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> Posted by Alex Counts

During my final years as President of Grameen Foundation and Co-Chair of the Microfinance CEO Working Group (MCWG), I advocated that two papers be written that I had neither the time nor the expertise to do justice to myself.

The first paper was a distillation of lessons for practice from recent studies on the impact of microcredit and microfinance. Many papers that set out to determine whether microfinance worked stumbled on important insights about how it could work better. Unfortunately, those discoveries were buried in papers that people barely read beyond summaries and extracts. A paper that presented these “lessons for practice” in a form that was accessible to busy practitioners could make a big impact, by removing friction from the maddeningly difficult process of using research to positively influence policy and practice.

The second paper I advocated for was one that made the case for how philanthropy and social/impact investing, and more broadly, subsidy, could play a positive role in the microfinance industry today. Such a paper would need to start with making the case that such social investments had any role to play, as the conventional wisdom was settling on the idea that it did not have any.

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> Posted by Lizzy Bolze, Analyst, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

The following post was originally published on the Accion blog. 

Accion client Ma San Htwe selling fish in Myanmar, one of the key areas discussed at European Microfinance Week 2016.

European Microfinance Platform is celebrating 10 years of supporting inclusive finance innovation, and hosted European Microfinance Week 2016 (EMW) in Luxembourg a few weeks ago. At the conference, I joined discussions about key organizations and challenges in the industry. Here are five of the main takeaways from the week:

1. The Underserved Refugee Population

The Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) is helping to provide financial services to the refugee population, which is now approximately 20 million people. In reality we don’t know very much about the socioeconomic needs of refugees, and much of the research is focused on humanitarian efforts. SPTF is working to research and provide guidelines to financial service providers to better serve the financial needs of this population. The guidelines will be published on SPTF’s website in the coming months. Learn more about leading organizations supporting refugees from CFI’s blog series on refugees.

2. Opportunity in Myanmar

Representatives from VisionFund, Advans, UNCDF, and M-CRIL provided a look at the economic landscape of Myanmar and the future of financial inclusion there. In Myanmar, 70 percent of the population was excluded from formal financial services until 2011, when microfinance rapidly expanded. After 2011, 267 licensed Monetary Financial Institutions (MFIs) opened. This opportunity comes with many barriers to inclusion, such as a lack of government regulation and funds and capacity-building issues. However, there is widespread optimism with an adoption of regulations proposed by the Smart Campaign, as well as further demand for microfinance in Myanmar. Investors should consider moving into the region for long term impact.

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> Posted by the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF)

The following is the third post in a four-part blog series on the financial inclusion of refugees and the internally displaced. The first post can be found here, and the second here.

Overview of refugee populations in Lebanon

The multi-cultural and open economy of Lebanon is no stranger to the need to accommodate refugees. Over the years, Lebanon, which has a population of roughly 6 million, has generously maintained an open border policy and has, until restrictions were introduced in 2014-15 following the very large influx of Syrian refugees, permitted refugees to settle temporarily but freely across the country. The country’s experience in providing financial services to these refugees and internally displaced persons offers insights for financial institutions around the world on serving these vulnerable global populations.

Lebanon’s refugee populations are diverse. The largest refugee group is Palestinian, around half of whom live in the 12 recognized Palestine refugee camps. From Iraq, about 50,000 refugees arrived after American-launched military operations in Iraq in 2003. Many of the Iraqi refugees were at one time middle-class professionals who have self-settled in urban areas in Lebanon. Syrians, who have a long history as migrant workers in Lebanon, have never been counted as foreign workers, and many were known to work in Lebanon before the war in Syria. But when civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, an unprecedented number of Syrians emigrated to Lebanon. As of October 2015, close to 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon had registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, The Smart Campaign

The following is the first post in a four-part blog series on the financial inclusion of refugees and the internally displaced.

