Since the dawn of the commercialization of microfinance nearly two decades ago, investment in microfinance has been made on a widely-accepted premise: investors will receive a ‘market rate’ financial return, while pursuing a socially-motivated strategy. This premise is so widespread that it has taken on the allure of all groupthink – becoming an accepted truism, without necessarily being true. The double-bottom line – the equal focus on financial and social return – can be deceptive. The dilemma is that while financial return has a clear target, social return is more nebulous. What social return is really being promised? Is serving a certain segment of clients enough? Do additional products need to be offered? What about financial education?
The central contribution of the microfinance revolution has been the creation of long-term client relationships. More so than tangible collateral, these relationships are the foundation of the incentives structures that govern the interactions between microfinance institutions (MFIs) and their clients – and that contribute to the fulfillment of contract obligations. From this perspective, genuine microfinance has been a kind of ‘relational banking’ for the poor. This interpretation is consistent with the growing emphasis on ‘client centricity’ in financial inclusion and it focuses on the value of the relationship, as measured by its cost and quality. The quality of inclusion, on the one hand, brings together what is valued in the transaction, such as proximity, timeliness, transparency, adequacy with respect to actual client requirements, variety, sufficient amount, reliability, sustainability, respect and dignified treatment - and others. Cost, on the other hand, refers not only to financial charges (interest and fees), but also to all the opportunity costs incurred by the clients.
Back in May, and only a few weeks after the release of the 2017 Global Findex, the World Bank launched the 2018 SDG Atlas. Perhaps less well known than the Findex, the Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals is an even more massive endeavour, drawing on the Bank’s World Development Indicators (WDIs), a database of over 1,400 indicators for more than 220 economies, many going back over 50 years. The ‘SDG’s in the title are of course the Sustainable Development Goals - the post-2015 follow up to the Millennium Development Goals that served as the target-based development architecture for the past decade or so. The SDGs provide a variety of targets across different areas of human development to be achieved by 2030. This is the UN General Assembly-adopted “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, which extends the MDGs but also makes key adjustments, incentivising collective action by all countries.
The publication of the 2017 Global Findex has generated much reflection on the state of financial inclusion – and plenty of analysis of the data, looking for the buried treasure of some new trend or pattern. This yields important insights. "The Financial Inclusion Hype vs. Reality report" by the Center for Financial Inclusion (CFI) is particularly worth reading for its in-depth and honest reflection of what Findex tells us. But when using Findex, there are important things to keep in mind. First, while the overall figures and trends are important, the numbers for any one country should be treated with caution. This is not because we mistrust the Findex team or their work. It’s simply the result of what Findex is – a set of surveys based on randomly selected (hopefully representative) population samples of more than 150,000 adults in over 140 economies. And surveys can – and often do – go wrong, particularly when they deal with difficult or personal subjects (like finance) or are conducted in countries undergoing political and economic turmoil. This reality forms the backdrop of our work at the Microfinance Index of Market Outreach and Saturation (MIMOSA) project, which since last year has been supported by a strategic partnership with e-MFP. A huge part of MIMOSA is collecting and comparing data – from credit bureaus, microfinance and banking associations, central banks, third-party surveys like Findex, and our own field surveys.
For most, socially responsible investing means just that - investing in a manner that not only generates financial returns, but also produces positive social value. But what does it mean for an investor to be “responsible” when selling their holdings? How does one stay responsible at the very moment when one ceases to be an investor? This is a basic challenge facing investors seeking to “exit,” i.e. sell their equity stakes to a new buyer. The issue isn’t entirely new. It first emerged in the mid-2010s, when several microfinance investment vehicles (MIVs) were starting to reach the end of their ten-year terms, and were seeking to divest their assets. This issue was first addressed in the financial inclusion sector by a 2014 paper commissioned by CGAP and CFI, which first defined many of the key questions that socially responsible investors need to address when selling their equity stakes. With another four years of multiple exits under the sector’s belt, NpM, Netherlands Platform for Inclusive Finance, along with the Financial Inclusion Equity Council (FIEC) and the European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP) asked us to take a closer look at one particularly tricky part of the exit process - selecting a buyer that is suitable for the microfinance institution (MFI), its staff and ultimately its clients.
