Microfinance reality check

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The Wall St. Journal recently published an important article on microfinance (http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/03/18/calls-grow-for-a-new-microloans-model/). The article wasn’t important because what it said was news. The industry has known for years that very few well-designed studies have been able to detect a measurable impact from microfinance on poverty. No, what was important about the article was that if the Wall St Journal has reported it, then it’s certain that the shine the industry got when Mohamed Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in  2006 has now completely tarnished.

The problem with that original shine was that it was, well, a bit too bright. The idea that borrowers were investing in their business using microfinance services that were both convenient and affordable became part of the foundational belief system of the industry and its supporters. This belief system held even as the industry shifted from microcredit to microfinance when evidence began to show a limited developmental impact from credit. Under the microfinance model, clients would use credit coupled with savings (or, occasionally, insurance) to raise themselves up out of poverty.

As the Wall St Journal points out, the evidence for this is scant. Demonstrating how the past always finds a way to repeat itself, recently microfinance has morphed into “financial inclusion”, which places heavy emphasis on (mobile) payments to bring those who are neither borrowers or savers into the financial system. How this will lead to socio-economic development is not clear, but it seems that underneath the new paradigm, the old belief that financial access itself confers benefits continues to hold sway.

Financial access is important because financial exclusion is a monumental problem. But financial access is not sufficient. It doesn’t solve problems related to skills and education or household financial management practices. In other words, just because someone has a bank account and access to credit doesn’t make them less poor.

Critics like the Wall St Journal have a field day when the evidence comes to light that finds little correlation between financial access and socio-economic development. And because its attacks the industry’s foundational belief system, this criticism strikes very close to home.

But it’s always been a weak argument. Financial access creates possibilities, not opportunities. Surely, how someone uses financial services matters more than simply having access. But probably not even Warren Buffet would be able to squeeze a lot of additional income from the small farm or retail shop that is the primary livelihood activity for most microfinance clients. As long as the source of income is low-margin and not scalable, even optimum usage of financial services can only have a small impact on income.

Still, there are at least 200 million microfinance clients in the world, and the number keeps growing every year. If the services aren’t “helping”, then why to people keep using them?

The answer is that microfinance services are helping, just not in the way microfinance’s foundational belief system says it does.

A recent CGAP analysis of M-Shwari, a mobile savings and credit provider in Kenya, provides some clues (http://www.cgap.org/sites/default/files/Forum-How-M-Shwari-Works-Apr-2015.pdf). In only two years, M-Shwari has racked up some impressive numbers: 9.2 million deposit accounts, 20.6 million loans, PAR90=2.2%. This is what we’ve been waiting for: massive scale using mobile technology.

But dig a little deeper and you find the following:

  • The number of active savings accounts is 4.7 million — half of all accounts. This is an organization that has only been around for 2 years, and already half their savings accounts are dormant. Based on the numbers they give, those dormant accounts have an average of just $0.40 in them.
  • There has been a total of $1.5bn deposited since launch. A huge number. But the current amount of deposits is just $45.3mn. Just 3% of the funds that have been deposited have stayed on deposit.
  • Why the quick turnover? Because most people make a deposit in order to access the credit service. It seems many borrowers reduced their deposit after they paid off their loan. Many others who didn’t qualify for a loan many also have drawn down their deposit.
  • Still, isn’t it great that someone figured out how to make loans using mobile technology? Well….the average loan balance is less than $10. Loans carry a term of 30 days but can be rolled over.
  • The interest rate is 7.5%/month … and is charged each month the loan is rolled over. That’s basically 7.5% FLAT (90% APR)! And yet surveyed clients said the interest rate was “cheap”.

So what’s going on here? It turns out that only 14% said they borrowed to invest in their business. Most people use it to cover shortfalls in income vs. expenses­­––what the authors of Portfolios of the Poor call “consumption smoothing”.

Although perhaps it is more accurate to call it “household liquidity management”.

The problem for most microfinance clients­­­­, and perhaps the main reason why they do not have access to the mainstream banking system­­, is that their income is not just low, it’s unpredictable. In such circumstances, household liquidity management becomes a regular­––if not daily––activity. And that makes long-term planning more difficult.

This is important because if Warren Buffet really were a  client intending to use microfinance services to build wealth, he would need to think long-term. Delaying current gratification for long-term benefits is the mindset shift that underlies financial literacy.