The unresolved Syrian conflict and the slow collapse of nation-states on Europe’s periphery have brought the topic of refugees back into the media spotlight. Whereas previously, refugees were often seen as a problem of the Global South, events have now brought migrants to Europe’s doorstop, forcing OECD countries to consider new strategies to provide for and integrate this population. Yet as refugee assistance becomes a hot topic once again, old myths and fictions have reemerged. Refugees are often described as highly transitory populations with few marketable skills who will inevitably rely on long-term government assistance. But these stereotypes are frequently inaccurate.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

If someone asked you, “In the past 12 months, have you ever been afraid of your spouse?” how do you think you’d respond? I would personally hope you’d be able to say “never”. I wouldn’t want to hear you say, “often” or even “sometimes”.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about domestic violence and microfinance. This topic came out of the 2014 Microcredit Summit in Mexico where we were talking about health indicators. Carmen Velasco suggested we’d forgotten to add an indicator related to domestic violence to the list, since conceptually it feels that if we don’t include domestic violence under the theme of health, it might continue to not get covered anywhere.

Since the Summit, Freedom from Hunger has had a chance to ask the question I asked you above in three countries. While most demographic and health surveys and other standardized surveys on domestic violence may go through a series of questions about whether a person has experienced physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, or other types of abuse, we were looking for something less invasive, if that’s possible. When I found the above question in an Indian survey, it felt right. I actually had a personal reaction to it. At one point in my life, if someone had asked me this question, I might have said “sometimes” or even “often.”

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Senior Associate, CFI

India has received much fanfare for its financial inclusion efforts in recent years. A few weeks ago we declared it our Financial Inclusion Country of the Year for 2015 in recognition of the major steps it took, which resulted in achieving the greatest improvement in its Global Microscope score between 2014 and 2015. It recently granted new bank licenses that dramatically diversify and grow the country’s services landscape, widely applied new cost-saving technologies like biometric identification, and rolled-out historically ambitious public programs like PMJDY that dramatically reduce the portion of the population that is unbanked.

“Never waste a good crisis” said Royston Braganza, CEO of Grameen Capital India, at the Inclusive Finance Summit in Delhi last month, referring to the Andhra Pradesh crisis of 2010. The recently-released Responsible Finance India 2015 analyses the current state of practice on responsible finance and social performance management in India. In light of that report, Braganza questioned, “Have we learned from our mistakes?”

Responsible finance centers on client protection and market conduct, and has been extended in recent years to include many other good corporate citizenship issues such as employee management, governance, and social performance monitoring.

By way of context, here are a few numbers on the present-day BoP Indian finance landscape:

  • Across MFIs in India’s MFIN network, which represent roughly 90 percent of MFIs in the country, loan books grew by 64 percent in the last fiscal year, compared with 43 percent in the year prior and 4 percent in the year before that.
  • In total, MFI outreach in the country accounts for about 100 million clients.
  • Reportedly, through PMJDY 180 million new bank accounts have been opened over the past year, and adjacent schemes covering insurance, pensions, and credit have been implemented, as well.
  • For the first time in a decade, the RBI granted new bank licenses last year – to Bandhan Bank and IDFC. Bandhan now has 500 branches and over 2,000 service centers across 24 states. Sixty-five percent of IDFC’s first 23 branches are located in rural areas of Madhya Pradesh.
  • Under the RBI’s newly created categories of payment banks and small finance banks, 11 and 10 providers, respectively, have received new licenses, further expanding the network of providers serving the poor.

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> Posted by Bobbi Gray, Research Director, Freedom from Hunger

While recent research indicates that access to and use of microcredit alone is not transformative for the average client served (see “Where Credit Is Due”), there has been very little discussion about the types of indicators being used to measure “transformation” in the ongoing debates. In fact, it seems that we all have accepted the general findings that microcredit has only had modest impacts on, along with other indicators of poverty and well-being, education, health, and social capital because the randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have said so. There needs to be greater thought and debate about the choices of indicators used to support these conclusions.

