January 24, 2010

Gates Foundation to Help Poor People Save Money

In my blog post, Microfinance 101, I explain the different components of microfinance, which include loans, savings, money transfer services and microinsurance. From my experiences working in the developing world, microloans to help economically impoverished people climb out of poverty are the most common microfinance vehicle. While it exists in a few markets, I rarely see savings mechanisms in place to help underserved populations. Therefore, I was pleased to read that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is helping “microfinance institutions (MFIs) provide the poor with safe, affordable places to save their money” by allocating $38 million in new grants, according to a press release dated January 13, 2010.

The Gates Foundation’s announcement explains that “six grants will help 18 MFIs, which currently focus on microcredit, expand their portfolios and make savings accounts available to an initial 11 million poor people across 12 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over five years. The grants will create new ways for the poor to make deposits and withdrawals, expand the availability of existing savings products, and fund savings-focused marketing campaigns.”

Why is the promotion of financial savings among the world’s poor important? Citing a National Bureau of Economic Research report, the Gates Foundation announcement says “that poor households with access to savings accounts are more likely to invest in education, increase productivity and income, and reduce vulnerability to illness and other unexpected events.” The challenge remains that very few MFIs offer “savings accounts, and more than 90 percent of the world’s poor still lack access to financial services and resort to risky, expensive, and inefficient ways to save.”

“Providing access to safe, affordable savings accounts has been a challenge because of the high costs for both banks and customers,” says the Seattle, Washington-based philanthropic organization. “For banks, the costs of physical buildings, with dedicated bank tellers, are expensive, especially in remote areas or where there is a limited number of clients with small deposits. Poor clients often live far from banks so the cost to reach a branch may exceed the amount of their deposits.”

Allocating to a diverse group of international MFIs, “the grants will use a variety of approaches to offer savings accounts to poor people. ShoreBank International, for example, will broaden its reach by sending staff on motorbikes with handheld devices to rural clients in India. Women’s World Banking will revamp its savings products to make them better fit the needs of the poor and fund marketing campaigns in the Dominican Republic. The Grameen Foundation will work with its partner MFIs to ensure they have the business systems and staff to manage emerging client savings programs.”

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