Building Resilience for Women: Bridging the Gender Financial Inclusion Gap

By Fatima Iqbal, WAM UK Steering Committee Member

 

On September 26, Women Advancing Microfinance and the Financial Inclusion Forum hosted a panel with Maria Largey, CDC, Isabelle Nowack, VisionFund, Susan Forester, Global Parametrics with Adrienne Klasa, fDi and The Banker, moderating the discussion. The aim of the panel was to discuss the increasing risks that populations face from disaster events, be they climate change related, conflict related or otherwise. Women are more likely to experience poverty and be excluded from mainstream financial products than men, and as a result are often more vulnerable in disaster situations. The panel discussed tools that promote resilience and productivity in women in the face of shocks and disasters.

It’s important to understand women’s challenges in various markets, before tailoring and offering the right solutions. Promoting financial resilience, through literacy and insurance, can be a useful buffer for these shocks. Prior to the panel, the audience had the chance to learn about CDC’s new partnership with six development finance institutions to promote the 2x challenge, aiming to invest nearly $3 bn by 2020 in addressing this issue.

What are some factors that create the gender financial inclusion gap? The panellists highlighted cultural barriers, the quality of jobs for women and inadequate solutions. In periods of external shocks, women may have to return to paid employment where they can face discrimination, fuelling an imbalance. Also, the issue isn’t always viewed from a gender policy lens. Governments, investors and companies all have important roles to play, yet they disregard the challenges.

To close this gap, Maria suggested a combination of financial literacy programmes and more tailored financial and insurance products, with the former beneficial in the short-term and the latter in the long-term. She also talked about the need for those in the industry tasked with selecting clients to be more educated on women’s needs – when this issue first started coming to the fore, institutions set gender quotas on their customer base and used gimmicks such as pink credit cards to attract more women, but the products weren’t always right. Institutions need to think more about women’s cash flow patterns, their access to branches, cultural sensitivities, and this level of awareness has to occur across the supply chain.

Susan highlighted that since the launch of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, six of these goals include gender-specific targets, giving more significance to solutions with women in mind. This differentiates the goals from the Millennium Development Goals, and is also applicable to all countries, not only emerging markets.

The percent of women excluded from formal banking products, from saving accounts to cards, is still higher than men. Isabelle proposed increased mobile distribution, as another solution to foster inclusion. Yet, even if more women had access to these products, it can be argued that the metric of accessing a bank account is insignificant; women could have this on paper but never use it, or, men could be in control of the account. Isabelle also explained that VisionFund has implemented a deliberate policy to hire and train women, particularly respected women in a community, to become loan officers as they are more likely to understand the needs and concerns of their female customers – for example they understand the challenges of bringing up a family – and can act as a good sounding board for their customers, where a young male graduate (the profile of a typical loan officer in the field) is less likely to have that empathy or understanding. VisionFund is also asking its microfinance institutions (MFIs) to use questionnaires more often to find out what customers need – this is partly driven by the need to be more segmented with product offerings, as disrupting technology makes the sector increasingly competitive – but this can be good for women also if their needs are recognised.

The panel also spent some time discussing the best way to address increasing risks from Climate Change and other disasters. Susan from Global Parametrics felt that more needs to be done to help local communities think through and plan for disasters before they even happen and put in place mechanisms that will simply kick in when disaster strikes when relief needs to be immediate.

Global Parametrics is focused on microinsurance products that will automatically payout given proof that certain weather events have occurred. Susan explained that proof of loss in an extreme weather event is very difficult – traditional crop insurance for example is very expensive to run as officers on the ground have to check and verify, which may put off many MFIs. But if the MFI knows they simply have to check if a local weather station has validated certain events or ‘parametrics’ and they know they will be paid by the underwriter/ funder in those situations – then the whole arrangement can operate well. When challenged on whether enough gender consideration is undertaken with these products (for example, how easily can women access or claim payout in the specific cultural context) Susan agreed that microinsurance institutions and investors should think more about this issue when developing products.

 

Bringing the discussion back to the challenges, the key is to identify unique challenges faced by women in different markets and then find the right solutions. For example, if the issue is that women are unable to visit a bank, then loan officers could visit their homes. If the gender of loan officers poses a problem, then more women can be trained for the role. Simple questionnaires are a great way to get this information.

Two country examples provided more context on products and policy during the discussion:

  • In regards to microfinance emergency loans, the example of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines was given, where more liquidity was offered to affected areas, with the provision of extended recovery loans.
  • In terms of cultural change, the example of a new policy in Pakistan was provided, where banks have incorporated gender quotas on their boards. Change is needed at a policy level, and this isn’t evident only in emerging markets, but around the world.

During the Q&A session, the panel advocated that everyone can raise awareness on gender disparity and be more mindful about the issues faced by women. A more holistic approach is needed to make an impact, with governments, investors and companies driving the development agenda.

Stay tuned for more events from Women Advancing Microfinance and the Financial Inclusion Forum!

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Entrepreneur Development in West Bengal

By Dr. Natalie Schoon, Steering Committee member

 

On the 6th of February, we were joined by Olly Belcher and Victoria Denison of Shivia for the first WAM Dinner of 2018 at the Waterloo Bar & Kitchen. After a brief introduction, the rest of the evening was an open exchange of views and questions. You just know when an event is successful when the discussions continue well after the bill has been paid.

Founded in 2008, Shivia operates in rural West Bengal and has specifically chosen to assist not by giving money or lending, but by promoting entrepreneurial activity. A poultry toolkit comprises of chicks, training, and inoculation and on-going guidance by a local specialist. The farmer contributes £5 to the £15 cost of a toolkit, which further promotes the entrepreneurial proposition. To date in excess of 42,000 tool-kits have been delivered to more than 10,000 farmers across 1,028 villages impacting an approximate 61,000 people. Shivia carefully manages the number of tool-kits provided per farmer and per area to make sure they do not flood the market. An additional benefit from the project is that local staff of Nirdhan (Shivia’s India operations) are also recruited from the villages where the tool-kits are supplied.

In case you missed the event, but would be interested to support Shivia, click here.

More recently, Shivia has started to explore two new programmes: Agri-management services and Goateries. Agri-management provides training and advice to farmers with unproductive plots of land. In addition to providing food for the families, there is an opportunity to sell these fruits and vegetables in the city where many Bengals have moved in search of work. Initially the project worked with the husbands of the poultry beneficiaries, but has since been rolled out to farmers beyond those and includes male as well as female farmers. Among the benefits for the farmers are lower cost of agri-inputs, increased yields, higher quality of produce, and increased profits.

To date, 1,050 farmers have benefited from training across 60 villages. The next phase of this project will be to construct a Farmer Producing Company, a co-operative structure with approximately 1,000 members, which will provide the farmer with enhanced purchasing power, a better position as a seller, and access to larger, low-interest bank loans to further grow the business. Shivia has joined forces with a local company who buys from the farmers and sells the produce to the West Bengal community in Delhi. When surveyed, it transpired that the consumers buy the produce because it is clean, well packaged, and very fresh. To them, the fact that they are helping poor farmers is almost an afterthought. Which means that the business model is solid and these farmers will, at some point not too far in the future will be able to stand on their own feet.