If few clients actually use microfinance services in the way they original designers of microfinance programs expected them to, that doesn’t mean it is a failure. Microfinance does address the problem of income unpredictability. A stable, reliable source of credit, combined with savings, allows clients to meet their spending needs even as income ebbs and flows.

There is no doubt that this is important. There is no way to get ahead tomorrow if you have to scrounge to find money to eat today. But contributing to better household liquidity management is not, as the Wall St Journal points out, the same as contributing to increased income.

Another reason the Wall St Journal article is important is it because it shines a light on an important issue that the microfinance industry needs to address. A more nuanced analysis of microfinance’s “failure” to deliver the goods might look something like this:

  1. Microfinance says its loans are being used to “invest” in farms/micro-enterprises. This is wrong. The loans are used partly for working capital (purchases of inputs/inventory) but rarely used to expand production or move up the production chain to higher value-added goods/activities.
  2. In fact, there is a possibility that less than 50% of loans actually go into the borrower’s enterprise, with a large proportion being used to smooth consumption. Instead of the loans being used for the business, as the foundational belief system says, in reality the cash flow of the business is the underlying collateral for making a loan that partially finances consumption.
  3. Enabling people with low and unpredictable income to manage household liquidity stop has an enormous positive impact, but it is really only the first step. The next step is to enable people to use the breathing space created by these short-term loans to plan for the long-term. If anything, this is where microfinance has failed. How many MFIs offer long-term savings plans? How many MFIs offer a real investment loan, which would be larger and a longer term than a typical working capital loan?

This is easier said than done. Saving for the long term is not an automatic habit of low-income households, while borrowers as well as lenders may be cautious about taking on the increased risk of larger and longer-term loans. Financial education can address the former, and technical backstopping for farm and enterprise development may address the latter.

 

This post was contributed by Ron Bevacqua, ACCESS Advisory Managing Director. 

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WORM’S EYE VIEW: THE YUNUS PERSPECTIVE

Yunus_Book_HomePagePhoto source: Yunus book homepage

In an emerging economy like Myanmar, how can development be hastened and reduce, if not totally eradicate poverty? Prof. Mohammad Yunus, Nobel laureate and founder of Grameen Bank shared his experience in a forum in Yangon organized by actionaid, an international NGO, the National Economic and Social Advisory Council (NESAC) and the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI). He emphasized financial inclusion and entrepreneurship as among the most important elements in developing small and medium enterprises (SME) in the country. The gist of his talk:

It was not a pleasant experience to witness people dying of hunger. Coming back from the US to teach at the Chittagong University, seeing widespread poverty in his country was life-changing. He asked himself how he can be of help to improve the lives of people. His reflections made him to conclude that most of the things you learn in the classrooms clashes with reality.

As we get educated, we “fly” higher and observe the world from a distance. We call this the bird’s eye view, where we see wide and thought we have seen everything. We see a lot but not much and lead us to do sweeping generalizations which made the problem harder to address. This perspective detach us you from reality.

At the ground level, it is different. As we go to the communities, we set eyes on individual persons. We know them and feel their sufferings and see their struggles. This is what we call the worm’s eye view. This is more powerful because we catch a glimpse of tiny little bits of the problem. Tiny in the sense that it refers to individual persons. We see the life of an individual which is easier to address because it is only one.

The worm’s eye view allowed him to view things in a different perspective. He saw loan sharks controlling the lives of the people, a cruel system draining the energy of the poor. He was happy to lend them himself until it grew to where it has to be done in a more organized manner. The worm’s eye view allowed him to develop a methodology different from those with bird’s eye view perspectives.

The approaches developed were considered unconventional.
• They loaned money to people without money, when traditional banks lend only to people with properties and money to pay back;
• They loaned without collateral, when loans must be secured;
• They brought banking services to the doorsteps of the clients, when standard bank services require clients to go to bank premises to be served;
• The clients owned the bank, when commercial banks are reserved only for those who have money.
These approaches developed the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh which now served 8.4 million borrowers, 97% of whom are women lending more than US$8 billion. It has turned the banking service upside down and became the model of microfinance in many countries.

After building the institution that provides financial services, building up enterprises that provides employment is the next agenda. Entrepreneurship is inherent in all of us especially the poor. However, entrepreneurial spirit is pushed down inside of the person and comes out after the person is inspired to do so. This happens when the system around us does not encourage entrepreneurial spirit to thrive and flourish.

