The Arab region consists of 22 countries with a population of over 300 million. It is estimated that over 60 million Arabs live on less than US $2 per day. While most Arab countries are considered middle-income, there are large pockets of poverty that exist in most countries including those with large oil revenues.
Experience throughout the world has proven that microfinance helps the poor to increase income, build their businesses, and secure their future by reducing their vulnerability to external shocks. Furthermore, microfinance is often a powerful tool for empowering the poor, especially women, to take charge of their economic well-being and those of their families.
The Arab microfinance industry is young with high growth potential. Currently, it is estimated that there are over 75 microfinance institutions (MFIs) providing credit to poor microentrepreneurs. The majority of these programmes are south of the Mediterranean (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Syria). Programmes also exist in Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, Bahrain, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.The region’s top MFIs are openly committed to best practice microfinance, however there are many challenges decreasing the rate of the industry’s progress. In this article we will outline the recent achievements of the Arab microfinance sector and also explore the main challenges and prospects for the sector with references to various events that took place in 2005- the UN Year of Microcredit.
The Progress of the Arab Microfinance Sector
In just eight years, Arab microfinance institutions have gone from providing an estimated 90,000 poor entrepreneurs with access to financial services in 1997 to reaching over 1.3 million microentrepreneurs according to the latest regional survey conducted by Sanabel, the Microfinance Network of Arab Countries for September 2005. Also the outstanding loan portfolio increased from $40 million in 1997 to $350 million in September 2005.
GRAPH 1 Active Borrowers
GRAPH 2 Active Borrowers and Portfolio Outstanding
In terms of depth of outreach, the sector has generally moved towards serving more and more of the poorer clients. The number of women clients served has increased from 30 % in 1997 to over 60 % in 2005, an indication that the sector as a whole is reaching more of the marginalized in the society.
According to the Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX) benchmarks, Arab MFIs record the lowest average loan balance per borrower as a percentage of the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita.
GRAPH 3 Average Loan Balance as % of GNI Per Capita
The region’s top MFIs have proven to have excellent leadership abilities, impressive outreach and growth, as well as a commitment to best practice microfinance. Furthermore, it is estimated that around 85 % of the region’s active clients are served by sustainable microfinance institutions.
Challenges and Opportunities for Arab Microfinance
Despite the above-mentioned progress and the sector’s development there are challenges facing the industry in the region including the fact that the sector is serving only 15 % to 20 % of the estimated 8 million plus microentrepreneurs with no access to financial services. Expanding the coverage also means reaching countries where there is no or limited best-practice microfinance and increasing the coverage to rural areas where poverty is prevalent. This section of the article will outline the major challenges facing microfinance practitioners as they seek to meet the demonstrated demand for financial services as well as highlight some of the major events that took place during 2005 to reduce the effect of these challenges.
Underdeveloped Microfinance Infrastructure
Despite the efforts made by governments, donors, MFIs and Sanabel, there are still on-going challenges regarding the limited availability of Arabic microfinance literature and research, few regional qualified technical assistance providers and consultants, limited regional coordination as well as insufficient capacity building services.
2005 saw the launch of several important initiatives in an attempt to address the issue of building a strong microfinance infrastructure for the future. This year, Sanabel organized four new Training of Trainer courses in the region providing around 30 training opportunities for Arab trainers and consultants. The network also organized more than 15 training courses and workshops in Arabic and French for microfinance managers in seven Arab countries where around 250 managers participated. These courses deigned as an integral part of the region’s capacity building initiatives were organized in partnerships with various organizations like the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), the Microfinance Centre (MFC) in Eastern Europe and the International Labour Organization (ILO). 2005 also saw the launch of the first phase of preparation for the Training Academy for Arab Microfinance Leaders (TAcAML), an intensive training programme expected to open its doors in early 2007.
In September 2005, Sanabel in partnership with CGAP and the Grameen-Abdul Latif Jameel Initiative launched the Arabic Microfinance Gateway (www.arabic.microfinancegateway.org). This unique website serves as a neutral public forum for microfinance stakeholders to facilitate the exchange of experiences, perspectives, viewpoints as well as microfinance information and research in Arabic.
The Arab microfinance sector is still very much credit oriented, there are limited product and service diversifications where MFIs in some countries are exploring ways to include micro-insurance, micro-leasing, money transfer services and voluntary savings. More and more of the Arab MFIs need to realize that the poor and the very poor that lack access to traditional formal financial institutions require a variety of financial products. While in most cases laws and legislations may hamper this, it must be also noted that MFIs need to think creatively in their attempt to address the needs of their clients by forging strategic alliances and links with mainstream financial institutions in their countries.
In the attempt to address the above challenge, various meetings and conferences took place in the region, specifically in Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt, however the largest gathering directly addressing this issue was Sanabel’s third Annual Conference that took place in Marrakech, Morocco between November 28th -30th, 2005 under the Title of “From Microcredit to Microfinance in the Arab Region”. The event, which also celebrated the end of the UN Year of Microcredit, attracted more than 400 delegates from 30 countries discussing various topics related to the state of Arab microfinance with a focus on moving the sector forward to become more inclusive.