The latest Shivia programme is goateries. Farmers will receive two female goats on loan for three years as well as training, insurance, and access to a male goat for breeding. In each year, the farmer will retain half of the kids for sale or breeding and return half of them to Shivia. After three years, the original goats are returned. This way, farmers can establish a small goat farming enterprise. In addition, the programme will become self-funding. Goats can be given to other farmers, and a profit may be made from the sale of goats which can be re-invested. The programme has successfully completed its pilot phase and is set to be rolled out on a larger scale early 2018.

Shivia was awarded International Charity for 2017 by the Charity Times and there are more exciting projects in their future. Certainly one to watch! To support their work check out this link.

 

 

Financial Education for Girls – successes and learnings from Credit Suisse, Aflatoun International and Plan International

by Kim Croucher, WAM UK Steering Committee – with contribution from Eva Halper (Credit Suisse), Aukje te Kaat (Aflatoun International) and Clare Daly (Plan International)

On 13th September, WAM were hosted by Credit Suisse’s Global Education Initiative to hear about their programme providing financial education to girls as a means to their future economic empowerment. Credit Suisse is supporting Aflatoun International and Plan International who, working in partnership, have designed and are implementing financial education and life skills programmes in Brazil, China, India and Rwanda. The evening was a really interesting insight into their findings in developing financial education for girls and their varying experiences in different country contexts.

201607-IND-45-scrPhoto: Plan International UK

Why Girl’s Financial Education?

Eva Halper, Head of Credit Suisse’s Global Education Initiative, explained that the bank carried out research which revealed that although many financial institutions were focusing on financial literacy, and many NGO programmes were addressing the gender issue in education, no-one appeared to be focusing on financial education specifically for girls. This therefore was the impetus behind the decision to address financial education for girls. The programme subsequently launched in 2014 and aims to improve the financial education and life skills of approximately 100,000 adolescent girls and encourage them to transition through secondary school. A research project (thought leadership) based on the programme, is a parallel component of the partnership and was the focus of this event.

Many young people aged 14–25 in developing countries are already economically active but without a basic education in the key tenets of finance. This is a barrier to them being able to fully reap the benefits of their own economic activity, and puts them at risk of making decisions that could lead to a lifetime of debt and continued poverty into adulthood. Girls in developing countries often face steep obstacles to access education, not least financial education. Empowering girls means enabling them to manage their own savings and spending and allowing them to take a more informed view of their future options and endeavours – which can transform lives.

 The Most Successful Programmes Deliver Financial Education Alongside other Social Skills Training

Before embarking on programme design, the team produced a policy brief – a systematic review of girls’ economic empowerment programs to determine which interventions are most effective.

Aukje te Kaat from Aflatoun International spoke about the work that went into this and that the team had found limited literature available on the impact of financial education in children in general and in particular research that contained a gender lens. In the end, the team looked at 12 studies where the objectives had been economic empowerment of adolescent girls and crucially included a financial education component.

One of the key findings was that to be truly effective, financial education should not be implemented by itself but rather it should be combined with other interventions, whether this be microfinance, access to savings, vocational education, social education/life skills or sexual and reproductive health education. Evaluations of financial education programmes implemented together with social components – e.g. rights education, life skills education, confidence building – were the most successful.

This finding was in-keeping with Aflatoun’s own approach which is to always incorporate social skills building alongside more tangible skills training in order to transform behaviour (something hard skills alone cannot necessarily achieve). Aukje talked about helping the girls gain self-awareness of their own goals and where they stand in their community, which enables them to plan for the future and make better decisions.

Programme Design Needs to Acknowledge the Importance of the Girls’ Wider Communities and Influences

The team was able to create a global Theory of Change for economic empowerment interventions for adolescent girls, which suggests that holistic thinking in programme design, as well as creating or maintaining enabling environments, is key to ensuring successful outcomes. For example, social norms around the role of girls within a household or community can impact the community’s view about girls’ financial education. The education level of parents has been found to be hugely important: it helps with community buy-in, but if a parent cannot grasp the importance of what their daughter has learnt, they will not support her and she will struggle to implement her new skills and plans.

Another barrier can be related to how easy it is to set up a small enterprise (which is what the young people in this programme are encouraged to do). If there are no financial institutions or financial products it will be difficult for girls to implement their skills in practice.

Findings from Country Programmes –

BRAZIL – Tackling topics such as gender-based violence

  • 25 junior secondary schools (ages 11-14)
  • Pernambuco, Maranhão and Piauí states in northeast Brazil
  • 3-year target: 3,250 girls; 6,500 children

In Brazil, the programme team noticed that it was important that the girl’s father understood the aims of the programme and was fully on-board with these, in order for it to be a successful experience for the girl – perhaps a sign of the gender dynamics in society there.

In all four country programmes financial education is delivered by teachers in schools, but there are also after-school clubs. In Brazil, the training has shifted from being purely teacher-led to a peer-led model. Girls’ clubs have been set up where girls learn about life skills and topics such as gender-based violence. Girls’ clubs have been a great success and the girls really appreciate this as a safe space.

Interestingly, boys in schools in Brazil reported feeling left-out. This prompted a discussion with the audience about the need to bring boys into the programme, but also crucially into conversations on gender parity, particularly gender-based violence. The team agreed and recognised that boys would benefit from financial education but the remit of the programme was to look at the impact on girls’ financial education and so at this stage there are no plans to widen the scope.

CHINA – Creating positive future aspirations and confidence-building

  • 26 middle schools and one vocational school (ages 12-17)
  • 18 townships in Guangnan County, China
  • 75% left-behind and 61% ethnic minority children
  • 3-year target: 11,541 girls; 26,800 children

In China, the programme is implemented in rural areas where there are a high number of ‘left-behind’ children of migrant workers who are often looked after by grandparents or in boarding school. The programme has the full support of the regional education authorities and is delivered in schools via weekly financial education classes.

Apart from financial education skills, the programme provides elements of career guidance and counseling. The aim is to foster more optimistic ideas amongst the girls about their future opportunities – where many may see their paths destined to be the same as their parents. However, prospects for migrant workers are bleak and quality of life poor. The programme attempts to encourage the girls to look at alternative ways to engage in economic activity – potentially localized entrepreneurial activity – which would help to prevent these rural areas from becoming deserted. Financial and life skills also help safe-guard the girls’ rights since as migrant workers they typically find they have limited protection or safety nets when they move to cities to work.

The programme team found that confidence building was key to help girls become more aware of their opportunities, choices and dreams. Given the culture in China of high expectations for academic performance, there is less emphasis on life skills and emotional wellbeing. The programme team reported some encouraging examples where girls enjoyed an increased sense of confidence and well-being as part of the programme’s work.