Grameen Bank has involved in social businesses that have also promoted entrepreneurship among its members. Some of these are:

• Technology. In partnership with Telenor, Grameen Phone was launched where the village telephone lady provided service for everyone who wanted to call. It has since then become the biggest phone company in Bangladesh;

• Health services. Ultrasound and consultation through tablets to reduce death during pregnancies. Now an app for ECG to be installed in the cell phone is being considered.

• Energy. Distribution of solar home systems. Since 18 years ago, now the company sold 1.5 solar home systems.

• Food. To address malnutrition, we partnered with a company to produce yoghurt with vitamins and minerals.

Other ideas are being considered the Social Business Fund is being set up. In the universities, students were now taught to have options – to make profits or to make people happy by doing social businesses that help improve living conditions. This is the continuing effort that each one should pursue.

From the experience of Prof. Yunus and Grameen Bank, it is imperative that financial infrastructure should be developed first. Facilitating access to financial services will empower the poor as they will generate income and consume products and services that will increase demand. It is in this context that the further strengthening of microfinance institutions and other community-based organizations like cooperatives and self-help groups should be prioritized.

Notes on the QSEM

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The Qualitative Social and Economic Monitoring (QSEM) is a study conducted annually by Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), a multi-donor platform, to look at the changes resulting from the development interventions in various parts of Myanmar. The Round 4 of the QSEM conducted from March to May 2014 involving 1,474 respondents was recently released by LIFT and World Bank, highlighting the trends and transformation happening in the rural areas of the country. It covered 54 villages from the following states where LIFT has concentration of projects: Ayeyawardy, Chin, Magway, Mandalay, Rakhine and Shan.

Round 4 results have shown positive developments in the rural areas. The main findings were summarized as follows:

1. Villagers experienced better returns on their livelihoods than in previous years, though underlying structural constraints persisted;
2. Non-farm diversification and migration increased;
3. Certain poorer households were not able to benefit equally from such positive trends; there were risks of inequality; and,
4. There were small but important shifts in how people interacted with local government officials.

The results are important in a way that showed the effectiveness of the development efforts in Myanmar and the receptiveness of the people in the development efforts. Among the other noteworthy issues raised in the Round 4 report and discussed during the presentation last February 5, 2015 included the following:

1. Labor migration is increasing. As development is felt in key cities, people from the rural areas are moving to the cities particularly Yangon and Mandalay looking for more opportunities. Migration outside the country is also observed. Because of this, labor for agricultural production may be affected in the future although it is not yet felt at present. It was also observed in some areas that during peak seasons like planting and harvesting, there are no enough farm laborers to hire. Inversely, during non-peak season, there is no work for labourers, pushing them to find work in the cities.

2. Diversification of income source. The increasing number of non-farm activities rural people to move away from agricultural production. This may be an issue for food security if people stay away from agricultural production activities.

3. Increasing influence of village tract leaders. This is an additional layer in the bureaucracy. We not only deal with village heads and township officials but also with the village tract leaders. This may also be an opportunity in area where the village heads are uncooperative, with the village tract leaders may be an alternative source of support.

4. Social capital and institutional development. Most of the people’s organizations were formed for mobilization. There is a need now to transition these organizations to do economic activities and provide them with capacities and skills in managing not only organizations but enterprises as well.

5. Connectivity is promoted by cellphones. The use of cell phones for development initiatives has yet to be maximized. With apps for mobile money, market information and other updates, the community can benefit much from utilizing it as a tool for development work.

Myanmar Microfinance Updates

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The Microfinance Working Group is an informal network of microfinance institutions in Myanmar who regularly meet every two months to share updates and discuss issues affecting the industry. The first meeting for 2015 was hosted by BRAC Myanmar in their Yangon office. Among the challenges discussed during the meeting are the following:

  • Most of the MFIs are not yet ready for the integration of mobile money in their operations. As Paul Luchtenberg of UNCDF stated, it is not an issue of the MFI saying yes or no, but a matter of when. As the telecom companies and the Myanmar Central Bank is working on the regulatory framework, the banking and MFI sectors seemed still not ready for it.
  • Access to funding is still a concern for most of the MFIs. A regulation was issued in the latter part of 2014, covering the subject of accessing funding local institutions accessing international funds and international institutions accessing local funds. Two MFIs applied to check on the process.
  • Limited available local staff with skills. The manpower pool is limited, which lead to the hiring of staff from outside the country, more particularly for supervisory positions. MFIs who wanted to expand faster has to work on how to have more experienced staff to field in newly opened areas.
  • Alien staff mobility. Related to the hiring of staff is the issue of permission to move around the area of operations. Alien staff has to work on its permission to stay and the permission to go around the village, the quarter, the village tract and the township. Dealing with the different local authorities have become tedious and repetitive to some and has become a major work in terms of doing paperwork and meeting with local authorities.
  • Communication within the industry has become a problem as it was observed that Yangon-based institutions get updates from government agencies while those based outside of Yangon were sometimes not updated. The Working Group is looked upon to be the communication hub, but its informal nature does not allow it to maintain a secretariat. Microfinance Association, the supposed industry organization has not been active in the area of coordination.

Participants to the meeting are still comfortable meeting regularly since the Working Group provides the much needed industry updates. Among the latest updates are as follows:

  • There are now more than 250 registered MFIs, with a number still waiting for their licenses;
  • The cap on loan amount is now equivalent to $5,000;
  • LIFT is supporting the conduct of an impact assessment of the microfinance industry.

10 Things to Know about Microfinance in Myanmar

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Photo: Myanmar Insider

There is an increasing interest in business in Myanmar as the country opens up its economy to the rest of the world. One of these is financial services, particularly ‘microfinance’ which has evolved from informal moneylenders and stereotyped “loan sharks” into a billion-dollar global industry with commercial investors participating, stock market listing and regulation by government agencies. With the establishment of the Grameen Bank in the early 80s, microfinance has since become an instrument in poverty alleviation, and in stimulating rural economies.

The potential for microfinance in Myanmar is huge. A large part of the country is still inaccessible and remote areas have no formal financial service providers. In most areas where financial service providers are present, many entrepreneurs are still not able to access the financial services necessary for expansion. Emerging enterprises are also left to scavenge working capital from informal sources that are expensive and unreliable. Recent emphasis on ‘financial inclusion’ and the proof that there is indeed wealth at the “bottom of the pyramid” has attracted commercial investors to venture into the microfinance industry. Traditionally this was the turf of non-government development organizations. For those interested in venturing into microfinance operations, these basic facts are important.

1. Opportunities in the microfinance industry abound

In November 2011, the Myanmar Microfinance Law was passed outlining the framework for the operations of microfinance activities in the country. It defines microfinance in the context of the country’s financial system and provides for the licensing and supervision of microfinance service providers. Microfinance institutions can provide the following financial services to its clients:

a. Credit
b. Savings deposits
c. Remittance services
d. Insurance services
e. Borrow locally and from abroad
f. Other financial services

There are two types of licensed microfinance institutions: deposit-taking institutions and non-deposit-taking institutions.
• Deposit-taking institutions are full financial intermediary institutions utilizing deposits from its clients to finance lending operations.
• Non-deposit-taking institutions provide loans from their own funds. In simple words, microfinance service providers operating like a bank.

2. Microfinance is a regulated industry in Myanmar

Myanmar is no stranger to financial crises resulting from bank failures. As such, regulation was among the primary concerns of the government when microfinance was allowed to operate in the country. It is necessary to ensure that ordinary people utilizing financial service providers are protected. The regulation of microfinance institutions was placed under the Myanmar Microfinance Supervisory Enterprise (MMSE) a newly formed agency, previously tasked with the management of pawnshop operations of the government. This is the agency that issues licenses to operate, monitor and supervise microfinance institutions. It is expected that there will be a harmonization of operations since the previous function of the agency was to manage pawnshops, while microfinance primarily requires the provision of non-collateralized loans. Compared to neighboring countries with vibrant microfinance industries like Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines, regulatory functions are vested with their respective central banks.

3. The minimum capital requirement to be licensed is modest

Among the requirements necessary for licensing, the upfront capital is the most crucial. Applicants for a license are required to deposit the following amount:
• For deposit-taking institutions: Kyat 30 million (approximately US$ 30,000)
• For non-deposit-taking institutions: Kyat 15 million (approximately US$ 15,000).
The amount may be substantial for local individuals and development agencies, but is meager for foreign companies and international development agencies with big budget programs.