Freedom from Hunger over the past 20-plus years has integrated health with microfinance and helped build a body of knowledge indicating that microfinance plus health services can enhance health outcomes. In an ongoing partnership with the Microcredit Summit Campaign, supported by Johnson and Johnson, we have pilot-tested a series of health indicators that financial service providers (FSPs) can use to track client health outcomes. This pilot test was built on years of experience of evaluating health outcomes with our FSP partners, as well as on similar experiences of developing common tracking indicators in the health sector. We created a list of criteria to assess the types of indicators we felt would be meaningful to track—for individuals with and without health services – which included dimensions of feasibility, usability, and reliability. Initial results have been shared in several webinars with SEEP and the Social Performance Task Force.

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Gail Buyske, Advisory Committee, Microfinance Information Infrastructure Project

> Posted by Center Staff

Convening of Stakeholders

Several weeks ago we learned that MFT has suspended its operations. Moody’s has discontinued its Social Performance Assessment Program. The MIX is trying to increase revenue through its MixGold program. Should we care about these developments? What are they telling us about the state of microfinance’s information infrastructure?

The Center for Financial Inclusion undertook an analysis of these issues to follow up on Elisabeth Rhyne’s provocative blog of March 11, 2014, in which she argued that the microfinance industry needs an “infrastructure fix.” Today’s blog summaries the key issues, which will be discussed at a stakeholder discussion in DC on April 14, followed by one at a later date in Europe.

Let’s start by thinking about why we should care about microfinance’s information infrastructure. Information and its natural outcome, transparency, have been guiding principles of the microfinance industry practically since its inception. These are not just feel-good concepts: they played a fundamental role in the development of microfinance. Information and transparency were critical in microfinance’s early days in enabling donors and investors to identify promising MFIs that they could support. Readily available information enabled MFIs to benchmark their performance and set goals to improve their performance. And we can never forget that a commitment to transparency is a pact between MFIs and their clients.

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> Posted by Miranda Beshara and Natasha Tynes, Editorial Team, CGAP Arabic Microfinance Gateway

Microfinance in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is currently facing a number of challenges that are stifling its growth. On November 19, we attended the Governance Working Group (GWG) call on governance challenges in microfinance institutions (MFIs) in the Arab region organized and hosted by Accion’s Center for Financial Inclusion (CFI). A total of 11 participants representing global MFI governance expertise and initiatives discussed key governance challenges facing MFIs in the region – many of which we captured for the CGAP Arabic Microfinance Gateway while live tweeting from the call.

Several of the call participants were recently engaged in the provision of technical assistance to MFI boards in the Arab region. Karla Brom, a financial consultant, gave a corporate governance workshop at Sanabel’s tenth annual conference. She noticed that risk management and its relation to governance is a key challenge facing the sustainable growth of many MFIs in the region.

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> Posted by Anne Hastings and Tyler Owens, Microfinance CEO Working Group

The following post was originally published on the Microcredit Summit Campaign’s blog, 100millionideas.org.

Since its inception in the spring of 2011, the Microfinance CEO Working Group has worked diligently and collaboratively to define the concept of Responsible Microfinance around the globe and lead by example to try to fulfill this vision. It has focused on three key pillars on which Responsible Microfinance is built: client protection, pricing transparency, and social performance management. A responsible microfinance institution (MFI) is one that, at a minimum:

  • Does all in its power to protect its clients from harm;
  • Is transparent about fees and interest rates; and
  • Implements best practices in social performance management including monitoring effectiveness in achieving desired client level outcomes.

An MFI can achieve this by complying with the industry-developed standards of the Smart Campaign, MicroFinance Transparency, and the Social Performance Task Force, known as the Universal Standards for Social Performance Management.

The Working Group is a collaborative effort of the CEOs of Accion International, FINCA International, Freedom from Hunger, Grameen Foundation, Opportunity International, Pro Mujer, VisionFund, and Women’s World Banking. At the Microcredit Summit in Manila in October 2013, the Working Group publicly encouraged its collective 224 affiliated MFIs around the globe to embrace Responsible Microfinance by sharing a list of commitments. Since making those commitments, the group has made significant headway toward strengthening each one of the pillars of Responsible Microfinance.

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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.