INDIA – Community perceptions are key but the programme is creating role models

  • Ages 7-18 in Government schools and educational camps
  • Bikaner district, Rajasthan
  • 3-year target: 82,300 girls; 154,570 children

In India, the programme has been integrated into the national teacher training system and the national curriculum. It therefore benefits from a significant level of government support

The main finding in India was that community perceptions can be a huge barrier to the girls using the skills they acquire in a real-life context. Even if a girl’s parents approve of her taking part in the programme, this did not mean they were then comfortable with her using the skills to engage in economic activity outside the home or direct community. This is due to how a women’s role in society is viewed: a girl engaging in home-based entrepreneurial activity (e.g. sewing or knitting from home) is acceptable, but to travel to another village or region to work in a commercial organisation, is not. However, role models – prior beneficiaries of the programme – have been effective as advocates in trying to reverse these perceptions.

RWANDA – Encouraging developments in integrated girls & boys after-school clubs

  • Students aged 12 -15 years
  • Bugesera and Nyaruguru districts
  • 3-year target: 3,200 girls; 4,200 children

In Rwanda, the programme leveraged one of Plan International Rwanda’s existing programmatic expertise: Boys4Change clubs that explore themes of masculinity and leadership and the role of girls and boys in society. The formal teaching component – financial education for girls – is delivered in schools, but the after-school clubs have become integrated whereby both boys and girls take part. They also engage in income-generating activities (such as keeping and rearing of animals like goats and chickens).

The programme team in Rwanda has seen really great developments whereby boys have become much more understanding of the pressures on girls to carry-out domestic/house work which often results in the girls having limited time to study or become entrepreneurial. In some cases, boys have offered to share the burden of tasks normally done by girls to give their female peers more time to achieve their goals. This raised the question of why a similar model of integrated clubs and/or boys’ education in gender equality and male leadership in this context is not more widely pursued in the other country programmes. The programme leaders are considering this for future phases.

In Rwanda, efforts are made to engage with parents to ensure they are aware of the topics the students are being exposed to. The students launch campaigns to which parents are always invited and there is a lot of dialogue with them. The result is that parents and teachers have started their own savings clubs in many cases.

P1030291Photo: Plan International UK

Delivery Through Schools Helps to Ensure the Programmes’ Long-Term Sustainability

There was a good deal of discussion with the audience during the evening – one important question was around sustainability. Credit Suisse cannot support the continuation of the programme indefinitely nor its replication to other regions/countries. Eva made the point that this is why the decision was made to deliver the content in a school setting. Schools provide a structure for delivery where attendance and participation is ensured (at least more so than in community projects). By training teachers in the system, this helps sustainability even after programme partners have left (although there is a question over continued and refresher teacher training, which can be a challenge to deliver). A question was raised as to why there was no focus on girls outside of the formal school system. The same answer applied as well as programme delivery capacity.

M&E Statistics Show Encouraging Impact from Programmes So Far

Monitoring and evaluation are also more easily achieved within the formal school system, which helps to collect and deliver data. Both Aflatoun International and Plan International conduct M&E – although their focus has been the monitoring of girls only as that is the current target group. Some key and encouraging statistics include an 18.2% increase in girls’ financial education and life skills (FELS) knowledge globally, with India showing the largest increase at 43.1%. In addition, there has been a 31.5% increase in fathers who ‘strongly agree’ it is important for girls to learn about money and financial skills globally.

However, it was also recognized that the impact of work such as financial and life skills training (aimed at future economic empowerment) can only be expected to come to full fruition much later in the girl’s life and by that time many other variables will have also influenced outcomes – so measurement of outcomes and evaluation is not easy in this area.

201607-IND-42-scrPhoto: Plan International UK

Future Plans

The next phase will see the addition of a new partner to the programme, Room to Read in Tanzania and Sri Lanka. Any further research will need to incorporate experiences from these contexts also. And this will be examined together with the many questions that the current research has thrown up. For example, how these programmes influence girls and boys differently. In specific country contexts different questions are being asked. For example in India, programme leaders want to look at which social norms act as the largest barrier to a girls’ acquisition of life and financial skills; whereas in Rwanda, the question arising is how the work on gender norms with girls and boys impacts on girls economic empowerment.

We understand that the project will be announcing results of its second phase of research in the next few years – we wait with interest to learn more about this when it is published and we may invite Credit Suisse, Aflatoun International and Plan International to return and tell us more of their fascinating findings then.

Financial Education for Girls: Breaking cycles of poverty

by Miranda Barham, WAM Steering Committee

On September 13, 2017, we will be holding an event with guest speakers Eva Halper from Credit Suisse Global Education Initiative and Aukje te Kaat from Aflatoun International to discuss the Credit Suisse initiative around financial education for girls. In addition, two Plan International managers from China and Brazil who are directly implementing the program will also be present.

We asked them to give us an introductory overview ahead of the event to tell us a little about their initiative and what they hope to achieve.

  1. Please tell us a bit about the background of the Credit Suisse initiative ‘Financial Education for Girls’?

In 2014 Credit Suisse launched a Signature Programme focusing on Financial Education for Girls. This programme is part of the bank’s Global Education Initiative, one of the 2 global initiatives Credit Suisse launched in 2008.  Aligned with the core business of Credit Suisse and the other  global initiative in Microfinance (Microfinance Capacity Building Initiative), the Financial Education for Girls programme aims to improve the financial education and life skills of approximately 100,000 adolescent girls and to encourage them to transition through secondary school.

As a global financial institution, we see first-hand how important financial skills are to enable people to actively participate in the economy and society. Many young people aged 14–25 in developing countries are already economically active but without a basic education in the key tenets of finance. They are therefore not only less likely to maximise the benefits from their economic activity, but also risk making decisions that may result in debt and further poverty over time and into adulthood.

Given that girls in developing countries still struggle to overcome many barriers to education compared to their male counterparts, focussing on financial education for girls in particular can mean transformed futures. Empowered girls can manage their own savings, spending, and make decisions about their future endeavours in life.

By increasing both the financial capability of girls as well as their awareness of their social and economic rights, they can better fulfill their potential and take advantage of economic opportunities as they transition into adulthood. Furthermore, financial education for girls also mitigates their vulnerabilities such as sexual and domestic violence, school dropout, illiteracy, early marriage, and pregnancy.

  1. Where is the programme run and what are its objectives?

The programmeme is being implemented by our partners, Plan International and Aflatoun International in Brazil, China, India and Rwanda. As of this year, we will be also working in Tanzania and Sri Lanka with another of our long standing partners, Room to Read.

Financial Education for Girls aims to:

  • Improve the financial education and life skills of approximately 100,000 adolescent girls
  • Support approximately 100,000 girls to transition to, or remain in, secondary school
  • Advocate at local and national levels to create a positive environment for girls’ education
  1. Tell us about how you hope your work will inspire future programmes?

In addition to meeting the goals outlined above, the partners are investing time and resources into pursuing a thought leadership agenda in the area of financial education for adolescent girls. The aim is to make recommendations for development practitioners and national policy makers. We hope our findings will inform the creation of new programmemes by indicating critical success factors needed for programmemes targeting girls’ Financial Education. We also aim to identify gaps in current understanding of similar programmes and therefore where further research would be of value.

The thought leadership component of the partnership is a research project to explore the impact of financial education on adolescent girls and to contribute to the debate more broadly around financial education – specifically for girls.

