[TC-I Changemaker]: CGAP’s Gautam Ivatury on the linkage between technology and financial empowerment of the poor

The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tab.

This week, Vinay sat down (over the phone) with Gautam Ivatury of the The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a consortium of 33 private and public development agencies focused on working together to expand poor people’s access to financial services. Such services include but are not limited to microcredit and branchless banking. Within this organization, Gautam is the Manager of CGAP’s Technology Program (their blog on India can be read here), which focuses on researching, identifying and disseminating knowledge on how technology will help financial institutions deliver such services to the poor. The Technology Program is co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Vinay Ganti: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with ThinkChange India and its readership. Why don’t we start out generally. Can you speak more on CGAP’s goals and how the aspect of technology plays a role?

Gautam Ivatury: CGAP is about building financial systems that work for poor people. However, there is more to it than that as we want this financial system to be integrated with the mainstream financial system at large. We do not want to create a state where the poor bank in some parallel world completely disconnected from the resources and financial options that other people enjoy. In essence we envision one inclusive financial system that provides tailored products to all types of people, including the poor.

This desire for inclusion partly stems from the need to develop financial institutions for the poor that are sound and stable, and one of the most effective ways to do that is to link them to the mainstream financial architecture. Poor clients need to have the same level of security regarding their savings and deposits as do individuals elsewhere in the traditional banking structure.

To address the stability while also providing a wide array of financial products, CGAP recognizes that there must be an approach that moves beyond just microfinance institutions (MFIs) and includes other players in the space to maximize choice for the consumer and to help us attain scale. When one looks past the traditional MFI, one observes postal banks, agricultural banks and other actors that are already helping the poor.

This is where the technology program becomes so critical as it is charged to identify those technologies that will best assist this wide range of potential providers to reach out to the poor regardless of their location or personal circumstances. Right now, the one obvious solution is the mobile phone and the rise of branchless banking that can be done via that medium.

VG: CGAP’s website highlights three key players — financial service providers, public and private funding organizations, and government policymakers and regulators — that are stakeholders in CGAP’s work. Can we discuss the conflicts that emerge among these actors?

GI: All of these actors are critical. Without governments implementing the proper regulatory framework for banking, it cannot be done. Likewise, the other stakeholders also play a vital role. In fact, there is a fourth actor, whom CGAP does not deal with directly, who are the actual customers themselves. In any market these can at times become opposing forces. Government wants safety plus access; businesses want to make money. This forces CGAP to take a practical approach with each stakeholder.

Each player has different incentives and needs, and therefore when our conversations with them require differing skill sets that reflect these distinctions. When you sit down with a banker you have to understand their perspective. She will ask what services am I supposed to give and how should I give them? Do I want to provide them at the branch and encourage the poor people to come inside or do I want to do it in a way where it can happen remotely? What sort of incentives must I provide my employees to provide these services, and what is the structure in which the employees interact with these new clients?

In contrast, when we deal with an MFI, there concerns are more technical with regard to the management and oversight of their loans or disbursements. Questions regarding improvements to portfolio tracking software, customer relationships and external fund raising all dominate the conversation.

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Reforming Microfinance: Bhandan looks to scale it up

Earlier today I posted and Op-Ed on why I believe that microfinance is an incomplete solution to ending poverty because it does not lead to job creation — a necessary precondition for development. This concern has clearly been considered within the microfinance community themselves, as Bhandan — a MFI that targets women in Bengal — has established a new program to try to make microfinance more scalable.

But as Ghosh says, it’s perhaps time to look beyond traditional loan schemes. “Our experience suggests that there is a growing need among our members for higher loans so that they can expand their businesses,” he says. To set things right, Bandhan is using a new method now—the Micro Enterprise Programme, which offers loans of Rs 15,000-50,000 to those who have been its members for at least one year.

There are two other riders, though: the loan should be invested in an existing micro enterprise (for expansion) and utilisation of the loan should generate employment for at least one poor person in the locality.

In addition to the larger loans which should encourage expansion of the business, having the n+1 employment requirement is definitely a step in the right direction. We will have to wait and see the upper limits of this approach and whether it can truly ramp up to meet the overall demand for jobs by people in India and elsewhere.