Category Archives: Microfinance

The Grameen Bank under threat in Bangladesh

Many discussions about microfinance begin with the same story. It’s the story of a Bangladeshi economics lecturer who had a novel but compelling idea, and how the organisation he created, the Grameen Bank, became one of the world’s foremost socially-oriented financial institutions. As you read this a new chapter is being written in this story, where the Bangladeshi government looks at loopholes in the Grameen’s founding statutes as a way to seize control of its finances. In doing so the government is threatening the rights of the Bank’s millions of member-shareholders, and putting the futures of both the Grameen Bank and those it serves at risk.

Grameen BankSo what happened? The Grameen Bank was granted institutional status in 1983 by the enactment of a special law: the Grameen Bank Ordinance. The Ordinance enabled the creation of a legal entity that would “provide credit… to landless persons for all types of economic activities”, and outlined the relationship that the Bank would have with government and its clients.

 

Three decades have passed since then, and the Grameen Bank has made loans totalling more than $9bn to millions of poor people. These clients are mostly women, over 5.5 million of whom own shares in the Bank purchased with funds from their Grameen savings accounts. Since 1987 these borrower-shareholders have also sent representatives to occupy nine out of twelve seats on Grameen’s Board of Directors, and this representation gives the poor shareholders significant input into the strategic direction of the Bank. The system was designed to ensure that the Bank retained its original focus on alleviating poverty, as well as its commitment to addressing the needs of its clients.

Grameen’s methodology has been emulated all over the world, but at home in Bangladesh the Bank has recently been under threat following a public clash with the governing Awami League party. Almost two years have passed since the government forced the resignation of the Bank’s founder, Prof Muhammad Yunus, amidst public protests from Grameen employees and clients. And a Commission of government appointees is currently investigating the legal status of the Bank, as well as the rights of shareholders and other issues. The Commission is simply the latest development in the fraught relationship between Grameen and the Awami League government, but the tone of its preliminary findings is particularly troubling.

In an interim report published recently, the Commission raised a number of disquieting points about the legal status of the Bank and its shareholders. The document supports the government’s position that Grameen is ultimately an organ of the state under the terms of the Ordinance, citing as evidence the fact that the Ordinance does not explicitly give ownership of the Bank to its shareholders. Indeed, the Commission notes that the statute does not properly define the rights of the people it describes as ‘member-borrowers’ or ‘shareholders’ at all.

But their role hasn’t been defined for close the thirty years; yet successive governments, central bank governors, finance ministers and government-appointed Grameen Board Chairmen have been satisfied with the de facto ownership exercised by the shareholders. The Commission actually specifically notes in their report that “No clarification about the usage of these terms seems to have been sought by anyone”, presumably because all parties were satisfied with the status quo where the Bank maintained its operational independence and the shareholders dominated the board. Here, members’ status embodies the spirit in which Grameen was created.

The Grameen Bank functions best as an institution that serves the needs of its clients, but at the moment the Awami League government is trying to make it an institution that is run by the State. And that is worrying.

Past experiences in Bangladesh and elsewhere indicate that governments are not always good at operating development finance institutions. For example, previous experiments in state-run microfinance have sadly been used as a conduit for patronage, vote-buying, and associated corruption. In many cases these institutions eventually collapse under the weight of their own mismanagement, leaving a legacy of wasted resources and institutionalised corruption.

If this were to happen to the Grameen Bank it would be a travesty. After three decades of demonstrating the potential for inclusive financial services to change the lives of disadvantaged people for the better, the Bank must be allowed to retain its independence. If the de facto status of the members on the Board of Directors is not properly defined in the Ordinance, then the law should be altered to normalise the situation. Any discrepancies cannot and should not be used as an excuse for the government to deprive Grameen’s members of the rights they have exercised for more than thirty years, and everyone who cares about the work of the Grameen Bank has a responsibility to stop that from happening.

Annual Review of Global Microfinance Launched in Washington DC

Since 1998, RESULTS’ partner organisation the Microcredit Summit Campaign have published an annual review of microfinance across the globe. This week saw the launch of the 2013 edition using data from 2011, which found that for the first time since the inception of the  Campaign the number of people making use of microfinance services has actually become smaller from year to year.

This reduction in numbers was largely the result of a contraction in the Indian microfinance sector following the Andhra Pradesh crisis of 2010, but the report also paints a complex picture of the different forces influencing the progress of financial inclusion around the world.

In many parts of the world, changing donor/investor attitudes and other factors reduced the funding that was available to microfinance institutions; a situation that was compounded by the global financial crisis. The increasingly commercial and profit-oriented nature of some microcredit institutions has also created other issues as institutions lose their incentive to seek out poorer and more remote (and thus less profitable) clients and communities.