Through this research we hope to:

  • Increase understanding of how financial and life skills education programmes can be used to improve the life chances and selected educational outcomes of adolescent girls
  • Make recommendations to improve the quality of financial and life skills programming for adolescent girls
  • Develop a body of evidence and insights which will inform the design of innovative and integrated financial education and life skills programmes for girls

We do hope that you will be able to join us to discuss the initiative further and hear more about how the partners have planned and implemented the programme and what sorts of results are apparent at this initial stage.

Please book your ticket here

When: Wednesday 13th September 2017, 18:30 – 21:30 BST

Where: Credit Suisse, 1 Cabot Square, London E14 4QJ

Networking from 18:30; talk begins 19:30

 

We look forward to seeing you!

WAM UK Steering Committee

 

More about our guest speakers

Biographies

Eva Halper was educated in Australia, Canada and the UK and has lived in several countries and worked in a variety of roles focusing on education, corporate employee engagement and multi-stakeholder partnerships for sustainable development. She currently leads Credit Suisse’s Global Education Initiative, building and managing partnerships with international not for profits. This program currently focuses on Financial Education for Girls. In 2010, she conceived and subsequently rolled out the Bank’s flagship international skills-based volunteering program, The Global Citizens Program. This is today offered as a unique leadership development opportunity enabling employees to work with the company’s not for profit partners abroad and has been integrated into the portfolio of Talent Development programs.

 

Aukje te Kaat is Research Manager for Aflatoun International and has a particular interest in life skills education, sexual and reproductive health and girls empowerment. With degrees in sociology and development studies, and work experience as a researcher with Ghent University, UNHCR in Malawi, and youth NGOs in Kenya and Tanzania, Aukje now works with Aflatoun International – a social franchise that develops and examines educational materials for social and financial education. Aukje works with academics, research institutions, and evaluators worldwide to contribute to knowledge around life skills and financial education.

 

Working with women refugees in Northern Iraq

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Mandana Hendessi, Iraq Country Director for Women for Women International, will be speaking at a dinner hosted by WAM UK on Tuesday 2nd May 2017 in London.

She will be talking about the work that Women for Women International (WfWi) and its partners are doing in and around refugee camps in the Kurdistan region of Northern Iraq where they are providing life and business skills training to women refugees, as well as psycho-social support and crucially, a safe space for women to gather, share experiences and support each other. Tickets to the event are available here.

Warvin Foundation - Dohuk

Ahead of the event, we asked Mandana to tell us a little of the work that is going on and why it has been important for Women for Women International to engage in this issue.

What impact is the project having on women refugees in areas like Northern Iraq?

We have reached out to 600 Syrian refugee women living both inside and outside camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since November 2014. We have provided psycho-social support, livelihood training, women’s rights and gender-based violence awareness and prevention and access to justice. We have also provided training in business and leadership skills for the women. As a result of our training and support, we have seen the women improve their self-confidence, which enables them to be more involved in decision-making in the household as well as in the community. It empowers them to build and develop support networks in the community, connect to essential services, as well as become more confident in reporting harassment, abuse and violence to authorities. Importantly they are improving their income generation.

Why has WfWi chosen to work in this specific area?

When the war in Syria intensified in 2012, we were concerned about Syrian women and tried to find ways of supporting them but found it impossible to work in Syria itself as the security there deteriorated very rapidly. So we decided to support Syrian refugee women in neighbouring countries. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq was chosen because of the large influx of Syrian refugees there and the relative security it provided to work with the women through local partners.

What is it like for women living in the camps and surrounding areas?

Whilst living in a camp can provide some security and protection for women, it takes away their individuality, reducing them to a number. However, women who live outside camps are often more vulnerable to harassment and abuse by local men. They are often caring for their families on their own. Furthermore, they are more likely to be poorer, having to make ends meet on very low income.

The biggest threat to Syrian women in Kurdistan Region of Iraq is gender-based violence, which impedes their chances of finding gainful employment. Many of our beneficiaries have recounted experiences to us of when they have searched for jobs and were told by prospective employers that they would get a job if they had sex with them. Other women say they do not set foot outside the home because they fear abuse and harassment by local men ranging from taxi drivers to doctors.

What would happen to some of these women and their families if they didn’t receive support?

I can think of a few obvious possibilities: chronic physical and mental ill-health, heightened risk of violence, poor hygiene and nutrition, losing hope and inspiration – to sum up, the slow and painful death of a generation.

What are the prospects for people living in the camps?

Living in a camp should just be an emergency measure. It’s cruel and inhumane to expect people to live in a camp for years with no prospect of integration into the wider host country. We cannot subject people to such a restricted and soul-less existence for so long! The host countries have to find creative measures of integrating refugee and displaced families into the community. This is essential – refugee and displaced women have so much to offer not just to their own communities, but also to the host community, enriching the local culture.

Of course one would hope that the conflict in Syria and Iraq ends soon, that infrastructure is reconstructed, peace and reconciliation achieved so that Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqi women and their families are able to return home – but some may bond with their places of exile and with people who have embraced them; they settle into new jobs and new ways of living. They need to be allowed to exercise choices about where they want to settle – where they feel secure and comfortable.

 Is the situation getting worse in these areas/camps?

The current situation is desperate – I can’t think of a situation that could be worse than this! For the long-term, we need to work for peace and justice for all in the region; meanwhile, we need to run programmes for refugees and displaced women that aim to nurture their resilience and talents, helping them to rebuild their lives wherever they are and live more fulfilled lives with their families.

 

mandana-hendessi-headshot-2

Mandana Hendessi is an international development professional with over 25 years’ experience in management, consulting, designing and developing programmes for civil society organisations, governments, International NGOs, and the UN, covering a diversity of socio-economic and human rights issues.

Nearly all of her international experience has been in conflict-affected contexts. For example, in Iraq, Mandana supported the nascent women’s movement to secure a 25% quota for women’s representation in the parliament (2004). In the West Bank, she provided technical assistance to Palestinian women’s enterprises on a range of issues from market research to business planning (2007). In Afghanistan, as the Head of Mission for Medica Mondiale, an international NGO, she led on the development of psycho-social counseling and legal aid for Afghan women who have experienced gender-based violence, promoting access to justice for women who came into conflict with the law.

Prior to joining WfWI in February 2015, Mandana most recently directed the Afghanistan Program at Global Rights, where she engaged young Afghans to support and promote democratic values, the rule of law, and the rights of women.

Since 1993, Women for Women International has helped more than 447,000 marginalised women in countries affected by war and conflict. They serve women in 8 countries including Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and northern Iraq, offering support, tools, and access to life-changing skills to move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency.

Women for Women International brings women together in a safe space to learn life, business, and vocational skills.  Once enrolled, each woman receives a monthly stipend – a vital support that enables her to participate. Women increase their ability to earn an income with new skills that are in demand. They learn about their legal rights, and they become knowledgeable about health and nutrition. The result: stronger women, stronger families, and stronger communities. The ripple effect is profound.

VisionFund International on drive to tailor the provision of its microfinance services to women

By Annalisa Plachesi and Miranda Barham, WAM Steering CommitteeJacqueline CEO

WAM UK hosted a very engaging discussion with special guest, Johanna Ryan, VisionFund International’s Social Performance Director.  Johanna took us through the journey that the VisionFund International has been on since 2003, when it was set up to provide small loans to business owners to help them to grow and expand sustainable businesses in the developing world.

