Financial Inclusion During — and After — COVID-19: Three Takeaways From a (Very Different) European Microfinance Week 2020

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as part of NextBillion’s series “Enterprise in the Time of Coronavirus,” which explores how the business and development sectors are responding to the pandemic. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to useful resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out their coronavirus resource page.

European Microfinance Week is the biggest thing the European Microfinance Platform (e-MFP) does each year. The 2020 event encapsulated much about the financial inclusion sector — the good, the bad and the simply confusing — as it navigated the historic challenges of the past year.

For starters, there’s the event itself. By last summer, it was already clear that EMW2020 would have to be entirely online. This meant a daunting array of new problems to solve and platforms and possibilities to grasp — along with real opportunities for this to be a blueprint for the future. At the same time, the digital nature of the event has enabled far deeper insights into attendees’ real interests based on the sessions they actually chose to attend — insights that are harder to generate solely from post-conference surveys.

Held from November 18–20, EMW2020 set multiple records: It drew the largest number of participants (over 500) from the most countries (61), and it featured the largest number of speakers (over 130) taking part in 55 sessions — twice the number of sessions of in-person EMWs. These sessions ran the gamut of important issues in contemporary inclusive finance, including several on the impact of COVID-19, four sessions on savings (the topic of the 2020 European Microfinance Award), along with discussions of digitisation, climate change resilience, client protection, WASH, remittances, finance for displaced persons, agri-finance and housing. These sessions were not only more numerous and diverse than in previous years, but they introduced many new formats better suited for an online conference, from topic lounges and fire-side chats to working sessions, case studies and interviews — all available live and recorded for viewing afterwards.

While we hope to return to an in-person conference in the future, many of these innovations in structure, session formats and outreach to new audiences will undoubtedly be retained. We’ll release a full conference report in the coming weeks — with extended summaries of all sessions and links to videos where relevant. But in advance of that, there are three broad takeaways from EMW2020 that we wanted to share, representing three key priorities for the inclusive finance sector.

1. ADAPT OR DIE

Adaptation was a defining theme of this conference. On the format side, it meant experimenting with the capabilities of new platforms that didn’t even exist a year ago, helping speakers get comfortable outside of a Zoom or WebEx webinar ecosystem, and introducing a whole range of new session formats — to name just a few.

On the subject matter side, adaptation was everywhere you looked, addressing a number of key questions. What can investors do to protect investees and adapt to a context of low repayment capacities and liquidity challenges at microfinance institutions (MFIs)? What can providers do to protect the financial and actual health of clients and staff? What have regulators and policymakers done to adapt to this new context? What is the role for networks, associations, technical assistance providers and others in the financial inclusion support ecosystem — all of whom are striving for a positive role, but want to avoid the “too many cooks in the kitchen” issue?

The conference report will outline some of the answers to these questions. But it’s clear that those who realised the unprecedented nature of this crisis early in the pandemic and adapted quickly have been the most successful at mitigating losses — and even finding opportunities in the chaos.

2. COVID, COVID, COVID

As we solicited members’ ideas for EMW2020 content, it quickly became apparent that while COVID-19 would necessarily dominate debate, it must not monopolise it. We worked to maintain this balance by dedicating a full stream of sessions to examining the impact the pandemic has had on clients, businesses, providers and the broader ecosystem.

The theme was set appropriately by a keynote address entitled “Microfinance in 2021: Past Imperfect; Future Tense.” In it, Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association argued that the sector must focus on “helping low-income households to enhance their incomes, investing in skills, productive assets and working capital” to ensure that “all financial tools serve clients, and not the other way around.” The opening plenary, entitled “Institutional Resilience in Focus: What is the Current State of the Sector?” shifted the focus to the institutions, examining the emerging data on which categories of institutions are struggling, surviving or thriving — and why.

Several other sessions looked at the many impacts and challenges posed by the pandemic on poor households, examining remittances and several other areas. But one session that deserves to be singled out was a fascinating fireside chat between CGAP’s Antonique Koning and Women’s World Banking’s Mary Ellen Iskenderian, discussing the particular impact of COVID-19 on women.

Even so, the majority of the conference was devoted to topics other than the pandemic — too many to exhaustively list here. But none were impervious to the impact of the crisis. Like water on pavement, COVID seeps into every crack and crevice. It has implications for client protection, and has catalysed certain trends in digitalisation. It has upended the provision of technical assistance and conducting research; it has forced investors to adjust their relationships with investees and with their erstwhile competitors; and of course it has adversely impacted the lives of tens or hundreds of millions of low-income households. So while this was not a COVID-19 conference per se, there is virtually no area of work in financial inclusion that has not been affected by what happened in 2020.

