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> Posted by Khadija Ali, Social Analyst, Pakistan Microfinance Network

The Pakistan Microfinance Network (PMN) – a national association of over 50 microfinance providers (MFPs) – has supported its members in conducting third-party client protection assessments using the Smart Campaign’s Smart Assessment tool. To date, 18 assessments have been conducted, covering over 60 percent of the market in terms of overall outreach to active borrowers. These assessments have been made possible with funding support from the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) through the UK Aid-sponsored Financial Inclusion Program (FIP). The assessments provide a unique opportunity for PMN to observe the state of practice in client protection among member MFPs. For participating MFPs, the assessments provide an opportunity to evaluate their practices in comparison with globally accepted standards of client protection, and seek recommendations for institutional improvements to better comply with the standards. They also indicate whether an institution is ready to pursue Smart Certification, a designation recognized across the global market that an institution successfully integrates the Client Protection Principles into their practices. After undergoing an assessment and acting on its results, Kashf Foundation (KF) recently became the first microfinance institution in Pakistan to achieve Smart Certification.

The Pakistan Microfinance Network, a strategic partner of the Smart Campaign, sat down with Roshaneh Zafar, Managing Director of Kashf Foundation, to talk about the certification experience.

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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist, The Smart Campaign

Visionfund Azercredit

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the Smart Campaign, a global initiative to embed client protection into the institutional culture and operating principles of the microfinance industry. Smart Certification, introduced last year, awards special status to microfinance institutions (MFIs) that can demonstrate that they meet strong standards of client protection.

Getting Smart Certification is not easy. A third-party certifier conducts a thorough desk review and extensive field visit where the candidate MFI’s policies and practices are placed under a microscope. To become certified, MFIs must be in full compliance with all the Smart Campaign’s indicators, both in letter and in spirit. These indicators are derived from the seven Client Protection Principles and touch on everything from appropriate product design to the existence of effective complaint resolution mechanisms. The certification process often requires an MFI to make significant adjustments to its internal policies and practices. But once certified, an MFI can affirm its responsible practices to investors, staff, partners, regulators, and clients alike. To date, 26 organizations worldwide have received certification, covering nearly 9 million clients.

VisionFund Azercredit became the first MFI in Azerbaijan and in the Caucasus region to acheive certification. The Smart Campaign sat down with Mehriban Yusifova, VisionFund Azercredit’s Head of Marketing & Product Development, to better understand the significance of certification from the MFI’s perspective.

Smart Campaign (SC): When and why did VisionFund AzerCredit decide to get Smart Certified? What inspired you to pursue your certification?

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

A proactive step for client protection was recently taken in Laos when the country’s Microfinance Association (MFA) established an industry code of conduct focused on client protection. Laos’ code centers on the client protection principles and the accompanying Smart Certification standards, which designate how institutions can instill fair client treatment in their practices. The code was developed by the MFA following a Smart assessor training in late 2013, and was reviewed by the Campaign to ensure accurate reflection of the client protection principles and standards. In April, the code was presented at an MFA member meeting, where all members present committed to embedding it throughout their institutions. This new code fills an important gap, given that client protection regulation for financial services is not well developed in the country.

Established in 2007, the Microfinance Association and its members represent a growing share of the country’s industry. Members include MFIs, as well as donors, training institutes, and individual experts and advocates. The 32 MFIs that are members make up roughly 50 percent of Laos’ formal microfinance industry by number of clients.

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> Posted by Hema Bansal, India Director, the Smart Campaign

As a child growing up in India, I was always intrigued by stories from Myanmar, but disturbed by conflicts that it had witnessed. Not knowing much about the country, as an adult I still had an innate desire to visit. On May 7th and 8th, I attended the Responsible Finance Seminar, organized by Entrepreneurs du Monde (EDM), held in Myanmar’s city of Yangon. I was completely awed by the mystical peace of the city, I was also impressed by the demonstrations of support at the seminar for instilling client protection in Myanmar’s microfinance industry. It’s a great opportunity for a young market to secure responsible practices from its outset.

Myanmar, the second-largest country in Southeast Asia, remains one of its poorest. Decades of isolation have severely affected its development. In terms of financial inclusion, a large proportion of the population in Myanmar relies on informal lenders. The formal sector only serves about 20 percent of the population, largely because of the existing financial institutions’ limited capability.

In May 2011, President Thein Sein publicly recognized microfinance as a means of development by enabling local and foreign investors to establish fully privately-owned MFIs. Since the rationalization of licensing in Myanmar, around 110 MFIs have been registered. Deposit-taking institutions have been allowed to set-up shop rather easily due to low minimum capital requirements and the absence of separate prudential regulations from non-deposit-taking institutions, such as rules pertaining to reporting standards and portfolio quality management.

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> Posted by Alyssa Passarelli, Communications and Operations Assistant, the Smart Campaign 

Smart CampaignThe launch of Client Protection Certification in January 2013 is a significant milestone for the Smart Campaign and for the financial inclusion community. As an initiative that is the first of its kind, it shifts awareness of client protection in microfinance to an industry standard. The Smart Campaign and the licensed certifiers have been working diligently to get the word out about certification to help build engagement and a market for this important program.

A frequent request from participants in the certification webinar series was to clarify the difference between a Smart Assessment and a Client Protection Certification mission. While they differ in purpose, the important message is how they work hand-in-hand. Both assessments and certification are based on the 30 adequate standards of care rooted in the Smart Campaign’s seven Client Protection Principles (CPPs).