VisionFund brings financial access to the entrepreneurial poor in areas that other microfinance providers find too costly to reach. Working with farmers and small businesses in predominantly rural areas, the organisation strives to unlock the economic potential in their communities that can lift whole villages out of poverty. Mission-driven, VisionFund is focused on impacting the lives of children living in poverty. Across a network of over 30 microfinance institutions, most of VisionFund’s clients are women as they are shown to be more likely to invest surplus income into their children’s nutritional, health and educational needs. Their clients are mainly mothers or grandmothers with dependent children or women who employ others with children.

Johanna opened the event by introducing two women, Donatila and Claudine. Donatila, 60 years old from Rwanda looks after seven children. After the sudden death of her first husband, she remarried but her second husband left her.

“When talking to Donatila, I remember her describing her sorrow as she had nothing and – in her own words – she was ‘just an old woman without a husband with no means to provide for the children,’” Johanna explained. Donatila was then introduced to VisionFund and managed to get a $45 loan to trade sorghum in her local market. With her profits she managed to buy salt and onions to feed her family and to cover school fees for her children.

Claudine, who is 25 years old and also from Rwanda, took out a $300 loan and started to sell milk and manure. She made enough money to have her floor cemented, and to purchase clothing. “Claudine has a dream,” Johanna continued, “and it is to see her children grow up to be mayors, governors and members of parliament, whether they are boys or girls.”

Forty-two percent of women globally are outside the formal financial system.[1]  Forty percent of the global agricultural labour force is female and this rises to 50% in Africa and Asia.[2] Of 780 million illiterate people, two-thirds are women.[3] It is these statistics combined with the ambition described by women like Claudine that have driven VisionFund to launch the Women’s Empowerment Fund, a new initiative to empower two million women by 2021.

The Fund is a bold vision to raise $25 million to financially empower two million women and create brighter futures for six million children annually by 2021. VisionFund will achieve this by:

(1) Strengthening links to savings for women. Savings provide a safety net to deal with emergencies as well as family events like births and deaths.

(2) Developing insurance products that specifically protect women. Microinsurance helps protect clients, their investments and businesses against untimely and unexpected shocks. To respond to some of the specific challenges facing women, VisionFund is developing products available for the first time in the market such as health insurance with maternity coverage, crop insurance for women without land titles, and life insurance for spouses and children.

(3) Bringing mobile banking to rural areas, which are often hard to reach and costly to serve. For women, this investment will mean increased personal safety as they will not have to travel with relatively large amounts of cash. It will mean confidentiality as they will not be seen in the branches, which is an issue for women because otherwise they are likely to be asked for money from other members of the community. Also, it gives them greater control over their finances as they can manage them from their home. For some women, depending on the cultural context, it is not easy for them to move around freely. It also provides VisionFund with convenient delivery channels and the opportunity to collect and analyse data, which will be used to improve their products and services.

(4) Expanding access to financial education for women – whilst nearly 33 percent of VisionFund’s clients received financial education in 2016, with a new delivery system for financial education, VisionFund plans to reach 75 percent by 2021.

(5) Creating family-friendly branches which allow mothers to care for their children while they wait in line without, for example, being under searing sun, and developing practical guidelines for improving outreach and service to women, especially mothers, prioritizing women’s needs for confidentiality, privacy, and respect.

(6) Developing financial products tailored for women to ensure they adequately serve the needs of all VisionFund’s clients, with a focus on the needs of women and mothers. This will be represented in the development of new products that focus on fuel-efficient cook stoves, household water filters, latrine construction, solar energy products, and children’s education.

One of the ways that VisionFund will pivot its services to be more women-friendly is by recruiting older women, from the communities it works in, to become loan officers. These women will automatically understand the challenges and local context that VisionFund’s female clients face and will therefore be able to provide services in a more sensitive and sympathetic manner.

“Many older women don’t necessarily feel comfortable speaking with a 25 year-old male loan officer,” explained Johanna. “It can be a barrier to them opening up and giving us the real picture of their lives.” This matters for VisionFund as their fundamental rule of client protection is, ‘we do no harm,’ and they adhere to other strict client protection principles. Taking the time to get a full and honest picture of the client’s financial, business and familial situation is critical to understanding how the client can benefit from a loan or other financial services product and how it can be tailored to individual requirements.

Understanding and improving the impact of their work on women and families is very important for VisionFund. It plans to use rigorous academic and professional research to further understand how it impacts its clients, and will focus on adjusting existing services to better meet the specific requirements of women in their local context, as well as introducing unique products to help more women and their families climb up the economic ladder.

”For women like Donatila and Claudine,” Johanna added, ”empowerment means living a better life than what they experienced before.” With access to financial services and training, along with encouragement from their communities, women with few other resources can change their world and the future of their children. Starting with today’s women, for the women of tomorrow.

If you would like to support VisionFund International to raise funding in support of women taking their first step in business, please donate here. For further information on the Women’s Empowerment Fund, please visit http://www.visionfund.org. “Together, we can transform lives. One loan at a time.”

[1] Pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/789211483986823152/N9gender.pdf
[2] Fao.org/docrep/013/am307e/am307e00.pdf
[3] En.unesco.org/gem-report/sites/gem-report/files/girls-factsheet-en.pdf

Empowering today’s women for the women of tomorrow

 

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Johanna Ryan will be speaking at a dinner hosted by Women Advancing Microfinance UK on Tuesday 31st January 2017 in London. She will talk to us about the work VisionFund International does and the impact it’s having on the lives of women. Tickets to the event are available here.

Ahead of the event, we asked Johanna to give us some thoughts about what it is that makes VisionFund International different, how it has evolved its approach to empower women and drive financial inclusion through a gender lens.

Tell us about VisionFund and how you empower women.

For more than ten years VisionFund has worked to build solid foundations in our microfinance institutions to reach rural, under-served areas in over 30 countries, impacting the daily and future lives of millions of children.  Whether it is a mother of a suffering child or a caregiver of an orphan, we regularly witness the economic empowerment of women through access to financial services, and the benefit this change has on children.

This is why more than 70% of our clients are women and why we implement products and services   that are tailored for women and help them to change the lives of their children by enabling them to afford healthcare, education and proper nutrition.   While we continue to make progress, we know we have a long way to go and many more opportunities to transform the lives of women worldwide.

Why are you intentionally targeting female clients? How does financial inclusion go beyond small loans?

Seventy per cent of the world’s poor are women. Sixty-three per cent of them do not have access to a bank account. Eighty cents of every dollar earned by a woman is invested in her children (compared to 30 cents by men). Women in most countries earn on average only 60 to 75 per cent of men’s wages. Around the world, mothers and female caregivers work tirelessly – inside and outside the home – to improve the lives of children and provide them with brighter futures.

