First, do no harm. But don't stop here.
We at the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) were saddened but not surprised by your recent story (“The Dark Side of Microfinance,” Bloomberg Storylines, May 2 2022). The abuses highlighted in the report—over-indebting vulnerable borrowers, non-transparent or exorbitant interest rates, outrageous collection practices—are among the issues that SPTF exists to combat. We would, however, like to provide an important correction, one which we hope will deliver a bright ray of light to “the dark side of microfinance.” At the 14:06 mark, Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian human rights organization Licadho says (through a translator): “We haven’t set up policies to standardize and protect borrowers’ rights.”
Those standardized policies do actually exist—and have for 10 years—under the straightforward name “The Universal Standards for Social and Environmental Performance Management.” As the name implies, the Universal Standards are used all over the world by microfinance providers whose collective loan portfolio represents about $40 billion and 62 million borrowers from 99 different countries, including Cambodia.
Cambodia in fact provides a timely example of SPTF’s work. A member-based organization with more than 1,000 member investors, microfinance institutions, national associations, and support organizations from all over the world, SPTF is currently in the process of setting up a code of conduct with the National Bank of Cambodia and Cambodian Microfinance Association to address client abuses in that country. In our work in Cambodia and elsewhere, we stress the importance of governance (the oft-overlooked “g” in “ESG”) in client protection principles. Without awareness and champions at the board and executive level, client protection (and social performance more broadly) will be “delegated” while leadership’s attention focuses on what really matters: maximizing profit. The Universal Standards, two-thirds of which focus on client protection, are the roadmap for genuine institutional transformation.
The Universal Standards are voluntary but that is not to suggest that they are toothless. SPTF hosts an influential working group of prominent social investor organizations, both public and private, whose collective assets under management exceed USD 50 billion in microfinance alone. These investors mandate that their microfinance investees adhere, at a minimum, to the Universal Standards’ provisions around client protection. Although we do not doubt your reporting that some self-styled “impact investors” shovel money at unscrupulous microfinance lenders and then profess themselves “shocked, shocked” by those lenders’ abuses, we want to stress that that is not the whole story. There are impact investors who are serious about social performance, and who undertake correspondingly serious due diligence around it. The Universal Standards are their tool of choice for that purpose.
Finally, your reporting correctly highlighted the role that weak regulation plays in driving abusive finance in some markets. We are proud that beyond uptake by investors and by individual institutions all over the world, the Universal Standards have also played a market-making role. Policymakers in countries including Mexico, Nicaragua, and Philippines, to name a few, have explicitly adopted the Universal Standards as the blueprint for crafting their formal regulatory frameworks—thus giving the spirit of the Standards the force of law in those markets.
Like Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus (an early proponent of the Social Performance Task Force), we deplore the actions of those who abuse and exploit the poor while marketing themselves as their saviors. Our work exists to make it clear who is serious about social performance—and to help them build world-class, client-centric institutions that walk the talk.
Laura Foose and Jurgen Hammer
Promoting Responsible Investment in the Inclusive Finance Sector
The SPTF Social Investor Working Group (SIWG) works to advance responsible investment in financial inclusion. The group is led by Emmanuelle Javoy of Symbiotics, Frank Streppel of Triodos Investment Management, and Edouard Sers of Grameen Credit Agricole Foundation.
The activities of the SIWG are funded by the generous contributions of the Government of Luxembourg (Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs - Directorate for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs and Ministry of Finance) as well as investor membership fees.
The working group is open to all investors seeking to balance financial, social and environmental performance. Currently, there are more than 600 investor members representing over 200 organizations in the group. The SIWG meets twice a year in person, typically once in February/March and once in June, and holds monthly webinars throughout the year. Specific technical sub-groups (such as SFDR, ALINUS, Client Protection) complement the regular activities.
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Information for SIWG Monthly Meetings
- Next meeting:
Date: Thursday, June 9th
Time: 10:30-11:30 EST/16:30-17:30 CEST
Meeting link: Join here
Meeting password: 027710
Meeting number: 981 2619 9156
- 2022 meetings:
January 19: Recording, Presentation
February 17: Recording, Presentation
March 10: Recording, Presentation
April 14: Recording, Presentation
May 12: Recording
- 2021 meetings:
January 20: Brief, Recording, Presentation
February 17: Brief, Recording, Presentation, Next steps for Client Interview Tool
March 17: Brief, Recording, Presentation
April 21: Brief, Recording, Presentation
May 19: Brief, Recording, Presentation
June 16: Brief, Recording, Presentation
September 15: Brief, Recording, Presentation
November 10: Brief, Recording, Presentation
December 15: Brief, Recording, Presentation
- 2020 meetings:
April 1: Brief, Recording, Presentation
April 15: Brief, Recording, COVID-19 Client Interview Tool, Investor updates
April 24: Brief, Recording, MOU from Cooperation of MIVs (Special session)
April 29: Brief, Recording, Crisis Assessment Tool
May 13: Brief, Recording
May 27: Brief, Recording
June 10: Brief, Recording
June 24: Brief, Recording
July 15: Brief, Recording
Sept. 9: Brief, Recording
Oct. 7: Brief
Nov. 19: Brief, Recording, DWM presentation, DWM webinar recording
Dec. 9: Brief, Recording, Presentation
- LinkedIn group.The SIWG is using its LinkedIn group as a place where investors can share their latest information and questions. The group is open to investors only. Join the LinkedIn group here.
