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Microfinance and the 'Smart Campaign'

February 17, 2012

After a tough year, the microfinance industry is looking to heal itself. As Elisabeth Rhyne, managing director of the Center for Financial Inclusion at ACCION, writes in PND:

It could be argued that, after two decades, microfinance was slow to develop a client protection consciousness. (One might say something even stronger about the mainstream financial sector in the U.S.) After all, a sector built with intent to improve the lives of the poor should have the best interests of its clients at heart. And I believe it does. But the microfinance community — and here I include myself — was naïve in thinking that its good intentions would always benefit clients. We assumed too readily that borrowers always benefited from our services and thus the more borrowers, the greater the benefit. The drive for growth caused some providers to cut corners, lose their focus on quality, or simply be blind to the possibility that some clients were experiencing substandard treatment.

It took several instances of rapid growth leading to client over-indebtedness -- particularly in Bosnia, India, Morocco, and Nicaragua -- to make it clear that a model geared toward reaching people as fast as possible needed adjustment. In addition to the Smart Campaign, the microfinance industry is working on initiatives such as Microfinance Transparency (which promotes the release of comprehensive pricing data), as well as efforts to increase credit information reporting to identify clients who may be over-indebted. In Bosnia, MFIs have worked together to create a debt counseling center.

As the Smart Campaign has delved into the actual practices of MFIs through on-site observation, we find that most MFIs implicitly have been practicing client protection, even if they have not made explicit reference to the principles. The Smart Campaign recently analyzed the results of on-site third-party assessments of more than three hundred and fifty MFIs. The overwhelming majority (88 percent) earned passing scores. This exercise was a first-ever assessment of practices, mostly by social investors carrying out pre-investment due diligence, and we expect such assessments to grow more rigorous in coming years. Meanwhile, on-site assessments of MFIs like these are helping organizations identify their weaknesses and take steps to correct them....

Read Rhyne's commentary and learn more about the Smart Campaign here....

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