this blog a few months ago, I shared that in 2014, the National Credit Regulator (NCR) Credit Bureau Monitor revealed that out of South Africa’s roughly 23 million credit active individuals, about 11 million have impaired records.

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> Posted by Jami Solli, Independent Consultant and Founder of the Global Alliance for Legal Aid

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As we acknowledge World Consumer Rights Day, celebrated on March 15th each year, recent news from South Africa on over-indebtedness reminded us of the findings from the What Happens to Microfinance Clients Who Default? project. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) just reported that 50 percent of the country’s credit-active population is debt-impaired (meaning they are more than three months behind on bills and/or have a debt-related judgment), and another 15 percent of the population is debt-stressed (one to two months behind on bills). Essentially, more than half of South Africa’s population is over-indebted.

In reacting to this situation, the SAHRC has taken an approach drawn from a human rights-based framework. They have recognized freedom from oppressive, unsustainable debt levels is a human right. Similarly, in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, the government determined that under particular financial circumstances a fresh start is a human right. To address Greece’s growing problem of over-indebtedness, in 2010, Parliament passed a law which gives individuals the right to personal bankruptcy. The implementation of this legislation was also an attempt to harmonize the law with Article 5 of the Greek Constitution which protects citizens’ social and economic well-being. According to the new law, over-indebted individuals now have the possibility to restructure their debts, reducing both interest rates and total amounts owed. The prerequisite is that the individual’s inability to repay needs to be considered a permanent condition.

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> Posted by Anton Simanowitz and Katherine E. Knotts

“Customer centricity” is the new buzz in the microfinance industry. More and more financial service providers are recognizing that their success is built on the success of their clients. Customer centricity certainly means recognizing that financial inclusion is not just about more services – it’s about better services. To achieve this, financial service providers need to grapple with the complexity of clients’ financial lives, understand what appropriate design looks like, and empower clients to use those services effectively.

But is it always a “win-win”? What if clients express preferences and make choices that are not in their long-term best interests – that is, what happens when what clients need isn’t what they might want or demand? And what if responding to client needs in the most appropriate way appears to be a riskier decision from the point of view of institutional financial performance?

These tension points (and some quite radical decisions in the face of them) can be seen in the work of AMK Cambodia, highlighted in a new book The Business of Doing Good. Witness a conversation we had with a senior manager. “We will never be a leader in client service,” he proudly announced. In the competitive Cambodian market, rapid disbursement of loans that meet customer demand is an important competitive advantage. Yet AMK accepts that its own loan disbursement is slower and more time-consuming for clients, and its loan sizes are much smaller than those of its competitors. Coming from an organization that is proudly “client focused”, this statement struck an odd note.

AMK, serving more than 360,000 people, is now the largest Cambodian MFI in terms of outreach. How can an MFI that invests heavily in understanding and responding to the needs of its clients be “less customer friendly” than others? The simple answer is that a market-led solution (responding to what clients want and are prepared to pay for) might look different from responding to what clients need in order to address the underlying complexities of their lives (i.e. poverty and vulnerability).

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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.