Smart Campaign: Microfinance clients speak out about how they’re treated

Note from the Microfinance CEO Working Group: 
We are pleased to share this press release from the Smart Campaign announcing a fascinating new research report entitled ‘My Turn to Speak,’ which provides first-person accounts across four countries about how clients are treated by their financial institutions. These insights are invaluable for better understanding the challenges facing vulnerable communities and informing our work to develop products and services that address these challenges. We encourage you to check out the report and learn more about the Smart Campaign here: www.smartcampaign.org.

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PRESS RELEASE


In Their Own Voices: Microfinance Clients Speak Out About How They’re Treated

Smart Campaign’s New Research Examines, through Clients’ Own Words,
Their Interactions with the Financial Service Providers Who Serve Them

Washington, D.C., February 18, 2016 – The Smart Campaign, a global movement to embed a set of client-protection principles into the fabric of the financial inclusion sector, today announced the release of ‘My Turn to Speak’ – intensive research across four countries that reveals, in clients’ own words, how they are treated by their financial service providers.

Realizing that clients’ actual experiences and opinions were critical but missing data in consumer-protection efforts, the Campaign commissioned Bankable Frontier Associates to survey thousands of low-income microfinance clients face-to-face in Benin, Georgia, Pakistan and Peru. The research captures, first-hand, clients’ interactions with the institutions that make their loans and keep their savings, and are therefore instrumental to their hopes and struggles.

“There are risks [with providers] because most of us are illiterate and we don’t know who tells the truth,” said one female client in Parakou, Benin.  Reported an MFI client in Telavi, Georgia: “It is so expensive to complain, then sometimes it has no use.”

Compiling data from 1:1 interviews, the research in all four countries found that clients are generally satisfied with their financial institutions, proving that microfinance has an important role to play.  However, some troubling themes arose that damage client trust, such as inadequate explanations of loan terms, lack of redress mechanisms and opportunities, and disrespectful treatment.

Through the project, the Campaign sought to question whether assumptions made about what constitutes problematic treatment of poor clients rightly reflected what clients themselves worry about. The research was conducted so that it might serve as a catalyst for improvement in client protection by regulators, microfinance associations, consumer advocacy groups and others – not only in these four countries, but as guidelines for the protection of low-income clients around the world.

Although each country demonstrated unique market characteristics and challenges, the research illuminated a number of universal priorities for improvement.

Sample Findings

  • Transparency: Clients in all four countries have an inadequate understanding of the basic attributes of their microfinance products; in Benin, Pakistan and Peru, for example, 50 percent, 49 percent and 43 percent of respondents reported that they understood loan terms only somewhat or not at all at the time of taking the loan. This lack of understanding exists even when institutions follow mandated disclosure rules.
  • Credit bureaus: Credit bureaus play an increasing and valuable role in protecting clients, and most clients typically have a poor understanding of how they work.
  • Handling complaints: Most clients don’t know how and where to complain, and given the poor quality of recourse they experience with all kinds of formal institutions (schools, clinics, etc.), they do not think their complaints will be resolved by financial service providers.
  • Respectful treatment: Poor treatment is most often experienced when consumers are late with loan payments.  Practices in some countries mean that late payers are likely to face shaming and other forms of censure that can have long term social consequences.

Recommendations

The reports offer broad-reaching recommendations for improving client protection. These range from a radical reframing of transparency and disclosure requirements and practices, to the abolishment of practices that could incentivize collections agents to shame clients. The reports also counsel that financial products should build in grace periods for a small number of repayments, which would satisfy clients’ demand for more flexibility and understanding in the event of emergencies.

The reports also suggest that investors and donors should demand that financial institutions establish effective recourse channels, regularly measure client satisfaction, and provide clients with easy access to phone numbers and contact information of customer-service or complaints-resolution personnel. Likewise, donors and governments should continue to support the expansion of credit bureaus, together with efforts to educate consumers on how they work.

“These are some of the first, detailed examinations of what clients want from microfinance, and what they actually get, reported in their own words,” said Isabelle Barrès, managing director of the Smart Campaign. “The rich data and recommendations of ‘Client Voices’ provide a call to action for all stakeholders in financial inclusion, whether investor, regulator, consumer advocate or financial institution.”

The synthesis report, ‘My Turn to Speak: Voices of Microfinance Clients in Benin, Pakistan, Peru and Georgia,’ and the individual country reports on Peru and Georgia, which will be available in English and in their national language, can be found at www.smartcampaign.org from February 18th.

About the Smart Campaign

The Smart Campaign is a global movement to embed a set of client-protection principles deep within the microfinance industry. It is governed by a steering committee representing a broad cross-section of the industry and is housed at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion. By providing microfinance institutions with the tools and resources they need to deliver transparency, respectful and prudent financial services to all clients, the Smart Campaign is helping the industry maintain its commitment to treating clients fairly. More information on the Client Protection Certification Program can be found here.

Sample report graphics:

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