Nathan Wyeth

Weekly Round-Up: Financial Services Friday

Here are stories that caught my eye this week, an event coming up in San Francisco, and an opportunity for bloggers writing at the intersection of technology and poverty:

The Financial Access Initiative out of NYU has concluded in a new report that 2.5 billion people don’t have access to a financial institution, including microfinance. Jonathan Murdoch, FAI’s managing director and a professor of economics and policy at NYU, has an illuminating quote: “Until now, the margin of error when considering the world’s unbanked was about plus or minus a billion-unacceptable in any other field.” (Except in naming blogs.)

The report, Half the World Is Unbanked, notes that 800 million people living on less than $5 a day currently have access to financial services. The survey was compiled from existing cross-country data with assistance from McKinsey’s Social Sector shop.

Going from global to country-level data on financial services, a report by Tatiana Nenova and Ceclie Thioro Niang at the World Bank, Bringing Finance to Pakistan’s Poor: Access to Finance for Small Enterprises and the Underserved has brought similar clarity to access to financial services in Pakistan and been applauded for its detailed methodology including 10,000 survey participants. If you include formal and informal providers of financial services, Pakistan tracks the global rate noted above. However counting only formal institutions, it falls far behind with only 14% banked by the formal sector.

The report highlights gender bias as a factor that may contribute to microfinance’s anemic growth in Pakistan. Notably, outside the formal sector, access to financial services is highly gendered but in the formal sector it is not. It would be interesting to hear people who know more about Pakistan than I do make suggestions for why the microfinance sector has fared so differently there than in Bangladesh – formerly East Pakistan – where microfinance was famously first implemented not long after independence.

Moving into a different type of financial service, this week Lloyd’s of London asked the question “Can insurance help to combat poverty?” in an overview of the microinsurance industry most notable for the suggestion that interest is coming from global insurance giants. In part, they see microinsurance as an opportunity to innovate both in terms of products as well as business processes.

An intriguing example of innovation in the microinsurance industry can be found in Ethiopia. There, the government has recently requested up to $175M in humanitarian food aid as a result of drought, but a program out of Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society is piloting a model for crop insurance for poor farmers that responds directly to climate change and is intended to reduce the need for such aid in the future. In this case the response is crop insurance for rain-fed farmland that is tied not to yields but to levels of rainfall.

Tying insurance payments to rainfall reduces claims adjustment costs along with any disincentives to maximizing yields that farmers encounter with traditional crop insurance programs. The ability to cheaply and remotely monitor rainfall levels in remote Ethiopia via satellite is an enormous enabling factor here. With success of an approach like this, smoothing income shocks even in moderately bad years might reduce the need for aid in catastrophic years.

As the World Politics Review notes, “Simply having the insurance opens up lines of credit, giving farmers purchasing power for new seeds and equipment, and creating a more rapid return to food production and stability.” But the key thing in my opinion is that this takes account of how climate change will impact rain-fed agriculture. As much as long-term change in temperature and precipitation averages caused by climate change will be intensely problematic for agriculture globally, unpredictability in rainfall will hit the global poor particularly hard by increasing the frequency and severity of income shocks. This is also smarter way to do crop insurance for everyone involved given that it would seem that unpredictable rainfall will hinder any company trying to do crop microinsurance whose actuarial model doesn’t correlate closely with rainfall.

I’m a big fan of Columbia’s Climate and Society program – the first of its kind, to my knowledge – because its purpose is to make these linkages. The approach in Ethiopia is implemented by Oxfam, advised by Swiss RE, and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Finally, because last week’s round-up has been accused of East Coast bias, I want to highlight an upcoming West Coast event as well as an opportunity relevant to bloggers anywhere:

  • On November 12, rising-star social enterprise SamaSource will host the GiveWork Charity Gala at the University Club in San Francisco. SamaSource is taking back-office outsourcing beyond urban centers to create income opportunities anywhere the internet goes. They don’t skimp on galas either. There are a few tickets left to kick it with leading female Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, a couple Nobel Prize winners, and “eco-model” Summer Rayne Oakes.
  • For those who can’t make it to the GiveWork gala, you may be able to blog your way to a free trip to the Ashoka-Lemelson Tech 4 Society gathering in Hyderabad, India in February, 2010. In a refreshing twist, there’s no application for this – you post your thoughts on technology and poverty to the world on your own blog and if Ashoka likes it you could be their official conference blogger.