At VisionFund, our mission is to empower women, who in turn will enable their children to have access to resources and opportunities that they lacked. If we aim to work with women, we need to model our offering to their requirements. Thus VisionFund specifically encourages women to become loan officers as they better understand the needs of women clients and their children.  We have therefore created a recruitment programme that targets women with “life experience,” which is currently being rolled out across our network. As Melinda Gates once said – a strong and empowered mother is the best champion a child will ever have.

You are developing an initiative called the Women’s Empowerment Fund. Can you explain a little about what you hope to achieve?

The Women’s Empowerment Fund aims to empower two million women and impact six million children across our microfinance network by 2021. The key innovation of the Fund is the gender lens – and especially a mother’s lens – that will be applied to all our economic empowerment work to increase financial access for vulnerable women and develop financial and other services that are tailored to meet women’s needs.

To hear more from Johanna about VisionFund’s unique approach, please join us for the dinner discussion on Tuesday 31st January 2017. Tickets for the event are available here.

Key learnings about women & enterprise from the Trust Women Conference 2016

By Miranda Barham, WAM Steering Committee
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Cherie Blair moderates Women Entrepreneurs panel at Trust Women Conference, December 2016

  1. “The established way is not necessarily the best. If you want a different outcome, you need to do things differently. You need to be defiant.”

These were wise words from Professor Muhammad Yunus who talked to us about his experience in setting up Grameen Bank. He wanted to set up a bank for the poor, that lent to women. His contemporaries thought it could not be done. Prof Yunus looked at what the banks did that lent to the rich and he decided to do the opposite. Instead of pursuing contemporary banking models, he removed the need for collateral and created a banking system based on mutual trust, accountability, participation and creativity. More than thirty years later, Grameen Bank’s success has defied all those who told him he would not succeed. Not only has he created a successful bank in his home country of Bangladesh, but he has set up projects in 58 countries, including the US when in 2008, he created Grameen America. It now has 19 branches with over 85,000 borrowers. All the borrowers are women and the repayment rate is 99.5%. As Prof Yunus says to all those naysayers, “Trust women.”

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Professor Muhammad Yunus makes the keynote speech on Day 2 of the Trust Women Conference

  1. Cherie Blair, human rights lawyer and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women told us that, “155 countries have a law that impedes women’s economic development.”

Mrs Blair quoted a World Bank report released in 2015 which analysed the legal restrictions to women’s employment in 173 countries. It found that 155 of these countries have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities and in 18 countries, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.

The report goes on to say that lower legal gender equality is associated with fewer girls attending secondary school relative to boys, fewer women working or running businesses, and a wider gender wage gap.

  1. Women lead only 5% of global companies but in the UK, women lead 40% of social enterprises.

While women lead very few companies on a global basis, they are much more highly represented in the UK when it comes to leading social enterprises.

Servane Mouazan, Founder of Ogunte, a firm that offers coaching and services to women in social enterprises and their business support providers, felt that this is because traditionally women’s enterprise has been promoted in areas where women have been serving for some time, as members of the voluntary sector, as unpaid carers, or in roles where women have been ‘relegated’ for centuries – such as the domestic sphere and education. As women started to volunteer and professionalise, they have done so in areas where social enterprise businesses emerged, and hence are more likely to lead them than mainstream commercial businesses.

  1. Only 5% of venture funding goes to women.

Clearly this is a major hurdle for women entrepreneurs seeking funding for new ventures and is at odds with global intelligence network Thomson Reuters’ assertion that ‘companies run by women perform better’. If they perform better, it should be an obvious investment choice, which leads to the next point.

  1. There is a pervasive unconscious bias when it comes to women

The conclusion was that much greater awareness and education is needed to counteract what appears to be a pervasive unconscious bias towards women whether it is in gender stereotyping of the toys girls play with, attitudes at educational institutions or in the workplace.

Siobhan Reddy, co-founder and studio director of Media Molecule, told us that by age 12, women were already discouraged from pursuing a career in technology. Siobhan has made it a priority to seek and hire women in her high-tech business, which in the predominantly male sector of gaming, boasts 30 percent female staff and 26 different cultures. In pursuit of greater female empowerment, she has acted to address the unconscious bias in a whole range of ways from ensuring the inclusion of non-stereotyped female characters in games to discouraging her female colleagues from answering the phone, the door and making tea. No more ‘Polly put the kettle on’ here!

7 Things We Learnt from Trust Women -Day 1

by WAM UK Steering Committee

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CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation, Monique Villa

  1. There is a $285BN Credit Gap for Women Entrepreneurs Globally

Goldman Sachs and the IFC estimates that there is  $285BN credit gap for women entrepreneurs, with 70% of women-owned small businesses underserved by financial institutions in developing countries.  At a breakfast event, White and Case discussed the challenges to ensuring women had legal rights over their businesses – a significant challenge preventing women accessing financial services for women owned SMEs. White and Case are working with Women World’s Banking to research the legal and cultural challenges facing women entrepreneurs and business owners. Having conducted research in 14 countries across emerging markets, they highlighted some of the key challenges as below:

  • Property rights prohibiting women from holding property
  • Divorce laws determining that assets can only be owned by men, transferred to men upon divorce.
  • Inheritance laws prohibiting women to inherit assets.
  • Legal issues preventing women from having bank accounts or access to credit, for example challenges in determining national ID numbers.
  • Illiteracy, preventing women from using technology and financial services
  • Cultural ideas that women don’t manage money or businesses

In 2014, Goldman Sachs and IFC created a $600MN loan facility for women entrepreneurs as an evolution of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women project.

  1. The Migrant Crisis Is Giving Rise To Greater Human Rights Abuses And Slavery, Including Women And Children.

Thomson Reuters Foundation, CEO, Monique Villa opened the 5th Trust Women conference with a compelling address covering a range of topical issues affecting women globally today, making a link between the migrant crisis and human rights abuses. As the former Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino explained “in the west we are creating a new breed of subjugated human beings in the migrant crisis” in our failure to respond appropriately to the issue.  As she astutely summarised “we known we don’t take enough action to solve this problem, creating our own problems – then we blame global mobility.” She stressed that the European response to the migrant crisis has led to a loss in credibility to the West’s international development work – in the observation of the failure to respond to challenges on its doorstep, how can its advice in developing countries be taken seriously?

Migrants are vulnerable to trafficking networks and increasingly, radicalisation.  Europa calculated that the number of asylum seekers to the EU doubled in 2015 vs. 2014.

  1. Slavery Still Exists Today

We heard from speakers from Nepal, Mauritania, the US, amongst many others on how prevalent slavery is today. Lisa Kristine, a humanitarian photographer shared harrowing stories and images of child and adult slaves around the world in her modern day slavery campaign. The size of the problem is huge – an estimated 46 million people are in modern day slavery, according to the Walk Free Foundation.

Biram Dah Abeid, Lawyer, Human rights activist and President of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA)- educated us on the institutionalisation and prevalence of slavery in Mauritania, where 50% of the population belong to a caste vulnerable to slavery. Slavery is matrilineal and can be inherited – children borne into being slaves for their mothers were. He explains that although Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 (the last country to do so) and has adopted international law, the domestic Sharia Law is dominant and permits slavery to exist with impunity. He spoke of girl slaves being sexually abused and enslaved by a master class being culturally and legally accepted.  He explained that men were often abler to flee and escape, whereas girl and women slaves are not as likely to do so. Biram himself has been arrested many times for peaceful and legal protest against slavery.