The report also contains interesting insights and expert interviews on the benefits of group lending programmes for fostering social solidarity, an exploration of the potential benefits of mobile banking for expanding microfinance outreach and a psychological study of American university students that goes some way to explaining why vulnerable people in developing countries are so susceptible to overindebtedness.

The complete report is available here.

“Banking on Change” Partnership Renewed in Parliament

In 2009, a unique partnership was formed between two of the world’s largest NGOs, CARE and Plan, and Barclays, one of the UK’s oldest and biggest financial institutions. The collaboration sought to leverage the strengths of each partner so that collectively they could expand access to appropriate financial services amongst the millions of people across the developing world who remain ‘unbanked’.  Last week at a special event in the House of Lords hosted by Lord Boateng, Co-Chair of the APPG on Microfinance, the three partners renewed their commitment to the collaboration for a further three years and called on the Prime Minister and other global leaders to consider the benefits of financial inclusion as they meet in Liberia to discuss the post-2015 development agenda.

Lord Boateng speaks at the launch of the Banking on Change report

The Banking on Change programme involves the promotion of Village Savings and Loan Associations; locally-organised groups that meet regularly to deposit small savings in a locked box. Periodically, members qualify to receive loans from the cash in the box, which they can use to invest in small businesses or to pay for occasional expenses such as school fees or funeral costs. Successful groups are offered the chance to open formal group savings accounts at local Barclays branches, which for many of the disadvantaged group members will constitute the first time they have ever entered the premises of a mainstream bank.

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National Conference early bird tickets now on sale

We are pleased to announce that early bird tickets for this year’s National Conference are now available at a discounted price of just £15!

This year’s event will take place over the weekend of the 20th-22nd of April 2013 at the NVCO Centre, Kings Cross, London. Click here to register!

The conference is an excellent opportunity to learn about issues relating to international development and to join a full day’s training workshop on how to undertake strategic advocacy. We are also again holding our lobby day on the Monday, when we have meetings arranged with key professionals from across the international development spectrum.

This year’s conference, titled What next for development? The world after the Millennium Development Goals’ will reflect on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals and look ahead to the new international framework that will replace the MDGs in 2015.

To secure your place at this year’s National Conference for just £15,  please either send a cheque made payable to ‘RESULTS Education’ to RESULTS UK, RESULTS UK Head Office, 31-33 Bondway, London, SW8 1SJ

Or do a bank transfer to Alliance and Leicester, account number 42817802, sort code 72-00-05. Please identify your  payment with the reference code ‘NC13’ plus your surname, e.g. ‘NC13 Smith’

Your £15 will include entrance to the 3 days of the conference, plus lunch and refreshements on each day.

Saturday night will also feature the now infamous RESULTS social event! A great chance to unwind with fellow advocates.

More information about speakers and the conference will be available ahead of the event.

You will also need to complete an early bird registration form and return it to the office via post to RESULTS UK Head Office, RESULTS UK Head Office
31-33 Bondway, London, SW8 1SJ or via e-mail to tom.maguire@results.org.uk.

Download a registration form now by clicking here

Registration form

If you have any questions, please contact Tom in the office at tom.maguire@results.org.uk or call 0207 499 8238

Tesco and Grameen Bank to provide microfinance in Scotland

The Grameen micro-lending system, which has helped lift millions of people out of poverty worldwide, is to be launched in impoverished regions across Scotland with the aid of Tesco and other donors.

The Grameen Scotland Foundation will oversee the running of Grameen-style lending in Scotland; a system originally devised by Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, the new Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University.

Credit: Evening Times

The scheme, backed by funding from Tesco Bank, the Scottish government and entrepreneurs such as Ann Gloag, co-founder of Stagecoach, will initially operate in Glasgow, North Ayrshire, West Dunbartonshire and Inverclyde. There, the GSF will work closely with low-income communities to identify prospective entrepreneurs who could benefit from small loans charged at competitive rates of interest that require no collateral. All of the borrowers will become stakeholders in the Grameen system and will therefore collectively play a part in its management.

Yunus, who won the Nobel peace prize in 2006 for the bank’s anti-poverty work, has said that: “Poor people need to be given the right opportunities to be able to succeed in their own lives and this is what Grameen helps them to do. We must encourage people to envision their own futures and, once that is done, find out how to get there – once a person has a vision, it can be made real.”

Although the efficacy of microcredit as a means of alleviating poverty and empowering women has been questioned by some, Tesco Bank and the GSF are confident that it will help Scotland’s struggling businesspeople improve their incomes with the right support and guidance.

In addition to providing £500,000 of the Foundation’s initial loan capital, Tesco Bank will also provide borrowers with a range of services such as business guidance and advertising space in local Tesco stores. Borrowers will also be offered a savings account to help get their business started.

Chief executive of Tesco Bank, Benny Higgins, has stated that: “In partnering Grameen in Scotland, we will provide loan funding, professional guidance from our staff and access to our stores to help set up new businesses which, over time, can improve the local economy.”