There’s a saying in technology circles: “If you’re not paying, then you’re the product.” Nothing could be more axiomatic in the current zeitgeist, as shown by Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony in front of Congress to explain the ongoing furore about the sale of Facebook users’ personal data to nefarious entities. Facebook, of course, is free to use. Its users – and the data we produce – are the product. The advertisers and other beneficiaries of that data are its customers. Surprisingly, this little axiom long pre-dates social media. In fact, it goes back at least as far as 1973, when artists Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman broadcast a short video entitled “Television Delivers People.” But whatever people have until now understood of their relationship with technology platforms such as Facebook and Google, there can be no doubt that the mood has turned. For all the Pollyanna-ish talk of liberation, efficiency and modernization, technology is increasingly seen as the proverbial double-edged sword – something not just from which to benefit, but also, as CFI’s Elisabeth Rhyne has argued just this week, from which to be protected. The protection of clients is central to financial inclusion (or, at least, it is when done well). Technology, too, becomes more and more embedded in how financial services can be offered to low-income and excluded client segments. Coming with it are the well-known opportunities to reduce costs, increase outreach, drive financial education and in particular help remote populations access information and tools to increase their income and protect themselves from shocks.
As outlined in a workshop session at European Microfinance Week 2017, Financial Education (FE) is one of the pillars of financial inclusion. Without it, microfinance clients are not able to make informed and appropriate choices; they cannot compare the costs of financial products, understand the risks of failing to repay their own loans or of taking on someone else’s risk in cases of guarantees, or accurately assess how much credit, and what type, they actually need – if any. FE may be important, but there are key challenges to its provision. First, the link between offering FE and achieving positive impacts are not always direct and clear. Evaluation of the outcomes of FE shows impact to be inconsistent – a function of that impact’s sensitivity to the content and delivery of the education. Second, it is also unclear how, even if the content and delivery to achieve impact were standardised, financial education can be provided sustainably at scale. Provision of any type of training is costly.
We’re delighted to announce the publication of the latest European Dialogue, presenting the outcomes of the European Microfinance Award 2017 on 'Microfinance for Housing'. The Dialogue series has been published since 2008, and each year one of them is dedicated to the European Microfinance Award, providing e-MFP a great opportunity to present the process, the applicants and the findings from the extensive Award process to a broader audience than those at European Microfinance Week and the Award ceremony. This latest Dialogue was written by e-MFP’s Sam Mendelson with support from Award consultants Katarzyna Pawlak and Ewa Bańkowska, and e-MFP’s Gabriela Erice and Daniel Rozas, and presents the housing programmes of the ten semi-finalists across several sections. Entitled 'Building New Foundations in Housing Microfinance', it looks at the innovations underway in what has for too long been a niche product, but which is growing in importance as MFIs respond to the fact that so many of their financial services are used for housing anyway. Now, they increasingly see the opportunity to innovate in providing a range of financial products and non-financial support to help clients improve their homes, addressing issues of safety, security, health and income-generation in the process.
European Microfinance Week evolves each year, with new thematic streams, new Action Groups, and, of course, a new major area of debate based on the year’s European Microfinance Award topic. One constant are the plenaries that bring together all participants regardless of their professional background or interest. These plenaries always tackle the big issues and bring the top people in their fields to the podium – and at EMW 2017 there were three.
The opening one was on the European Microfinance Award – this year on Housing – which gave representatives from the three finalists’ organisations the chance to present their programs. This kicked off with a keynote address from Sandra Prieto from Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter during which she laid out the key challenges in increasing access to affordable housing: lack of collateral, lack of guarantees, a relative lack of funding for housing finance, the need for Technical Assistance to help clients either build homes from scratch or expand or otherwise improve their homes, and the problem of land tenure. Despite these challenges, housing microfinance has massive potential for social impact and diversification of MFIs’ portfolios. The three Award finalists, Sandra said, have common elements: first, they all address not only access to housing, but also other housing-related social needs such as water, sanitation, health and energy; and they each put client needs at the centre of their interventions.
Today, as our friends and colleagues across the continent mark European Microfinance Day, we would like to offer a view from the South. After all, e-MFP occupies a distinct place – we’re a platform for Europe-based microfinance actors who are specifically focused on working in the South as their core objective. Like an astronomer atop a lonely mountaintop, we find ourselves in the heart of Europe, yet our minds are focused on the world beyond. So what does European microfinance look like when seen from the South? Well, it is a bit like looking at the stars – the light shines bright yet comes from a distant past. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Europe look remarkably similar to the global MFIs of the 80s and 90s -- small, local organizations with a deep focus on lending to micro-enterprises while maintaining basic financial sustainability. They're treading the paths laid by MFIs in countries like Bangladesh and Peru. MFI clients in Europe and in the South share one key thing in common: these are people to whom banks aren’t interested to lend.