Webinar recap: Is it too late for microfinance to be pro poor?

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On April 21st, the Microcredit Summit Campaign co-hosted with Uplift a webinar discussion focusing on the promise that graduation holds for sustainably reaching the ultra-poor. Our featured speakers were Debasish Ray Chaudhuri, CEO of Bandhan Konnagar in India, Rachel Proefke, a research associate with BRAC Uganda, Mark Daniels, the Philippines director for Opportunity International, and Allison Duncan, CEO of Amplifier Strategies and founder of Uplift. Anne Hastings, a global advocate with Uplift, moderated the webinar.

The conversation looked closely at the experiences that each of the three practitioners on the panel have had in implementing the program as well as the global advocacy message supporting the graduation approach being delivered by Uplift and its allies.

We hope you will get engaged with this promising avenue for reaching those living in ultra-poverty and be inspired by the potential it holds for helping microfinance institutions to reconnect to their original purpose. Some final thoughts from speakers on the webinar follow.

Anne Hastings noted,

We weren’t really able to address in depth how a pro-poor MFI, struggling for sustainability in a competitive, regulated environment can attain sustainability while operating the graduation program. In the models we saw, the institution was either an NGO or a regulated MFI that had formed a non-profit foundation for the graduation program and perhaps the delivery of other non-financial services. We shouldn’t be surprised or embarrassed that donor funding may still be needed, but partnerships with government safety net programs and other NGOs can also be very helpful in paying for the program. As the 6 RCTs funded by the Ford Foundation concluded, “Although more can be learned about how to optimize the design and implementation of the program, we establish that a multifaceted approach to increasing income and well-being for the ultra-poor is sustainable and cost-effective.” (Science Magazine, 15 May 2015, Vol 348 Issue 6236, p. 772.)

Rachel Profke added,

I think the point that I would stress, which we begun to address in the discussion, is the importance of finding the right partner for the implementation of components that an MFI does not have the core capacity to implement. While BRAC is able to leverage both microfinance and additional programming in the areas that we operate all programs, this is not always the case for us or other MFIs that will be interested in implementing graduation programming. Often, MFIs can provide the scale in identifying communities and in providing financial services, but linkages with implementing partners providing similar programming is fundamental to ensuring best practices in programming — as Mark highlighted. However, aside from NGO implementers, governments are often running existing programming that can be leveraged not only in identifying beneficiaries through such channels as social protection programming but also in providing some components through existing service provision, in terms of health or extension services. We find it helpful to look at what is already at place — and at scale — through government programs is useful, as we have done in Tanzania. This is also useful as we think about scaling because, apart from donor buy-in, governments offer larger potential through larger budgets and capacity.

Thank you to all panelists for contributing to this important conversation about the importance of the graduation approach. We also wish to thank all participants who submitted thought-provoking questions and comments to help make the session a very lively and interactive discussion!

Couldn’t join us? Watch the session recording!

April 21st Webinar: Is it too late for microfinance to be pro poor?

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You’re invited to an exciting webinar organized by Uplift on April 21st (10 AM EDT / GMT-4): “Is it too late for microfinance to be pro poor? The case for linking microfinance with graduation.”

The Graduation Approach was first developed by BRAC to help address the needs of those who were too poor for microfinance services.

In recent years, shifts in the regulatory environment and disruptive digital inclusion technologies have put pressure on microfinance institutions to go up market and move away from their original pro-poor mission.

Please register by April 19th. The password to register is “MCSEWORKSHOP”.

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Can tablets and apps fight poverty?

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Kids use the financial literacy app developed by Fundacíon Capital called LISTA
Photo credit: Fundacíon Capital

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>>Authored by Julieta Bossi, Communications Officer, Fundación Capital

MoMF

April is the Month of Microfinance

We can talk about innovation and we can talk about technology, but when we work on poverty reduction, the most important thing we need to talk about is community.

It is only when we understand what capabilities and tools already exist and are being used within a community that we can develop and explore new technologies and solutions for that community. And it is only by working together with the social innovation community that we can ensure that these new tools can reach millions and have a lasting impact.