- Reasonable covenants during COVID. Responding to demand from investors, the SIWG has created a sub-group to review reasonable covenants during the COVID pandemic. Read the briefs from the group's calls, which outline the group's purpose and explores its potential outcomes: July 2020; September 2020. Read the latest version of the covenants from the group here, published in September 2020.
Advancing client protection practices after Smart Campaign's closure
Many of the SIWG's recent meetings have focused on how to advance client protection practices after the Smart Campaign closes. The end of the Campaign provides an opportunity to rethink several processes, and investors have been particluarly interested in rethinking the Campaign's endorsement process. While the group agreed that endorsement should continue, many believe it could be strengthened with increased transparency about endorsers' actions to improve client protection practices.
To address this, the SIWG created a sub-group to begin discussing these potential changes. View the sub-group's draft concept note here (published November 2020).
2020 SPTF Social Investor Working Group Meeting
March 11, WebEx
Due to the coronavirus crisis, we canceled our in-person meeting in Lisbon. Instead, we held a half-day virtual meeting on March 11 focused on two topics: 1) Managing and measuring environmental impact and 2) Managing and measuring outcomes. See below for webinar recordings, presentations, and other related materials.
Session 1: Managing and measuring environmental impact
Amplifying the environment in the Universal Standards
Previous SIWG meetings
April 2019 meeting in Washington, D.C., hosted by the IFC.
- Visit the event webpage to see the agenda, presentations, and notes.
June 2018 meeting in Luxembourg, hosted by the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs (MAEE) in partnership with the Inclusive Finance Network Luxembourg (InFiNe.lu).
- Read the agenda here.
- Review Day 1 presentations here.
- Review Day 2 presentations here.
- Read the executive summary here and the full minutes here.
February 2018 meeting in conjunction with the SPTF Annual Meeting in Mamallapuram, India.
June 2017 meeting in conjunction with the SPTF Annual Meeting in Mexico City.
March 2017 meeting at the University of Zurich hosted by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the Swiss Capacity Building Facility (SCBF), and the University of Zürich’s Centre for Sustainable Finance and Private Wealth.
Current SIWG priorities
- Harmonizing investor due diligence and monitoring on social performance through the common tool SPI4 ALINUS.
- Evaluating client protection risks in fintech investments during due diligence and ongoing monitoring. SPTF and CDC Group have partnered to develop a webinar series for investors to be held during October 2017 and June 2018.
- Aligning efforts with the broader impact investment sector. As part of the World Economic Forum’s initiative to accelerate impact measurement and management, SPTF led the work of an action group to develop guidance on integrating the voice of all affected stakeholders into impact investments and activities of organizations. The work "Engaging All Affected Stakeholders" has now been published and is available here. The Impact Management Project is hosting this work. SPTF has also partnered with the GIIN to develop the Financial Inclusion theme of Navigating Impact, and with UNPRI to help develop the Financial Inclusion area of the Impact Investing Market Map. The alignment work also includes coordinating with IRIS and GIIRS
- Assessing S&E performance SME finance to understand "state of practice" of S&E evaluation for FSPs financing SMEs, applicability of Universal Standards and SPI4, assess tools used by MIVs and DFIs, identify existing gaps, and provide recommendations where guidance is needed.
- Other areas of priority include: Harmonizing loan agreements covenants in support of responsible microfinance ("reasonable covenants 2.0"), preventing over-indebtedness (Investment Managers guidelines on over-indebtedness), managing social outcomes (discussions integrated with the SPTF Outcomes Working Group, pricing transparency (discussions integrated with Data Platform pilot), Balanced return expectations & responsible exits in equity investments.
Discussion of Smart Campaign closure and future client protection products, July 2020
Implementing Guideline 6: Promoting Fair and Transparent Pricing, May 2019
Smart Campaign PowerPoint
DEG briefing note
Takeaways from the IFC-SPTF Investor Forum, May 2019
Update on SPTF Social Investor Working Group, October 2018
Update on research for assessing E&S of SME finance institutions, April 2018
Framework for E&S assessment of SME finance institutions - Updated October 2018
Indicators for E&S assessment of SME finance institutions - Updated October 2018
UNPRI Impact Investing Market Map - Consultation Process Kick off & SPTF as chair of Financial Inclusion theme, November 2017
Kick off of GIIN-SPTF collaboration on Navigating Impact Project, November 2017
CDC-SPTF Fintech Webinar Series for Investors, October 2017
Overview of the Impact Management Project - Bridges Impact Plus, December 2016
Discussion on feedback and updates proposed for the Guidelines for setting reasonable covenants in support of responsible finance, September 2016
Navigating Impact Investing: The Opportunity in Impact Classes - Tideline and Cathy Clark at Duke University, September 2016
IRIS, SPTF and the Investor Perspective, June 2016
Investor Social Outcome Guidelines - Gathering Feedback from Investors, May 2016