3. KEEPING AN EYE ON THE HORIZON

All that said, there was considerable interest and engagement in topics that look beyond the short and medium-term consequences of the pandemic. Attendance was highest at EMW’s sessions dedicated to digitalisation and its long-term trends. Not far behind were sessions devoted to climate change and the preeminent threat it poses to millions of low-income households long after COVID-19 is a bad memory. It is key, as the saying goes, not to let the “urgent” crowd out the “important.” Climate change is both — and was treated as such at EMW2020.

As mentioned above, a major stream of the conference was savings, the topic of the European Microfinance Award 2020 on “Encouraging Effective and Inclusive Savings.” The award drew a diverse field of applicants (70 — another record broken in 2020), along with high attendance at the virtual ceremony in which the winner, Muktinath Bikas Bank Ltd of Nepal, was announced. Indeed, despite multiple sessions dedicated to the subject — including a plenary on how to create a conducive regulatory environment for effective and inclusive savings, a debate on investors’ roles in encouraging deposits, and the launch of the new e-MFP paper “Encouraging Effective & Inclusive Savings” — attendees maintained high attendance throughout them all.

Equally prominent and well-attended were sessions focused on social performance and client protection, chief among them a session exploring where the sector is heading following the closure of the Smart Campaign, announced earlier in the year.

Though narrower in scope, other topics garnered plenty of attention too. Sessions on refugees and internally displaced persons were well-attended by a dedicated group of participants, reflecting both recent trends as well as the consequences that the pandemic and climate change are expected to have on migration in the coming years. Designing financial products and services suited for their specific needs will remain one of the enduring challenges for the sector for years to come.

But alongside these headline-dominating issues, it is important to maintain a focus on subjects that are clearly important — but not so clearly urgent. To that end, EMW2020 saw the launch of e-MFP’s new multi-author book, published by Practical Action, entitled “Taking Shelter: Housing Finance for the World’s Poor.” Housing finance has been the sector’s proverbial forgotten middle child for many years, and the book is intended to shine a spotlight on the topic. Housing is after all one of the core human needs, and it is the area where finance has the largest role to play. But despite bringing together the world’s top experts on the topic, the housing sessions were the least attended of all. At e-MFP, we believe that while attention may be elsewhere right now due to the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, it’s imperative to look beyond just putting out today’s fires, and to continue building for a longer-term future. Without denying the importance of digitalisation to the future of inclusive finance, it should be obvious to all that having a decent home is a fundamental human need, and one to which the sector must start paying more attention. We’ll be releasing detailed summaries of the sessions mentioned above — as well as dozens of others — in the conference report that will be published in the coming weeks.

In content as well as format, EMW2020 made clear the staggering changes that the COVID-19 crisis has brought — on top of a range of developments, both positive and negative, that were already transforming a dynamic financial inclusion sector. Overall, 2020 really was a year defined by adaptation through cooperation and engagement. And that work has only just begun. As e-MFP’s chairwoman Laura Hemrika observed in her closing remarks, while some of the most pessimistic forecasts on the liquidity challenges facing MFIs may have receded, there remains enduring uncertainty over the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on clients. There is a real and growing need to overcome the challenges of providing technical assistance and conducting research in this new context, made easier by an evident desire for new linkages between stakeholders that for too long have remained siloed. There is also a renewed appreciation of the particular importance of savings in increasing client resilience, and a welcome realisation that the debate over the digitalisation of financial inclusion continues to move beyond binary “good vs. bad” arguments to a much more nuanced discussion of how digitalisation can be made to work for the benefit of everyone.

We are immensely grateful to all the speakers and participants who joined us on an accelerated learning curve to take part in an entirely new kind of conference, and for everyone who attended, engaged and debated at the event. And we’re grateful to Charles Maes’ Good Vibes team for their round-the-clock efforts to get EMW2020 up and running in a way we could never have foreseen. Whatever the situation may be by late 2021, without doubt the insights and innovations from EMW2020 will endure.

As we bid a not-overly fond farewell to 2020, e-MFP wishes all its members, friends and everyone in the financial inclusion sector a positive beginning to a fresh new year.

Sam Mendelson is a Financial Inclusion Specialist at e-MFP.

Photo courtesy of Teddy Kwok.

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