The Micro-Finance India Summit 2011

Beyond all the buzz, when can we embed social performance within practice?

Social performance is the ‘in’ thing in micro-finance and an entire session is devoted at the Micro-Finance India summit towards the same and a special social performance report is also to be released at the Summit. The Micro-Finance India Summit session is titled, “Beyond the Buzz, Embedding Social Performance within Practice” and the emphasis of the session is described  below 

Session Outline: Beyond the Buzz, Embedding Social Performance within Practice

There is a multiplicity of methodologies and indicators which emphasize inclusion of social performance standards in concurrence with financial performance. There is also an emphasis from investors as well as lenders on incorporation of Social performance metrics and on adherence to code of conduct. Against this backdrop, MFIs are undertaking objective steps to manage and enhance their social performance, which range from changes in product features and delivery processes, communication with clients, human resources management practices including emphasis on women supportive work policies, governance, internal audit and control mechanisms, MIS and so on. The Microfinance India Social Performance Report is an initiative to comprehensively document the efforts of MFIs and other players to better manage and report on the social performance based on some field evidence. The session will review the findings of this report and discuss the process and progress of deeper internalization of SPM within the sectoral practice and highlight avenues for the way forward. Source: http://www.microfinanceindia.org/content/35/63/blog.php

Readers would recall that Moneylife has already commented on this new development in the field of micro-finance. (Microfinance: Will seal of excellence and social performance management as yardsticks work?)

That said, while it is great to talk of social performance, internal controls and the like, a key question here is: How to enforce this on the ground in a practical sense when you have multiple agents (MFIN-NCAER study: Here’s the proof that microfinance agents are thriving in Tamil Nadu) colluding with fraudulent staff (often hired without serious background checks and practically no training) and MFIs that rely heavily on a fully decentralized model that has all the wrong incentives? (How and why did microfinance agents become a part of the Indian microfinance business?; Implementation safeguards against notorious agents are an imperative for the proposed microfinance bill; and Proposed Microfinance Bill has to look at the centre leader as a microfinance agent

Further, given that a lot of growth has occurred (and is perhaps still occurring) through outsourcing to agents, where the end user clients may not be strictly traceable, how can social performance be enforced in a practical sense? What lessons can the Indian and global micro-finance industry learn from past efforts to enforce codes of conduct and the like? (We all know what happened after the 2005/6 Krishna crisis in India)

Also, when simple internal controls (and internal audits) were busted and disregarded during the burgeoning growth phase of Indian micro-finance, which saw the phenomenal rise of multiple lending and other malpractices, with what confidence can we expect social performance to be implemented on the ground? (Increasing frauds, internal lapses at MFIs: Need to strengthen supervisory arrangements to protect the poor)

And finally, when MFIs operate using different kinds of agents in an outsourcing model, how can one be sure of the data that is provided by the MFIs with regard to social performance management? How can we rely on self - report data that is supplied by the MFIs with regard to these, especially when many MFIs may not even be aware of who their clients are because of the prevalent agent models? This question becomes even more relevant when we consider the recent experience of Sahayata Micro-Finance (Award winning Sahayata Microfinance is the latest to go astray)

Accordingly, I raise several (further) specific questions - for the presenters and discussants in the social performance session of the Micro-Finance India summit and social performance management advocates and practitioners - with regard to the agent led decentralized model. I hope that the concerned stakeholders factor these into their discussions on social performance management at the Micro-Finance India Summit:

When center leaders or others act as agents at the last mile, how can reliable and valid information about products and processes be obtained and used in the social performance management assessment? (Proposed Microfinance Bill has to look at the centre leader as a microfinance agent)

When end user clients are (themselves) not known, as in many cases, what client level data can be obtained and used in the social performance management process? This aspect becomes exacerbated when one considers the fact that MIS in micro-finance is far from satisfactory (Establishing standards for effective management information systems for MFIs)

When the monitoring for the last mile stops with the agent, what real assessments can be done with regard to various social performance objectives? (MFIN-NCAER study: Here’s the proof that microfinance agents are thriving in Tamil Nadu)

When end use is unclear and end user clients are unknown, as in many agent led models, how can client impact be measured? (How and why did microfinance agents become a part of the Indian microfinance business?; Implementation safeguards against notorious agents are an imperative for the proposed microfinance bill)

Thus, under circumstances such as the above, it would be impossible to assess aspects such as the following, so critical for social performance management: (1) Who uses and who is excluded from using the MFIs services?; (2) How do the MFI’s clients use the MFIs services?; (3) Do MFI services meet their client needs?; (4) Why do some clients leave or become inactive?; (5) Who benefits and how?; and (6) What benefits were unexpected? 

When one considers these and other questions, the credibility of social performance management, as a sub-field of micro-finance and financial inclusion, is seriously at stake. I sincerely hope that the presenters and discussants at the Micro-Finance India Summit, who are also the so called practitioners of social performance management, address the aforementioned real ground level issues rather than merely focus on high level concepts that can at best be described  as superfluous and, perhaps, even redundant.

Hence, while social performance sounds fantastic on paper, any talk of social performance is meaningless when one looks at the current ground realities in Indian micro-finance. While these concepts sound excellent at a conference in Delhi (like at the Micro-Finance India Summit), from visits to the hotbeds of micro-finance in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh among others, it is clear that enforcing social performance on the ground is an almost impossible task. This is especially true given the huge level of decentralized operations in current day micro-finance and the manner in which this model has evolved and the associated motivations therein. With the huge (and perhaps increasing) presence of agents (or ring leaders) and their all pervasive role, social performance is therefore more likely to be a mirage rather than reality! 

Therefore, using so called tools of social performance or seals of excellence - merely to justify the existence of such (and especially, for-profit) MFIs that sound GREAT on paper but are rarely implemented (or visible) on the ground - certainly does not befit the status of an  industry like micro-finance that has pledged its troth to financial inclusion and inclusive growth. And it is about time that we start asking the question as to why many so called great concepts (like social performance or even principles of corporate governance etc) are not implemented on the ground rather than creating newer and newer tools that may have lesser and lesser relevance to field realities. And such questions will have to focus on the flawed business model adopted by the NBFC MFIs, the greater use of agents in a decentralized model, increased sharing of JLGs/clients and the like. Let us make no mistake about that!

And, my humble plea here is as follows: The micro-finance industry needs to tackle issues head on and ensure that low-income people get access to a wide range of appropriately designed and delivered high quality financial services at affordable costs. And this does not have to come from MFIs and for profit MFIs alone. Retailing by banks and delivery of such financial services by community development finance institutions (like Cooperatives) should also be strongly encouraged – and this is a point that needs to be noted carefully and appreciated by various industry stakeholders. Therefore, let us stop creating tools and instruments to merely justify existence of for profit MFIs and rather focus on building a REALLY transparent client oriented micro-finance industry on the ground with pluralistic institutions, that can serve clients in an effective (doing the right things) and efficient (do things the right way) manner. That alone will help bring back glory to the beleaguered micro-finance industry in India as well as globally. I hope that the session on Social Performance at the 2011 Micro-Finance India Summit drive home these points in a convincing manner.

 

 

 

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