4. Various types of organizations are allowed to provide microfinance services

Any legally registered organisations are allowed to operate microfinance services as long as they are able to get a license from the MMSE. These include local and international development organizations, partnership firms, cooperative societies, bank and non-bank financial institutions and partnership firms.

On the one hand, non-government development organizations can enhance its programs by adding these services and expect to become more sustainable and less dependent on donor funds. Whereas, profit-oriented organizations can channel financial resources into areas where it’s most needed and in the process help prime rural economies.

Currently there are close to 200 microfinance service providers in the country. In terms of outreach and loan portfolio, the international development agencies are the biggest. These include PACT, ACLEDA, MFI Myanmar, World Vision and Proximity. On a local level, coops make up the main bulk of licensed microfinance service providers.

5. The areas covered by current microfinance operators is still small

The biggest microfinance operators are present mostly in the Mandalay-Yangon-Delta “corridor”. Most parts of the country are still considered to be under-served financially, which means more financial service providers are needed. These gaps can be filled by expansion programs of existing players and/or new players.

6. Financial and technical support is available to microfinance service providers

Since microfinance is a nascent industry in Myanmar, support from donor institutions is available. International donor agencies are providing not only loan funds to microfinance services providers but also technical assistance to enhance the capacities of microfinance operators and even the regulatory agency. Among the institutions providing support to the industry and individual institutions are: the International Finance Corporation (IFC), European Union (EU), UNDP Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), to name a few.

7. There is an interest rate cap that may limit investment to the industry

One limitation in the industry is the interest rate cap which was pegged by the law where interest rate on loans shall not exceed 2.5% per month (30% APR) and the interest paid on deposits shall not be lower than 1.25 per month (15% APR). This policy may limit the institutions that will enter the market, experience in other countries shows that microfinance thrives best under a liberal interest rate regime.

8. There is also a cap on the maximum loan amount.

To maintain that the loans will be micro, the maximum loan amount to an individual borrower is pegged at Kyat 500,000. This may be considered low especially by micro-enterprises that need more working capital. Although in rural areas, that amount may be more than enough to start a small income-generating activity that will augment the financial resources of a family.

For microfinance service providers, the amount may be big for first-time borrowers, but for repeat borrowers and those that have expanded their economic activities through microfinance, the cap can become a handicap.

9. A microfinance network is being set-up

Major industry players have started initiatives at forming an industry association. A core group has started setting up the structure for the Myanmar Microfinance Network. Besides representing the industry, the network is aimed at promoting responsible finance. Among the global campaigns, it promotes social performance management (SPM) to ensure that microfinance institutions don’t drift away from their social mission. Another campaign is the promotion of client protection principles (CPP) to ensure that policies and procedures of microfinance institutions are not harmful to clients. Other advocacies of the network hopefully will cover improvement in the policies and regulatory framework.

10. Risks can be managed

Microfinance is a high-risk business and problems resulting from operations or the market environment may happen. Experience of how other countries responded will help in preventing the same happening in Myanmar. Among the risks that should be monitored closely are over-indebtedness, governance, management quality, credit risk and political interference. These challenges can only be addressed by industry initiatives and participation of all stakeholders.

 

First published in Myanmar Insider, Vol. 1 Issue 8, July 2014.

Sustainable Cooperatives: Alternative financial support systems for the poor

ImageAn emerging economic order

The ASEAN economic integration scheduled to be fully implemented in 2015 will have great impact on the people of the region. Designed to be a common production and marketing unit, goods and services will flow freely among its member-countries and will trigger a survival-of-the-fittest mode for businesses in the region. As competition provides lower prices and better products and services, benefiting the people, it will also weed out inefficient companies resulting in the laying-off of workers. Industries will consolidate leaving fewer surviving players to dominate the market. In this scenario, it is evident that the more developed member-countries of ASEAN will have a head start.

It is expected, but not assured, that the benefits of the economic integration will trickle-down to the marginalized sectors of the society. Definitely, a large number of people will be excluded in the process especially those coming from the less developed member countries. Growth rates may be observed, but it take some time before the poor will enjoy the benefits of the new economic arrangement. The poor will have to cope with these developments with minimal support. So far, there are no talks of safety nets for the poor, and it seems that everybody is thinking that there will be no massive economic dislocation as a result of this integration.