At Fundación Capital we work to eliminate poverty by fostering economic, financial, and social inclusion. Without economic opportunities and financial abilities, one cannot obtain full citizenship, including all of the rights and responsibilities that it entails. Therefore, our main goal is to promote financial inclusion and create economic citizenship. We do this by strengthening the productive, financial, human, and social assets of people living in conditions of poverty and extreme poverty, empowering them to find their own way out of poverty. Throughout this process, we rely on innovation and technology that we created in partnership with the community to provide sustainable and effective solutions.

Fundación Capital works with public and private institutions, helping government entities to create more innovative and efficient public policies and helping the private sector to develop products and services that fulfill needs at the base of the pyramid.

Working with communities, we identify needs and preferences that guide the design of new solutions we dream up and develop. Existing knowledge, capabilities, and social capital become the springboard for innovation and represent valuable tools that can be combined with digital solutions to generate real and effective change with the potential to reach millions, including those living in the most remote and rural regions.

A client of Fundacíon Capital wiht her daughter Photo credit: Fundacíon Capital

A client of Fundacíon Capital wiht her daughter

Photo credit: Fundacíon Capital

Through this process of innovation and co-creation, we have developed a number of digital solutions. One of them is LISTA, an initiative that was born out of the need to provide financial education to millions of conditional cash transfer recipients in a cost-effective way. LISTA offers interactive and relevant content delivered via a tablet computer provided to the families. The app called “Produciendo por mi futuro” provides tips for financial planning, familiarizes users with ATMs and mobile money through simulators, and seeks to break barriers between low-income communities and the formal financial system. This tool is brought into families’ homes, providing users with the opportunity to study on their own time, concentrate on topics most relevant to their needs, and include all family members in the learning process.

Another way we transfer knowledge to less advantaged communities living in remote areas is through government, this app teaches them how to run a business, manage and invest the capital into productive activities. It ensures that these injections of capital will be invested and provide a foundation to build on and eventually graduate out of poverty. Once they’ve built up their businesses, communities can access additional funding through LittleBigMoney, Latin America’s first crowdfunding platform for projects or businesses led by bottom of the pyramid entrepreneurs or whose impact benefits vulnerable communities.

Another challenge encountered in poverty alleviation programs is training field workers and ensuring the quality of the financial education they deliver. Since they engage with the community on a daily basis, it is important that they are properly trained, so we have created an e-learning course for fieldworkers working with our graduation program.

We also provide fieldworkers with the “Produciendo por mi futuro” app  to increase their productivity. The fieldworkers leave the tablets with participating families, who study the material over the course of the week, so that when they meet with their fieldworker “coach”, they can have more productive and personalized conversations with real outcomes. The app empowers families living in extreme poverty, by offering them financial education and business training.

After years of working on designing, developing, and implementing these kinds of solutions, we have come to understand that the most important input for our work and innovation is the constant feedback we receive from communities. They are our inspiration and a great source of ideas for constant improvement and adjustment. While we can’t expect that any one of these digital solutions will provide a “magic bullet” tool for poverty alleviation, these tools support communities as they work to improve their lives and reach their goals.

A Fundacíon Capital family in their shop Photo credit: Fundacíon Capital

A Fundacíon Capital family in their shop
Photo credit: Fundacíon Capital

The only way to ensure that innovation and technology works is by both designing and testing it with the community and then learning from failures and making the necessary adaptations. For us, it is also important to learn from and share ideas with the social innovation community, so we look forward to working in partnership with other members of the community.

Fundación Capital made a Campaign Commitment to end extreme poverty, watch this video to know more about it:

 

Is it April Fools’ Day, or ‘Groundhog Day’?

Pathways: financial inclusion to end extreme poverty | Find out what we heard from the industry in this year’s Listening Tour

We’ll be bringing you articles throughout April that reflect the results of this year’s Listening Tour Photo credit: by Geoff (originally posted to Flickr as Pilgrim’s path) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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>>Authored by Larry Reed, Director, Microcredit Summit Campaign

MoMF

April is the Month of Microfinance

We are capitalizing on the occasion of the Month of Microfinance to bring you articles throughout April on our 100 Million Ideas blog that reflect the results of this year’s Listening Tour. We received written feedback from 151 people and conducted 27 interviews with thought leaders like Beth Porter (UNCDF), Syed Hashemi (BRAC University), Essma Ben Hamida (enda inter arabe), and William Derban (Fidelity Bank). This feedback from the industry forms the basis of the Campaign’s theme for 2015 of financial inclusion to end extreme poverty and the six pathways that we think show promise in getting us there:

  • Mobile money linked with agent networks in low-income communities;
  • Agricultural value chains that reach to small scale producers;
  • Savings groups (aka village savings and loans associations);
  • Conditional cash transfers linked with mobile delivery and asset building;
  • Ultra-poor graduation programs; and
  • Microfinance savings and/or borrowing groups linked with health education, health financing, and health product delivery.