  1. Children are Vulnerable to Trafficking and Slavery Worldwide

Walk Free estimates that approximately 1 in 3 slaves are estimated to be children.  Aside from labour and domestic work – there are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world, 40% of which are girls and expected to be treated as wives for male soldiers. The facts were incredibly sobering.  We learnt of exploited labourers toiling in Brick kilns in India and Nepal working over 16 hours’ day in over 120 Fahrenheit heat, covered in dust. Children in Ghana working on one of the largest man made lakes in the world –  and they don’t know how to swim. Children in India favoured for their small hands in manufacturing and labour. The examples were too many to count; in contrast to these devastating accounts we heard from an incredibly brave panel of child slavery and trafficking survivors:

  • Tindyebwa Agaba, Human rights activist, who survived being a child solider in Rwanda to become involved in international conflict work and advocacy.
  • Sunita Danuwar, Executive Director, Shakti Samuha, who survived sexual enslavement as a girl in Nepal.
  • Ashley Cacho, FAIR Girls Survivor Advocate, who survived failures by the Social Care and Criminal Justice system in the US and sex trafficked by a relative.

All three have been detained by their states and failed by their justice systems, but they spoke movingly and openly of their experiences showing incredible resilience and commitment to speak out against modern slavery, moving from victim to survivor to champion for other victims.

Representatives from Interpol and New York Country District Attorney spoke about their efforts against child abuse, trafficking and slavery. Although they acknowledge that there is still too little work ongoing to address the scale of the problem; developments in technology and concentrated effort in child abuse victim identification and awareness has helped advance their work of late

  1. Accept That Slavery Is Likely In Corporate Supply Chains – Actively Seek to Identify It To Address It

Panel and video speakers with representatives from Tesco, Primark, Hilton and Thai Unions discussed slavery in large corporate supply chains. The presence of corporates on the panel was commended for the simple fact of publicly acknowledging the issue – many brands, not just low-cost ones – perpetuate the problem by refusing to acknowledge it. As Monique Villa, CEO of Thomson Reuters Foundation suggested: “no company can say that they are slavery – they simply do not know”. Or they have a very small and simple supply chain.

Slavery has increasingly become a corporate governance issue following decades of being overlooked. By comparison, Villa emphasises that “companies pay attention to anticorruption because the law is harsh on them, but not on slavery because the pressure isn’t there.” However important policy changes such as the Human Slavery Act in the UK is making slavery a business issue – corporate bonds are now required to sign off on Anti-Slavery statements, making it a board issued to incentivise top down change.

Thai Union stressed that engagement is key – if corporates boycott suppliers from countries at risk of slavery they can inadvertently make the problem worse in country. Instead engagement can work to lift standards. There was agreement that corporates, industry bodies and NGOs needed to work together – forging coalitions against slavery to actively look for evidence of it to resolve, not just sticking to high level codes of conducts or acting in silo.

  1. Global Migration – Not A Crisis, Nor New Normality – But Reality

50% of unaccompanied children who arrive in Europe vanish. Victims of human or organ trafficking, or other forms of exploitation. Geopolitical uncertainty, conflicts and climate change render human migration a trend likely to stay. Alternatively, Thomson Reuters argued that migrants remained stable and approximately 3% of the global population, but the global population is growing in absolute numbers, therefore recent trends should not be seen as a crisis but instead a new normality. This is coupled by the trend of rising anti migration sentiment around the world with more border walls being built in recent years– 70 in total currently.

International President of Medicins Sans Frontieres, Dr Joanne Liu, argued passionately that we only see migration as a crisis now because it is happening in our back yards in Europe– much like the example of the spread of Ebola, which was not a taken as seriously until it started affecting the West. Liu has been working in conflict areas for over 20 years and observes that migration has always existed and there are no such things as “good or bad refugees”– the right to move and be treated with dignity is fundamental.  Humans Right Watch argued that the migrant population arriving in Europe is approx. 1% of the EU population – numerically not challenging yet there is a political crisis in response to accepting migrants. The panellists compared the European response- failure to accept and integrate 1% vs. Lebanon which has accepted Syrian refugees equaling 25% of its population. Given the prevalence of migration and historic relevance of remittances in financial inclusion, it begs the question as to what the microfinance community and impact investors can do to address the challenges and opportunities migration poses today.

  1. The Challenges Are Immense But There Are Incredible People Doing Incredible Work And Civil Society Has A Role To Play.

The conference’s focus on modern day slavery and migration was sobering indeed. Survivors told their stories of trauma and hard hitting facts documenting the scale of slavery, trafficking and refugees – with women and girls especially vulnerable. However, what was also evident was human resilience and the power of organising to challenge these global challenges. Speakers and panelists continuously highlighted the power of the individual – in civil society, as investors, as consumers, as professionals to work towards today’s addressing these challenges. The first step is awareness – to open our eyes to the problems and then to act. The Trust Women conference launched the #IChooseToSee campaign to continue to disseminate information and hosted clear action sessions for delegates to make concrete commitments either as individuals or as organisations to address slavery and migration.

If you’re interested in learning more about the event and its speakers, please visit http://www.trustwomenconf.com/  and review our live tweets from the events at @WAM_UK. Stay tuned for a report on Day 2. Videos from the conference are also available here.

 

 

 

Responsible investment gathers pace globally, driven by socially minded investors who understand its impact on financial returns

resp-invt-treeBy Miranda Barham & Kim Croucher from the WAM UK Steering Committee with critical contribution from Martina Macpherson & Natacha Dimitrijevic

Back in April, WAM UK welcomed Natacha Dimitrijevic, an Associate Director at Hermes Equity Ownership Services and Martina Macpherson, Head of Sustainability Indices at S&P Dow Jones Indices (formerly Managing Partner of SI Partners) to talk about responsible investment. Sustainability is relevant to all of us as consumers, but also to those of us who are pension fund holders and investors. Natacha and Martina were there to tell us why companies that are encouraged to be more sustainable are more likely to yield a good return to equity owners – and how investors, no matter how small, can and should utilise their voice to positively influence their active and passive investments.

The state of the sustainable investment market

The size of global sustainable investment assets have expanded dramatically in recent years, rising from $13.3trillion in 2012 to reach a total of $21.4trillion at the start of 2014 according to a Report by GSIA (2014)[1]. The establishment of the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) in 2006 has been instrumental in raising awareness about responsible and sustainable investment among the global investment community, increasing the level of transparency around the activities and capabilities of its signatories and fostering collaboration between them, and supporting their engagements with companies and policymakers on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. Nowadays, the six voluntary Principles for Responsible Investment have nearly 1,500 signatories, from over 50 countries, representing $60 trillion.[2]But is sustainable investing of growing interest in all parts of the world? According to GSIA’s Report, sustainable and responsible investment strategies around the world have grown significantly, for example, in Europe they have grown at an even faster rate than the broad European asset management market. In the United States, socially responsible investment (SRI) assets were $6.57 trillion in 2014—a 76-percent increase over the $3.74 trillion identified in sustainable investing strategies at the outset of 2012. In Australia and New Zealand, sustainable investing assets managed by asset managers, super funds, banks and advisers in 2014 reached $180 billion. Sustainable investment assets in Asia, although still comprising only a small share of total professionally managed assets in the region, reached $53 billion in 2014, an increase of 32 percent from the $40 billion tallied at the start of 2012.

