By Charlie Wood, Kiva Fellow in Kyrgyzstan
One of my first projects as a Kiva Fellow has been to work with MCC Mol Bulak Finance as they further develop their program of data gathering to quantify social performance. From my perspective as a lender, I imagined that measuring social performance would be a primary concern in the development of the microfinance industry, but in fact social performance management (SPM) is just emerging in the last several years as a best practice. In many ways this is because the lack of either a standardized methodology or ideology in regards to what constitutes social performance. One of the attractive features of Kiva.org is that Kiva vets microfinance institutions (MFI), seeking out organizations that adhere to multiple bottom lines. While some argue that the simple act of supplying credit to individuals without access gives clients financial freedom and should be given blanket encouragement, numerous examples of profiteering and mismanagement have marred the image of microfinance over the past several years. A ballooning belief that microfinance is the panacea to poverty alleviation has been closely echoed by a ballooning in client over-indebtedness. This is due at least in part to a lack of adequate client protection principles(see SMART Campaign). These problems fuel the argument that unfettered microfinance is merely a tool to spread debt burden to the poor while sucking profits from marginalized groups. So how can one measure and present particular MFI social performance in a transparent way?
A simple internet search for social performance management turns up a plethora of organizations that are working towards or claim they have found the answer to this riddle;
Organizations such as Microfinance Centre, Oikocredit, Grameen Foundation, Microfinanza, Microfinance Information Exchange, Microfinance Credit Rating International (M-CRIL), MicroSave, and Cerise, just to name a few. This does not include the various networks such as SEEP, the Social Performance Task Force, Social Performance Management Resource Center, or Social Performance Management Network, each working on issues surrounding SPM.
Don’t get me wrong, I commend many of these groups for their efforts to create tools and methodologies to measure MFIs social performance. For-profit and non-profit, governmental or non-governmental, internal or external, each applies a slightly different approach while many of them cooperate to co-produce products.
However, take a minute to look at this from the perspective of a MFI. Pursuing any of the tools on this daunting list carries substantial cost (one more set of costs to factor into the running interest rate conversation);
- Acquiring information from clients on poverty before and after a loan cycle adds time and cost for clients and loan officers
- Changing information management systems to accommodate this data, if possible, costs time and money
- Producing regular reports takes expertise and costs money
- Providing data to unregulated audits can be a sizable risk to MFI’s who fear that competitors might alter data such as interest rates for a higher rating
From a business perspective it is quite risky to realize all of these costs when no clear winner has emerged as the industry standard. Tools such as the Grameen Foundation’s Progress out of Poverty Indicators or USAID’s Poverty Assessment Tool provide many countries with easily collectible data that can be used to assess poverty of clients before and after doing business with a MFI. Unfortunately these tools are only available in about 50 countries at this point, not including Kyrgyzstan. Further, they typically utilize $1.25 a day (or specific country equivalent) or use national poverty line data, each of whose accuracy as a poverty assessment tool is debatable. If an external rating agency is used there are many to choose from and they each utilize unique processes. Paying for a PlaNet Social Rating today doesn’t preclude one from having to pay for a Microfinanza Social Rating tomorrow, especially if the goal is to benchmark MFIs regionally. While Kiva has chosen Cerise’s SPI tool to measure MFI social performance, will another funder choose MIX Market’s SPS or MicroFinanza? What will the investment in time and money be to keep each of these tools accurate and up to date with current credit, savings, and insurance data?
Looking past all of these questions, there is the point brought up in detail on Kiva Fellow Betsy McCormick’s August blog . Even if one of these tools work to perfection, the reality is that microfinance does not exist within a vacuum. Therefore, to form conclusions about the ‘impact’ made by microloans, microsavings, or microinsurance requires that one know that this change would not happen otherwise. This adds innumerable additional obstacles that might never be overcome.
Yet the optimist in me knows that even the sloth makes it through the jungle (albeit at a top speed of 4 meters a minute). Taking that analogy one step further, that same sloth is able to pick up a host of symbiotic friends along the way. I hope that whatever SPM sloth makes it out of the jungle first will provide the social oversight that the microfinance industry needs to remain a formidable tool to combat poverty.