These six pathways will be reflected in the 2015 State of the Campaign Report, the 18th Microcredit Summit, and Campaign Commitments to be featured this year. From the start, the Microcredit Summit Campaign has advocated scaling up microcredit (and, by extension, “microfinance”) as just one part of a larger effort to end poverty. We have held up as paramount the continued innovation and client-focused development of financial tools, creative ideas for delivering these services to remote and hard-to-reach areas at affordable prices, and the promise that microfinance can help create positive and durable changes in the lives of those being served. These six pathways are a continuation of that promise.

Fazila Begum struggling Member of Grameen Bank Shakhaerchar branch

We met Fazila Begum in 2007. She was a struggling member of Grameen Bank, Shakhaerchar branch.

When will researchers catch up with microfinance leaders?

From the very first loan of $27 that Mohammad Yunus gave to 42 women in Bangladesh, the heart of microfinance has always been about getting to know the needs of people living in poverty and designing products and services that help them loose the bonds that keep them in poverty. The aim of Yunus and many other founders of the movement was not to build financial institutions, but to empower people women to create a better future for themselves and their children. To do this they had to get to know people living in poverty and their cash flows, needs and aspirations in order to develop combinations of helpful products and services.

So when our team listened to the presentations of academic researchers made at the World Bank covering six randomized control trials of microcredit programs, we came away more than a little underwhelmed. Their big conclusion, after spending several years and millions of dollars on research: “Understand clients.” (Watch a recording of the forum.)

Even more alarming was that many of the researchers and the audience seemed surprised by the news. We have been engaged with leading microfinance groups around the world and have seen how they have learned — on their own — the lessons that the researchers presented as well as how they adapted their programs to address them long ago.

Here are some examples of research findings presented at the World Bank gatherings and actions previously taken by leading MFIs:

“Credit alone, on average, has neither large positive or negative effects.”

Very few of the leading MFIs that have focused on reaching people in poverty and facilitating their movement out of poverty have ever offered only credit. Grameen, from the start, had group savings and the 16 Decisions. The Village Banks developed by FINCA offered group savings and a group insurance fund. Many also provide training in business, marketing, health, nutrition, and sanitation in their group meetings.

“When only credit is available, people may use it when what they really need is savings, or insurance or other financial products.”

Microfinance leader BRI in Indonesia has been offering individual voluntary savings accounts since the 1980s and now has over 35 million savings accounts and 8 million borrowers. While many of the group lending systems provided loans, savings, and insurance bundled into one package, many of the leading MFIs have begun unbundling those services in the last two decades.

Grameen II, instituted in 2001, provides a range of financial services to clients, including voluntary savings and micropensions, and it removed the group guarantee on loans. Opportunity International began providing microinsurance in 2002, expanding from life insurance to health, casualty, and crop insurance and then spinning off MicroEnsure as a subsidiary that now reaches over 10 million clients.

Nangolkot, Noakhali, Bangladesh

Villagers in Nangolkot, Noakhali, Bangladesh
Photo credit: ©Shamimur Rahman and Giorgia Bonaga

“For 5-10 percent of the clients, credit has a very large positive impact on business growth and income.”

Aris Alip, founder of the CARD network of mutually reinforcing development institutions, saw this happening in the villages where CARD provided group-based savings and lending services. He also saw that those 5-10 percent that grew benefited the community by providing stable employment to others. In 2008, CARD created an SME bank to work specifically with fast growing microbusinesses and to see if, by providing appropriate products and services to this group, they could increase the percentage of growing businesses to 15 or 20 percent.

“For the ultra-poor, a gift of an asset has significant positive impact.”