Grants and Soft Loans VS Commercial Funding
The Arab microfinance industry has to overcome its reliance on grants and soft loans and to begin building bridges and links with commercial sources. It is a widely known fact that local governments and donors will not be able to fulfil the financial needs of MFIs not only to reach the un-served 8 million microentrepreneurs but also to provide them with diverse and inclusive financial services. In order for this to happen greater involvement of the private sector and local sources of capital is crucial. There are limited examples of this in Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, however certainly not to the degree required.
There are also limited experiments of banks entering the sector in Egypt and most recently during 2005 in Yemen, Jordan and Palestine, but again not to the levels potentially possible in this sector. This requires creating awareness within the private sector about the importance of microfinance, as will as increasing the level of transparency and improving MFI reporting standards and increasing the number of MFIs subjected to rating and to neutral appraisals and evaluations.
Again, 2005 saw several activities attempting to address the issue of commercial funding and bank downscaling. Some donors active in the region like the Rockdale Foundation (USA) started developing training and awareness tools to train MFIs in dealing with banks and investors with the objective of creating strong partnerships for the long run. Other international networks and organizations like ACCION, IFC and IFAD have started investigating the possibility of expanding local bank activities in microfinance in the region. In November 2005 a “Financing Forum” was organized during Sanabel’s third annual conference where MFIs from the region networked with representatives from leading investment funds and banks. In addition to this, towards the end of 2004, Sanabel in partnership with the MIX established its Transparency Unit, promoting transparency and rating among Arab MFIs with the objective of attracting more investments.
Public Awareness and Regulatory Environments
For the Arab microfinance sector to flourish two further challenges have to be addressed. Firstly, creating public awareness about the benefits of microfinance, both at the client level as well as at the investor and government levels. Secondly, a lot has to be done in the area of regulatory reform within the sector to encourage governments to create an enabling environment for microfinance. Most MFIs in the region operate within unclear and often conflicting legislation that does not support the principles of best practices and hinders MFIs from prospering and growing or even to transforming into regulated financial institutions.
On the regulatory front, 2005 witnessed a variety of promising initiatives and activities across the region. On May 21st, the first meeting of the Executive Council of the CGAP MENA Initiative was held in the Dead Sea Resort in Jordan. The Executive Council chaired by Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, and memberships of Ministers from Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Yemen has been formed to guide the initiative and to highlight the importance of appropriate government policies in greatly expanding the access of poor people to the financial services. During the meeting, the Council endorsed a set of best practice principles to scale up microfinance in the region. 30 high-level government officials, opinion leaders, bankers and representatives of the microfinance industry were present at the meeting. Furthermore, the first half of 2005 has seen the development of national strategies for microfinance in Egypt, Yemen and Jordan. All three strategies have a stated objective to provide access to financial services through a broad, inclusive & diverse financial sector. The strategies were developed to serve as guides for governments and donors in the respective countries.
On the public awareness front, 2005 saw the start of a number of exciting experiments in an attempt to educate and inform the public about microfinance. As part of its celebration and promotion of the UN Year of Microcredit, Sanabel participated during 2005 in the Global Microentreprenurship Awards (GMA) programme along with the UNDP, Citigroup Foundation, and the GMA Student Alliance in four Mediterranean countries: Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. The GMA programme had three main objectives, to recognize and celebrate the contributions that microentrepreneurs bring to the world economy, to raise awareness and support of microentrepreneurs by highlighting their talents and accomplishments, and to create the next generation of microfinance networks and stakeholders. In the four Arab countries that took part, more than 80 microentrepreneurs and loan officers were awarded cash prizes (amounting to more than $70,000) in ceremonies that were held under the patronage of distinguished public figures, such as HM Queen Rania of Jordan, HE Mrs. Mubarak, Egypt’s First Lady and HE Mr. Driss Jettou the Prime Minister of Morocco. In addition to the UN GMA programme, Sanabel organized its 2005 Regional Microentrepreneur Awards, recognizing the work of 11 successful microentrepreneurs from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, Yemen and for the first time Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq participated in the awards.
Illustrating yet another innovative initiative for 2005, the Grameen – Abdul-Latif Jameel Initiative sponsored four commercials for the promotion of regional microfinance. The commercials were based on the inspiring stories of four of Sanabel’s 2004 Regional Microentrepreneur Award winners. The ads portrayed four women microentrepreneurs describing their projects and how these projects have changed their lives and improved the living conditions of their families. The ads, targeting a Pan Arab audience, ran on Arab satellite channels and aimed to show the importance of microfinance as a poverty alleviation tool. The campaign targeted both potential microentrepreneurs on one-side and business and government decision makers on the other.