Left on their own, history shows that poor people coped during hard times by pooling their resources and sharing whatever they can to assist each other. These informal support systems still exist in poor communities and are evident in small self-help groups. It may be an informal collaboration at the start, but it can lead to a more formal and long-term arrangements like cooperatives. During the advent of the Industrial Age in Europe, people flocked to the cities in search of work but ended up being exploited as cheap labor. Poverty persisted and poor people were excluded, consigning them as commodities in the new economic order. The poor coped by forming self-help societies that later on became formal cooperatives. Raiffeisen cooperatives in Germany and the cooperative societies initiated by the Rochdale pioneers of England became models of cooperativism worldwide that has not only reduced poverty but have evolved to become major industry players globally.

Cooperatives as coping mechanism of the poor

What makes cooperatives successful? Basically it is the number of members. A big number of people pooling small amounts to generate a large working capital that will enable them to venture into enterprises which will not only serve the members but the whole community as a whole. Picture a scenario where thousands of poor people regularly deposit small cash amounts into a cooperative. The pooled deposits are then lent out to members some of whom are developing micro-enterprises. Those entrepreneurs will be able to expand their businesses and may even hire members who have no jobs. Income from interest payments of the borrowed funds will add to the growing fund of resources that will be available to other enterprising members. Financial services provide opportunities for members to venture into income-generating activities and contribute to job creation.

From the same scenario, the cooperative may venture into retail business of prime commodities. It can buy products in bulk and can offer lower prices to its members because of the savings generated from doing away with middle-men and avail of discount by buying in bulk. Invaribly members consume the products and services because they own the cooperative and it offers cost value. The sheer volume of small transactions will provide additional income for the cooperative.

The continuous and regular pooling of resources, the provision of financial services to members with entrepreneurial spirit and the establishment of basic services that responds to the needs of members builds up not only the financial resources but the institutional capacity of the cooperatives. As the cooperative becomes more efficient, it can assume more functions and businesses to serve its members and the public.

Cooperation does not only happen among individual persons because cooperation among cooperatives also takes place. It one of the basic principles of cooperativism – strength in numbers. This makes cooperatives one of the best mechanisms for economic inclusion. Giving the poor and the marginalized an opportunity to participate in the economic activities through cooperatives. Individually, the poor will have no say, but through a cooperative, they can be a player just as they are in other ASEAN countries with strong cooperative movements like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Status of Myanmar Cooperative Sector

The growth of the Myanmar cooperative movement is attributed to the Ministry of Cooperatives, the government agency responsible for supervising and regulating cooperatives in this country. Its main objective can be summarized into two: first, to improve the socio-economic life of rural and urban people at grass-roots level; and second, to support with full strength by cooperative businesses for the development of the nation’s economy. Main activities of the ministry in promoting and developing cooperatives include cooperative development, small scale industry development, import-export enterprise development and the strengthening of the apex organization.

The Central Cooperative Society (CCS) is the apex organization composed of the all the primaries and syndicates in the region. As of 2013, the total number of registered cooperative primaries was at 20,658. It has total individual membership of 2,403,365. In terms of financial resources, total savings stands at 340Million kyats and loans outstanding at 1.1Billion Kyats. A large number of registered cooperatives are agricultural co-operatives in rural areas that are utilized as channels of support for agricultural producers. The rest are services cooperatives more prevalent in urban areas among the working class, providing savings and credit services.

The recent introduction of the Microfinance Law encouraged some cooperatives to register as microfinance service providers. In 2013, a total of 71 cooperatives were given licenses to function as MF (Microfinance) operators and is this is expected to increase as the regulatory framework for microfinance is being fine tuned. . The CCS was also allowed to operate microfinance operating units and set up branches to serve its members.

This is a good development as the presence of many cooperative microfinance service providers will promote financial inclusion and bring financial services to the doorstep of the members. It will allow people to enhance and increase their economic activities as working capital can be accessed from these institutions.

The challenges of sustainability

Cooperative development in Myanmar has a long history. With direct support from the government, it has survived domestic and regional economic crises. However, with the advent of free-trade arrangements and the gradual opening up of the country’s economy to the West it brings with it some challenges.