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A woman client of Relief Society of Tigray (REST) in Ethiopia harvests her mango tree.
Photo credit: REST

This learning came directly from the work of BRAC and its ultra-poor graduation program. BRAC found that those who live on less than $.50 per day face so much vulnerability in their lives that they do not want to take on more debt. They developed a system of regular stipends of food or cash, a gift of an asset like an animal or a sewing machine, business training, savings, and regular mentoring. This program has now been replicated in several countries, and studies of these programs show strong positive impact.

The Relief Society of Tigray (REST) has combined this programs with the government’s Productive Safety Net Program so that the government provides the stipends and the assets, REST provides training and mentoring, and Dedebit Bank provides savings and lending facilities.


We are glad that these studies have proven out the innovations implemented by many leading MFIs. But if researchers want to get ahead of the learning curve, they could start to engage with some of these leading institutions on the questions that they are asking now. Here are some suggestions we have for new areas of research:

Research question 1: Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) seem to play an important role in providing some regularity in lives that are filled with unpredictability and vulnerability. How can these be linked with other services, like savings and insurance, to help beneficiaries move from resilience to asset building?

Research question 2: Are there some financial services that consistently provide benefits and rarely cause harmful effects so that they should be recommended for all? It looks like savings could fit this category, provided the savings mechanism is safe and the account maintains its value over time.

Research question 3: How do we refine our understanding of the situations in which credit is most likely to be helpful? And, what role do other services, such as group meetings, access to health care, insurance, and savings, improve the likelihood that a person will benefit from credit?

Research question 4: Graduation programs that start with a donated asset, group meetings, mentoring, and community involvement and lead to other financial service like savings and credit have proven to have a positive impact. Can we start to determine under what circumstances a person will need all of these services — and which people might need only one or two — to start moving from extreme poverty?

Instead of taking more time and money to prove that we need to understand clients, we suggest that researchers work with microfinance institutions that already listen to their clients and develop with them research agendas based on that growing understanding.

The same family from the top of the article has gone through the Stoplight process and now their situation is much improved.

A Fundación Paraguaya family has gone through the Poverty Stoplight process and now their situation is much improved. Read our blog post about the Poverty Stoplight.
Photo credit: Fundación Paraguaya


Relevant Resources

2013 State of the Campaign Report:Know Your Client

Social protection: innovative programs deliver financial services at scale

How families are creating step-by-step plans for poverty elimination


 

A few key takeaways from the World Bank forum on microcredit (video)

The diagnosis of the six randomized evaluations that spanned six countries on four continents, in both urban and rural areas with different borrower, lender, and loan characteristics, was that they showed no significant impact on the poverty level or living standards of the clients.

In some studies, it was concluded that the top 5-10 percent of clients did have some significant impact on their income and assets. One study showed some positive impact on women’s empowerment while another showed that depression seemed to go down for clients who had taken a loan, but their stress levels went up. Basically, it was all rather inconclusive, yet it also opened a transformative dialogue about how we can learn from our mistakes and what we need to do better to meet the needs of our clients.

On learning from what we know does work

The results of the randomized evaluations suggest that microcredit alone doesn’t have a transformative effect on the poor. However, despite its shortcomings, it is recognized that microcredit enhances the range of choices available to the poor and allows them to manage their circumstances as they consider appropriate.

Furthermore, microcredit still serves, in many cases, an important role as a risk absorption tool, acting as an insurance product that allows the clients to react to shocks and emergencies. In these instances, credit provides stability and prevents the clients from falling deeper into poverty. It has long been recognized that credit is not suited for many people, so insurance products should not be built around a credit product. In fact, several panelists said that microinsurance may be more needed than microloans particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,

For his part, Alex Counts (Grameen Foundation) invited the audience to focus on the five percent of clients — equivalent to millions of families — who moved out of poverty with microcredit. We should do this because we should want to understand (isn’t it our job to understand?) what it was that helped them compared to those less successful (or unsuccessful).

More research is needed to stimulate this conversation around what is working and what is not and to promote models that can serve as examples for adaptation and replication.

On understanding your clients

The research presented at the World Bank forum showed us that we need further analysis on what poor people really want and in understanding the heterogeneity of needs. It is important to study the particular context of each country, region, and community. Different circumstances lead to heterogeneous needs, so we need to offer a variety of products and services that actually meet the specific needs of the clients.