With a target of raising £3m in funding by 2017, the GSF hopes to expand the scheme across the rest of the UK, targeting impoverished communities who have been particularly affected by the financial crisis. The foundation is currently in discussion with the European Investment Fund, which is expected to pledge over £1million to the project after the pilot stage is completed in early 2013. With sufficient funding and support for its borrowers, the scheme appears to have a good chance of replicating some of the Bangladeshi bank’s successes, albeit on a much smaller scale.

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microfinance Celebrates Ten Years

Stephen Lloyd MP speaks at the APPGMF Anniversary Reception

As businesspeople, NGO representatives and world leaders met elsewhere in London to talk about a new agenda to follow the Millenium Development Goals, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microfinance (APPGMF)* met in the Churchill Dining Room in Parliament to celebrate ten years since the Group’s establishment and to discuss how access to financial services can help the world’s poorest achieve greater prosperity.

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Microfinance and Financial Inclusion Discussed at Party Conferences

As followers of UK political news will be aware, the party conference season has recently concluded.  As the major parties return to Westminster after their trips to Brighton (Lib Dems), Birmingham (Conservatives) and Manchester (Labour), this RESULTS blog post reviews remarks made by the UK’s key decision makers about microfinance and on increasing access to financial services.

The Liberal Democrats kicked off their conference in Brighton on the 22nd of September, reiterating their support for legislation that would require all future UK governments to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas development assistance.  As previously discussed on the RESULTS blog, enshrining this commitment into law would help the world’s poorest people and ensure a guaranteed funding flow to aid making the UK a world leader in this area.

Regarding microfinance specifically, 2010 Dods ‘Female MP of the YearAnnette Brooke MP spoke at a conference fringe session about her interest in microfinance and the potential for increased access to financial services to relieve poverty. As the founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Microfinance, for which RESULTS hosts a secretariat, Ms Brooke is familiar with the changes to people’s lives that microfinance can bring, though she also spoke of the need to better measure the impact of microfinance. Ms Brooke also discussed the importance of ensuring that microfinance continues to serve poor people’s needs rather than simply becoming a means of generating profits. In this regard she pointed to the 2010 crisis in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh as evidence of the terrible consequences that can result from a failure to supervise microcredit organisations in competitive markets. Continue reading

One Woman is Threatening the Future of Millions of Others

The Grameen Bank has enabled millions of women to lift themselves out of poverty by giving them loans to buy animals, or equipment to start earning money. The bank’s pioneering model has been emulated worldwide, demonstrating the power of microfinance to lift women and their families out of extreme poverty. Last year, however, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government supported the removal of Grameen’s Nobel Prize-winning founder Muhammad Yunus from his post as managing director. The decision has been widely criticised by many governments and NGOs working in Bangladesh and elsewhere,  who see the move as a deliberate attempt to turn the bank into a compliant arm of Hasina’s administration.

Credit: The Tribune

Worse, in recent months Hasina’s government has tried to seize control of the bank from the 5.5 million small-time shareholders, almost all of them women, who collectively own more than 95 per cent of the bank. She has also passed a law, previously discussed in the RESULTS blog, which will allow the government to bypass the elected board and handpick the Bank’s next managing director. Many fear that Hasina and her government will use their newly-found power to manipulate the bank’s members, in order to gather their votes in the country’s forthcoming election.  This takeover could break the bank, and destroy the lives of millions of Bangladeshi women and their families.

So far 511,000 people have signed a petition to support Grameen Bank.  For more information and to support the petition see here.

“Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic” – How a whistleblower’s book has spurred a new introspection in the microfinance community

In July, a book was published that has caused something of a stir amongst people interested in microfinance. This was not the first time an author had published a work critical of the sector, but the majority of previous attempts have been written by academics who criticise the concept from either an ideological or a technical perspective. Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic, however, is different. This is because the author, Hugh Sinclair, is not a Marxist university professor or an anarchist political activist, but rather a graduate of one of the world’s top business schools with a track record of more than a decade working in microfinance around the globe. In the book, Sinclair describes his first-hand experience of the corruption and profiteering that he believes characterises some organisations and individuals in the sector, and the evidence he presents has left many people in microfinance wondering what can be done to ensure that their work benefits the poor people who need it.

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Grameen Bank Ordinance Passes, Putting the Bank’s Independence at Risk

The Bangladeshi National Assembly Building in Dhaka

Last week the Bangladeshi Parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, passed an amendment to the Grameen Bank Ordinance that will drastically alter the way the Nobel Prize-winning Bank appoints its managing directors in future. As the latest development in an ongoing conflict between the Prime Minister’s Awami League party and the Grameen Bank, the new law leaves the Bank’s poor female clients (who also constitute the majority of its ownership) with an uncertain future.

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