1. Increasing financial inclusion especially for those living in the rural areas

The total number of members in the cooperatives are but a small portion of the total population of the country. If we divide the total number of members with the number of registered cooperative primaries, it will give an average of 116 members in a cooperative. The urban cooperatives may have more than the average number, but rural cooperatives may have even less than the average number. Two challenges are evident: first, making these cooperatives bigger in number to generate more resources and transactions; and second, forming new and bigger cooperatives to cover areas that have no cooperatives.

2. Institutional development by enhancing skills of management teams

As the volume of members and transaction grows, there is a need to formalize and enhance governance and management systems. Volunteer work is not bad, but a fulltime and more professional workforce may have to man the cooperatives to make them more efficient and to meet the complexities of managing multiple services and ensuring membership care. An in-house training program that will ensure a pool of trained staff familiar with such operations should be coupled with management and executive training for the management team and policy-makers. The institutional capacity of the cooperatives has to be brought up to the same level of cooperatives operating in other ASEAN member-countries.

3. The need for matching funds

At the start, the pooled resources of the members may not be enough to provide for all the financial requirements of the members. As they gradually build-up their working capital out of the small savings and the incremental income for operations, there is a need to match these funds to hasten the development process. Matching funds, be it grants or soft loans, is ideal because it is founded on the concept that the cooperative has to first prove it can generate internal resources. The principle of cooperation among cooperatives will work best in this situation wherein inter-lending among cooperatives can be facilitated.

4. Social performance

Doing good is not enough, it should be ensured that there is no harm done to clients. Institutions providing financial services are doing good by providing opportunities to its clients, but they can also find themselves in a bind when they see clients mired in debt and still poor. Cooperatives and other institutions like microfinance that are founded on social services should have a built-in system for social performance management from the start. It should not wait until later or when mission drift is evident before corrective measures are installed.

Support to upgrade existing rural cooperatives and to organize new ones founded on a large base of membership, strong governance, skilled management and relevant products and services will provide the poor with a coping mechanism that will absorb the economic shock of ASEAN integration. It will also be the springboard for small and subsistence economic activities to develop into microenterprises and move towards small and medium enterprises (SME). Cooperatives are the most appropriate platform in developing a country’s agriculture and rural enterprises.

Published in Myanmar Insider, Vol. I, Issue 7, June 2014

 

The future of microfinance and the financial inclusion conundrum

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“Innovation” seems to be the buzzword nowadays in the microfinance industry. Articles with titles like “We need disruption in financial inclusion”(1)  or “How Big Data can expand financial opportunities for the world’s poor”(2)  or extolling the digital finance “revolution”(3)  are commonplace in today’s literature regarding financial inclusion.

The belief structure underlying this emphasis on innovation is that while “traditional” financial service providers serving the poor and excluded have expanded rapidly in the past 20 years, the 200 million clients they serve are just a drop in the bucket compared to the billions who remain unbanked. It is unrealistic to expect these same traditional service providers to close this gap because, by definition, traditional institutions are limited by both their brick-and-mortar structure and the fact that many seek to balance financial and social goals, which lowers returns and thus limits their resource generation capacity.

Financial Inclusion 2.0, in this vision, use technology to reach the unbanked. The two technologies most often cited are mobile/electronic banking and agent/branchless banking. Sometimes these two approaches are intertwined, such as when branchless banking networks are held together by mobile technologies. But while the assumption that technology will solve the gap in financial inclusion is explicit, what is not always clearly stated is who will wield this technology in service of the poor. The emphasis on “public-private partnerships” provides a clue. Often the only organizations that can afford the investment in the networks and technologies needed to manage them are commercial entities¬¬––ones without a specific social mission to serve the poor.

While it can be surprising to see for-profit companies or their associated foundations seeking grants, low interest loans and other support from development agencies to expand their business even though that business will generate profits for them, there is nothing conceptually wrong with purely commercially-oriented companies serving the poor––at least as long as these companies do not take advantage of the clients’ relatively low level of education and awareness to add in extra costs. The past decade revealed that even social mission-driven institutions were not always putting their clients’ needs first. This ultimately gave birth to the client protection movement. One would hope that the new, technology-laden entrants into the industry also abide by these same principles.

In fact, what is also implied in this emphasis on technology over traditional approaches is the belief that only purely profit-driven organizations have the capacity to raise sufficient resources to close the gap in financial inclusion. The traditional service providers, no matter how commercialized, are seen as limited in their ability to raise both equity and debt, mainly because they promise “social returns” that are perceived to cut into financial returns.