In addition, we need much more work on tracking how the money is being used. Perhaps we should not only look at factors like change in profits, wages, or consumption to test the success of microcredit products. Clients sometimes use their loan for personal needs, like for health issues or for social obligations such as weddings and funerals, and in order to see the impact of microcredit on the overall quality of life for clients, we need to know where the money is going.

Knowing more about these two dimensions will enable better product design, promote innovation, and help microfinance evolve in a manner that is both sustainable and beneficial to the extreme poor. It comes back to what Dean Karlan said, “Understand your clients.”

On the implications of digital innovations

Innovations in financial technologies are increasing client outreach and reducing transaction costs (to nearly zero), but they are also creating new transparency challenges that could pose serious risks to the clients if they are not addressed.

The main concern is the lack of adequate regulation for digital financial services. Client protection measures need to be in place to raise awareness of the risks linked to loans and ensure that customers understand the terms and conditions of the loans they are taking out. This is particularly important when we consider the rapid pace of growth and expected outreach of the new digital services.

When looking at agent networks, serving 100,000 clients after five years was a big achievement; today, however, they are expected to reach 1,000,000 clients after only one year of implementing a digital service.

We need to carefully assess the risk of inflicting harm to a large number of people at the base of the pyramid to ensure that digital financial services are being provided in a responsible way that brings no harm to the clients. Keeping this in mind may inspire innovative ideas for consumer protection and improve the quality of existing products.

On their recommendations for further research

In the coming years, Abhijit Banerjee (J-PAL) stated that research should focus on answering the questions: Why is there a low demand for microcredit products? What do clients need? What are the right products to offer them and the right channels? Where does the money go if it doesn’t reduce poverty?

Esther Duflo talked specifically about the graduation pilot programs, which are targeting the ultra-poor and already show some positive results on poverty levels. The results of this research will buoy efforts to promote the adoption of graduation programs as a poverty alleviation tool and underscores the need to segment the poor for the purposes of understanding the impact of microcredit and designing adequate products.

Are we measuring the real story? Jaikishan Desai, one of the researchers of the RCTs, posed this question to the audience. This seemed to go beyond how do we interpret the data to what is the purpose of measuring the impact of microcredit? Is microcredit and microfinance supposed to be the cure of the world poor or should it be used as a tool to include ignored segments of the population and reduce risk to those most vulnerable? Are we looking for a change in poverty levels or should we be focusing on the impact credit has on maintaining stability?

Other questions that were not resolved included, was the length of the study a factor? Do we need more long-term or short-term assessments? What about the generational impact? Could it be that we won’t see the effects of microcredit on clients unless we track progress through the next generation?

What impact does an MFI’s staff incentives and governance have on its clients? Does this impact the type of loans they receive and the quality of the product?

Relevant resources


For those who are unfamiliar with the cultural references in the title

April Fools’ Day: April 1st is a day of pranks and practical jokes and has its roots in medieval Europe — or possibly even earlier — and is similar to (or may be related to) the Holi festival of India.

Groundhog Day: February 2nd is an American tradition brought over by our German ancestors and adopted by popular culture and the media; it consists of looking to a rodent (a groundhog) to find out if winter is over or not. However, our reference here refers to a fantastic movie of the same name where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again to hilarious effect.

Towards Excellence in SPM: Opportunity International’s Strategy & Commitment

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Opportunity shared with us their SPM strategy and their unique Social Performance Dashboard. Learn also about their updates from the Commitment announced in 2013. Español Français Continue reading

Sign onto the Declaration in Support of the Independence of Grameen Bank

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Please join us and other allies of Grameen Bank in endorsing the Grameen Declaration EspañolFrançais Continue reading

Providing a Safety Net for the Poor

Back in 2002, I found myself in rural Zambia sitting with a group of borrowers trying desperately to understand their lives; as it was my first encounter with microcredit, the ladies were getting increasingly frustrated with my ignorance. One of them took pity and shuffled off to her hut coming back with a “Chutes and Ladders” board (also known as “Snakes and Ladders”). She explained to me that she was trying to work her way out of poverty, which she likened to moving up the board. The loans she got were like the ladders, accelerating her progress.