  • An assessment is a report for management. It used the standards as reference to give an in-depth-“diagnostic,” with a grade of the MFI’s practices. The Smart Campaign recommends Smart Assessments as an excellent way for an MFI to prepare itself for certification.
  • Certification is aimed at the stakeholders of an institution. It applies the standards as a firm benchmark for achievement that merits certification. With certification, a financial institution can tell clients, investors, and regulators that it takes adequate care to ensure that its clients are protected.

A Smart Assessment typically lasts four to five days and is conducted by two trained assessors who examine an MFI’s policies and procedures, as well as interview staff and clients. After the assessment field-visit, the MFI receives a lengthy and detailed confidential report that presents the assessors’ comments on each indicator, grading, and supporting evidence. As such, a Smart Assessment is a very useful opportunity for an MFI to see which areas of operations are in adherence with the standards and which need improvement. The cost of an assessment will vary depending on the MFI and the partner with which it collaborates. To date, the Smart Campaign has conducted over 75 assessments across the globe. Most of the organizations that are now Client Protection Certified first underwent an assessment to make sure they were prepared for the certification mission. You can learn more about Smart Assessments from Sergio Guzmán, Lead Specialist for the Smart Campaign.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Smart assessments. You know, a tool to help MFIs diagnose if their institutional practices adequately account for the well-being of their clients and can help them towards becoming ‘Client Protection Certified?’ We’ve written about them through the years (The Dawn of Client Protection Assessments in India, Straight Talk on Client Protection – Aggressive Sales Techniques, Mapping the Numbers of the Smart Campaign, etc.) but this is our very first video on the subject. Smart Assessments examine an MFI’s implementation of the client protection principles, taking the institution through a process of internal review to identify strengths, weaknesses, and ultimately opportunities to enhance business practices around client protection.

In the video, Smart Campaign Lead Specialist Sergio Guzmán offers an overview of assessments, discussing the client protection principles, how assessments benefit MFIs, what the assessment process looks like, common client protection challenges, and next steps for interested institutions.

As Sergio mentions, to date the Smart Campaign has trained a total of 29 lead assessors and 45 support assessors, who have conducted roughly 75 assessments around the world. For more information – including the self-assessment Getting Started Questionnaire – head over to the Smart Campaign website. And stay tuned to our newly launched Smart Campaign YouTube channel for the release of more videos on client protection in microfinance.

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> Posted by Antonique Koning and Kate McKee, Microfinance Specialist and Senior Adviser, CGAP

The following post was originally published on the CGAP Blog.

Microfinance investors are now openly discussing responsible investment, including balancing returns and how to reduce risks of market saturation and over-indebtedness, more than ever before. Investors agree it’s time for action. At the mid-year Social Investor Roundtable, convening of the Sangam Group (CEOs of the ten largest MIVs) and annual Development Finance Institutions (DFI) consultation on responsible finance last month they agreed on a “to-do” list of six concrete actions:

1. Join the discussion on balanced returns: Many participating investors had signed the Principles for Investors in Inclusive Finance (PIIF). Most agree that the balanced returns principle is the most difficult to pin down. The topic came up frequently: How much is too much, when it comes to prices and profits in the sector? Several MIV CEOs asserted that their commercial business model was the most effective way to drive responsible financial inclusion at scale. Eyebrows around the room shot up when one fund manager stated the target return of his fund: 20 percent. Other fund managers disagreed with the philosophy that such returns are consistent with responsible practice and desirable client outcomes. “We’re fooling ourselves” to suggest that there are few trade-offs between the financial and social bottom lines, they said. By policy some funds agree to take a lower return in the short run if it translates into better rural outreach or services like deposits that clients need and want. Sangam MIVs formed a working group on balanced returns and will feed their perspectives into related discussions led by the PIIF and Social Performance Task Force (SPTF). If you’re an investor, you should join one of these processes and help the search for a pragmatic but meaningful understanding on balanced returns.

2. Use the new Lender Guidelines on avoiding over-indebtedness. Market saturation was another hot topic: What can and should investors do about risks of market saturation and over-indebtedness? Investors in the AvOID Working Group have developed a Lender Code of Practice, which outlines steps investors should take in market analysis, due diligence, monitoring, and governance engagement. The Code has now been finalized and integrated in the PIIFs. Your investment organization can benefit by integrating the guidelines into your processes.

3. Support country-level research on market saturation and over-indebtedness: In addition to guidance that individual investors can use to rein in over-indebtedness, investors are also working together on analyzing such risks at the country or market level. DFIs and MIVs have supported this work in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, the Kyrgysz Republic. Most recently, Blue Orchard, Incofin, and Oikocredit stepped up to jointly fund an innovative methodology in Cambodia that combined country-level proxies for market penetration, indicators of MFI lending practices, and surveys and qualitative research on borrower indebtedness and related factors. Findings were presented at the Social Investor Roundtable and will be formally released later this month. Sangam members committed funding to replicate the study elsewhere. Other investors can join and support expansion of this important work in additional markets.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Assistant, CFI

Client protection needs to be at the core of the microfinance industry in order to maintain sustainable growth, a recent report from Deutsche Bank asserts. “Microfinance in Evolution: An Industry Between Crisis and Advancement” explores the current state of the industry—including its present challenges—and offers insight into how it can sustainably achieve its social and commercial goals.

The report is based primarily on individual MFI financial and social performance data from The MIX and concludes that a new balance between social development and a commercial approach is needed to “rehabilitate microfinance as a development tool.” A new approach is needed due to widespread MFI performance deterioration since 2008 (increases in client delinquency, declines in MFI profits, and decreases in asset growth), stemming largely from market growth, and changes in the MFI client base and lending methodology. To put the industry on the right track, the report’s authors call for an overhaul of practices that have proven to be unsuccessful and more specifically, instilling client needs as the focus of all MFI operations.

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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.