A lot of the cheerleading in favor of disruptive technology comes from Africa, where indeed mobile platforms have come to dominate payments transactions and expanded in to loan repayment and savings deposit services. Amidst all this hoopla, however, there is scant mention that the true lifeblood of any financial intermediary––loan origination––is still done the old fashioned way, through a face-to-face meeting between the loan officer and the client. Scoring and other technologies have been introduced, but to date have not been able to completely substitute for human judgment.

Africa may be unique because it had the least developed financial sector in the world 10 years ago. Asia has been a different story, with many long-established players. Perhaps this is one factor behind why three countries that are considered among the best sectors in the world––the Philippines, Cambodia and Pakistan––to date have not experienced “disruptions”, much less “revolutions”. To be sure, all three countries have witnessed significant effort to mainstream mobile banking and branchless banking. The Philippines has one of the world’s first joint ventures between a bank and telecommunications company (BPI Globe BanKO). In Pakistan, some MNOs have purchased or created financial institutions. Wing has been offering mobile payments in Cambodia since 2010.

And yet, in none of these countries does there seem to be a massive threat to the market share of the more traditional service providers that is leading them to seek their own technological solutions. If anything, most financial institutions are too complacent, sticking with their tried-and-true methodologies rather than trying anything new. For the most part, there are still so many unserved clients in all of these countries that there actually isn’t much pressure to change.

Perhaps these institutions are blind to the future. Will they eventually go the way of the dinosaur? To answer that question, perhaps it is best to look at what clients want. Do they want to be served by a local retail shop acting as an agent of a distant financial institution? Do they trust their phones to ensure their money is safe when they make deposits? Most importantly, do they prefer the no-frills approach offered by those types of “disruptive” players versus the social mobilization programs that usually come with services from social mission-driven institutions?

Some clients may indeed prefer the no-frills approach; not everybody wants to sit through an hour-long training each week. But if some clients want quick and easy access with no requirements like weekly group meetings, we should ask why they would choose a mobile or branchless banking channel when they already have no-frills, easy access service from their local moneylender. Sure, informal moneylenders charge a high nominal interest rate. But their importance in the lives of the poor cannot be underestimated; even in countries like Bangladesh, clients still borrow more from their local moneylenders than they do from their microfinance institution. Mobile or branchless banking can never be as convenient as the local moneylender¬¬––or as flexible. And the cost of the technology and need to have multiple partners to deliver the service does not necessarily give the new approaches a definitive price advantage.

Other clients may continue to value the personal relationship they have with their loan officer, who they see every week, and the training and support he or she provides. If that is what a large segment of the market wants, the traditional MFIs may be better off responding to the putative disruptive technologies by becoming more traditional, in the sense of going back to their NGO/project roots and combining financial services with other forms of support.

Unfortunately, it may be the case that the opposite will happen. The “disruptive technologies” narrative appeals to the worldview of many in Europe and the US, and this will have a significant impact on how much resources are available. These days, mobile banking, for example, receives enormous financial support from the development community, leaving less funding to improve traditional services through training of loan officers, mainstreaming of client protection practices and social performance management, or providing wholesale funds for on-lending. The long-term impact of this shift in resource priorities may be to act as a disincentive for traditional service providers to increase non-financial services.

Ultimately, resources in support of financial inclusion should be allocated toward services that the clients really want and need. Today, with so many decision-makers and commentators enamored with technological fixes, it is unclear whether clients’ needs are really being incorporated. The push for the technological approach continues despite the recent news that usage of both on-line and mobile payments services in the US has slowed for two years in a row , suggesting that even in a country where people readily adopt new technologies, when it comes to money most people still prefer humans over digits.

It is interesting to talk about the kinds of services clients demand and why, what this means for development at either the micro or macro level. These things will define how MFIs should position themselves in the future to meet their clients’ needs while remaining attractive to the investors who give them the money the use to lend to their clients.

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(1) http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/dai-partner-zone/disruption-in-financial-inclusion
(2) http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/04/25/how-big-data-can-expand-financial-opportunities-for-the-worlds-poor/
(3) http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/04/smes-developing-world-need-n320trn-ifc/

This article was contributed by Mr. Ron Bevacqua, Managing Director of PFTAS.