As we went around the group, the ladies told me of the risks they faced and how disasters, medical bills, and funerals caused them to sell assets or spend hard won savings, returning them back into poverty much as the chutes (or snakes) cause you to slip down the board. They asked me if it was possible to put in place a safety net that would move up underneath them as they worked their way out of poverty so that when disaster strikes, they would not fall all the way back to the bottom.

That meeting changed the course of my life and led to the creation that year of what is now MicroEnsure, a leading provider of insurance to over 4 million low income people.

The first task in 2002 was simply to understand the supply and demand dynamics: which insurable risks did the poor face (and want to cover) and what products would insurers provide. The easiest way to do this was from within a microfinance network, and we were delighted to be housed within Opportunity International. After several years of developing products for Opportunity’s borrowers, it became clear that we were limiting our potential scale and the range of products that we could offer; we needed a way to pay for an organisation that would tackle the challenges of providing a wide range of products to a wide range of clients. The four challenges we set out to tackle were as follows:

  • Simple products with efficient processes.
  • An educated sales force and clients who understood the products.
  • Efficient back office capability and IT to collect, store, and report on key client data.
  • The ability to pay claims quickly as this has the biggest impact on demand.

MicroEnsure was established as an insurance broker because it was the fastest and cheapest regulated structure available and provided a revenue stream via commissions, but we soon realised that the local insurers we represented were not always able to offer the products we wanted or the claims turnaround times our clients demanded. Our response was to establish a reinsurance vehicle so that we could simplify the products and pay claims within days.

As we branched out into health insurance, we realised that many countries lacked the infrastructure to form networks of hospitals or to adjudicate complex health claims, so we created in-house capability called a “Third Party Administrator” (TPA) to do health claims. Finally, we realised that some products such as weather index require significant R&D pre-launch, and the only way to do this sustainably is as a consultant pre-launch and as a broker post-launch. So, today MicroEnsure is a broker, reinsurer, TPA, and consultant serving 4 million and growing in excess of 200,000 new clients every month.

Microinsurance is all about partnership, and perhaps the most important partnership is with the distributor of the products. Like most microinsurance providers, we initially only worked with microfinance lenders, packaging our basic life insurance products alongside the loans, but we soon started to work with a wider range of distributors including VSLAs, SACCOs, church groups, and other retailers. We discovered that in order to be a successful distributor you need a strong brand that is trusted by the poor, accessible points of sale, and the ability to transact cash to cover premiums and claims. So far, the most widespread distributors remain microfinance companies—although it’s great to see a wider range of products be embedded into not only the loan but also increasingly being used as an incentive to get savers to open accounts and increase balances. Mobile phone companies such as Tigo and MTN are also starting to be used to distribute insurance to the mass market.

In our experience, the most successful model is to introduce insurance as a loyalty program. The telephone company (“telco”) is willing to pay the premiums on behalf of its subscribers so long as doing so increases loyalty and the average amount of airtime that the subscribers purchase. It’s a true win-win. The subscriber gets free insurance and the telco increases its revenue. During 2011, more than 1 million people gained access to insurance for the first time through Tigo using this model. Having created a new market, the telco is then able to sell additional products to this market, and the take-up rate from consumers that have experienced the benefits of insurance are much higher than from a “cold sell”.

In 2011, Swiss Re estimated that perhaps as many as 4 billion people had no access to any insurance products. Over the last few months, however, it has started to emerge that, according to the ILO, perhaps as many as 500 million people now have access to insurance. Many of these have access only to basic credit life products—but it’s a great start. Providing the remaining 3.5 billion people with a safety net will be the work for many hands, but I feel confident it will happen in our lifetimes!

Over the last decade, I have often wondered how many emergencies that Zambian lady has had to face and overcome and whether the safety nets that we put in place meet with her approval. One day I hope to return to ask her and to share with her that the challenge she set me has been taken seriously and resulted in millions of people having access to protection from life’s storms.

—Richard Leftley, President and CEO, MicroEnsure, UK, http://www.microensure.com/

Additional resources:
• MicroEnsure blog: http://www.microensure.com/resources-blog.asp
• ILO, Protecting the poor: A microinsurance compendium, Volume II (April 10, 2012)
• “An interview with ILO’s Craig Churchill on the expansion of Microinsurance coverage