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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Associate, CFI

The CFI is excited to welcome Sharlene Brown, who joins us as the Executive Director of the Microfinance CEO Working Group, where she will oversee the Working Group’s ongoing efforts to support the development of its member organizations and the microfinance industry at large. I had the opportunity to ask her about her work thus far, how she views the ever-changing inclusive finance industry, and where the Working Group fits in. 

How did you first get interested in microfinance?

I was born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, New York, so depending on the time of day and where I am, I might say I’m from Jamaica, or Brooklyn, or Brooklyn by way of Jamaica. Regardless, from a young age I knew I wanted to be able to give back. During an opportune economics course at Wellesley College, I came across Professor Yunus’ work and began to connect the dots between my own internal drive and burgeoning interest in investing and social responsibility, and the money management practices I had seen in my own community. ROSCAS, susus, juntas, or whatever you choose to call informal savings and credit groups, were the way that my family largely built their resources and foundation in the United States. So, early on I recognized that these types of non-traditional financial services can work well.

Where did this take you after graduating from college?

I followed an urge to challenge U.S. corporations on their bad behavior and joined Domini Social Investments, an investment firm focused on triple-bottom-line investments. Following a few years at Domini, I stayed in the socially responsible investment space and worked with the U.S. Sustainable Investment Forum, a member association for social investors. I also had an introduction to a New York-based group called Shared Interest, which supports microfinance in South Africa. There I created a social impact framework to help them balance their partners’ social results alongside financial performance.

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> Posted by Alex Counts, President and CEO, Grameen Foundation

With increasing regularity, I hear people talking about a new concept: deploying funds to earn profit while at the same time solving complex social and environmental problems, also known as impact investing. One article that stood out for me, and in fact prompted me to write this, is “Good Investments” by Dan Morrell in the Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin. At one point the author writes: “What impact investing really needs, all agree, are pioneers.”

Impact investing advocates can sometimes give the impression that they have “outsmarted poverty” (and other societal problems) by discovering the need for this profit-making approach, one that allows high net worth individuals to further increase their assets while also having (in the words of another impact investor quoted in the HBS article) a “fabulous social impact.”

Count me as someone who does not feel that what “impact investing” needs now are “pioneers” per se. Rather, it needs pragmatic, risk-taking, deeply curious, and disciplined people with access to funding who can work collaboratively to move an old idea forward, bearing in mind the lessons of the past and the opportunities of the present.

In fact, the actual pioneers of impact investing began laying the groundwork for this latest incarnation decades ago. Think of the Ford Foundation’s work in the 1960s to establish, legitimize, and get U.S. government policy support for Program Related Investments, the “Philanthropy at Five [Percent]” movement in nineteenth century America and England, the Russell Sage Foundation’s financing of low-income housing in New York in the early 1900s, or, in more recent times, the Calvert Foundation, just to name a few.

Or simply consider the modern microfinance industry and how an ecosystem of financing mechanisms – including dozens of “microfinance investment vehicles” (MIVs) – grew up around it in the 1990s and 2000s. Even today, according to an important study by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) and JPMorgan Social Finance, close to 40 percent of impact investments are in microfinance institutions (MFIs) or funds. Microfinance is the largest single sector for receiving impact investments, and is larger than its two closest competitors combined. Clearly there are strong linkages between microfinance and impact investing, and additional opportunities for sharing lessons.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Last week the Microcredit Summit Campaign released their 2014 State of the Campaign report, sharing insights and exemplary initiatives that support the global goal of resilience for all. Resilience outlines where the microfinance industry stands in its mission to end poverty, and how synergies with other services and sectors, like healthcare, mobile phones, and social relief payments, are key to achieving even greater impact.

Worldwide, 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty. One in eight people go to bed hungry and one in six children under the age of five are underweight. Every few years between 10 and 30 percent of the poorest households around the world work their way out of poverty, while roughly the same number fall below the poverty line. Several of these statistics, all highlighted in Resilience, come from the 2013 Millennium Development Goals report. In that report, it’s noted that in terms of the MDG to eliminate poverty, the world is about five years ahead of schedule, though of course progress around the world hasn’t been uniform. In one of the regions that has lagged, Sub-Saharan Africa, so too does financial inclusion. About 85 percent of those in the region don’t have a formal savings account, compared to 77 percent of the world’s poor globally. Even fewer individuals have access to formal credit or insurance products.

Nevertheless, the growth numbers of the microfinance industry for the past decade and a half are encouraging. In 1997, global client outreach totaled 13 million. By 2010, it grew to 205 million. After a dip in 2011 resulting from a loss of 15.4 million clients in India, industry outreach rebounded in 2012.

Resilience breaks down these numbers by income level, revealing an important trend. According to the statistics, during the past decade, for the first time the gap between total client outreach and the total number of clients who are among their country’s lowest income group has widened. At first glance, the numbers may be interpreted as suggesting that MFIs have become more interested in serving wealthier clients. The reality, however, is that more MFIs are adopting accurate benchmarking tools for assessing poverty, such as the Progress out of Poverty Index. It turns out, many MFIs’ previous estimates of their outreach to the very poor have been inaccurate – overestimating how effectively they are serving this client segment.

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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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