Doing well by doing good?

During the evening, our discussion touched on the big question of whether companies should be acting in better ways just for social good as opposed to purely operating for financial profit.

We discussed the concept of getting companies to think about how they deal with risk and return for all stakeholders such as suppliers, and the communities in which they operate and not just their shareholders.

Some guests admitted their frustration in persuading some organisations to take into account a broader range of stakeholders when making decisions or to address social concerns they advocate on as members of civil society.

It was interesting to see these same guests come to see the leverage that equity investors can have on companies, with their vote in how the company is run. By the end of the evening, opinions seemed to remain divided on how best to tackle these issues, but it was recognised that the social good element was signficantly helped by socially minded investors driving the agenda.

But the point is that investors in the RI space are socially minded, because they believe socially beneficial behaviour has an influence on long-term financial returns.

Incorporating stewardship considerations into investment decision-making

There is also an ethical dimension to taking the stewardship responsibility of active ownership seriously. According to the ILO, the 200 largest MNEs (of the approximately 50,000 MNEs) worldwide have sales equivalent to almost 30% of the world’s GDP and approximately 80% of global trade activities are within the global value chain of MNEs[3] – the subsidiaries and extended value chains of MNEs represent an important share of the private sector in many developing and industrialised economies.

MNEs are impacting communities through job creation, investment, environmental footprint, as purchasers and consumers and more. In short, the impact of MNEs on the world is incredibly substantial – and not just in terms of economics and development, but in terms of the environment and use of natural resources. It can only be deduced that influencing MNEs, even in a small way – can have a huge impact on the communities in which we live.

Martina kicked-off the evening by presenting the current state of sustainable investing across sectors and asset classes and she outlined the key reasons why companies decide to tackle sustainability issues. Top of the list still stands customer demand, with more than 65% of companies[4] polled by oekom research’s Impact Study (2013) admitting that customers’ views was a factor in their decision-making to tackle sustainability issues. However, pressure from rating agencies and from sustainability-oriented investors came a close second and third in the poll’s rankings – demonstrating that the sustainable investment movement overall is a key driver in this area. Surprisingly reputational concerns came further down the list, where only 22% of companies polled said the company’s reputation was a factor on why sustainability matters.

Martina outlined that the largest sustainable investment approach globally by AUM remains negative screening/exclusions ($14.4 trillion), which is effectively the action by sustainable active or passive investors to exclude certain companies from their investment portfolios if they don’t meet a range of pre-defined sustainability criteria and metrics.[5]We learnt that this is a highly effective means to focus the attention of companies towards better sustainability performance and practices.

Boards and management will pay attention if pension funds and asset managers publicly state that they will screen out certain unsustainable practices or risk factors from their portfolios. However, this is a ‘tradtional’method of influence and, for example, doesn’t tackle those companies that act in industries that would naturally be excluded from a sustainability funding anyway – such as fossil fuel energy.

The investment case for active ownership

It was put forward on the night that there is a more effective way to tackle the behaviour of companies in certain unfavoured sectors through a more active form of corporate engagement and direct shareholder action[6].

These activities are evolving and gaining ground ($7.0 trillion under management according to the GSIA Report) and allow investors to take an active role in shaping a company’s response to sustainability issues. It is though a more intensive and expensive approach – but one which many think will pay off in the long-run.

Hermes Equity Ownership Services (EOS) is exactly situated in this space. Natacha spoke on the night of the work she does to engage regularly with boards that her pension fund clients are invested in – highlighting to the board practices the companies partake in, which may not provide a sustainable base for long-term growth (for example relating to corporate governance, labour conditions, environmental impact and more) – and it is this long-term growth or continued existence that pension fund investors are most interested in protecting. Sometimes these may be issues that management have not fully appreciated or looked at – but sometimes she may try to address the more contentious issues. Either way, the experience of Hermes EOS is that boards and companies will engage – particularly since Hermes EOS is typically speaking on behalf of clients with billions of dollars invested in the company.

Financial institutions around the world are increasingly required to demonstrate responsible behaviour. Good stewardship of assets is a critical component of what it means to be a responsible investor. Engaging with companies and policy-makers on environmental, social, governance, strategic and risk issues where relevant is now widely recognized as adding long-term value to the investments and core to managing risks.

Sustainable investment innovation – the journey continues

Sustainable investing is also benefiting from developing technology, frameworks and innovation. Quantitative ESG research metrics, (real time) data analytics solutions and financial instruments such as indices, have hence become increasingly available for investors. As a result, ESG integration across asset classes, and across active and passive investing, has become a widely-used investment practice. And research into the relationship between financial performance and ESG factors, both academic and applied, has improved in quantity and quality.

On the corporate side, ESG disclosure and reporting have moved from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have,’ as regulatory developments have accelerated worldwide. According to data analytics house eRevalue, 180 sustainability-related regulations were identified in 2013. Nowadays, there are already over 1,300.[7] This fast-paced transition from a normative to a compliance ESG regulatory framework presents increased reputational and commercial risks for businesses.

Ultimately, ESG integration is and remains a major ‘trend’. ESG integration is happening across the investment industry, across mainstream capital markets and across the ‘world of big data analytics’. ESG integration into credit and fund ratings is one of these trends, new developments of passive, active ownership as well as corporate and investor dialogue based on more aligned ESG factors and ‘harmonised’ definitions and approaches of materiality  is another.

However, we need to be careful to avoid ‘green washing’ or ‘sustainability washing’ tactics to prevent a ‘green bubble’. Commitment (and purpose), due diligence, disclosure and dialogue remain key fundamentals for this industry.

[1] Source: GSIA, Global Sustainable Investment Review, 2014: http://www.gsi-alliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/GSIA_Review_download.pdf

[2] Source: PRI, About UNPRI, 2016: https://www.unpri.org/about

[3] Source: Engaging multinational enterprises on more and better jobs, ILO Factsheet, 3 November 2014: http://www.ilo.ch/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—emp_ent/—multi/documents/publication/wcms_175477.pdf

[4] Source: oekom research, The Impact of SRI, May 2013: http://www.oekom-research.com/homepage/english/oekom_Impact-Study_EN.pdf

[5] Source: Martina Macpherson, The Growing Impact of Sustainability, in S&P Dow Jones Indices ‘Indexology’ Magazine, October 2016: http://html5.epaperflip.com/?docid=a4a2e679-c941-483f-993e-a69e012007d2&utm_medium=Email&utm_source=Eloqua#page=1

[6] See also Arabesque, From the Stockholder to the Stakeholder, March 2015: http://www.arabesque.com/index.php?tt_down=51e2de00a30f88872897824d3e211b11

[7] Source: eRevalue, Sustainability Regulations and Trends, March 2016: http://www.erevalue.com/