Saturday, 20 April 2013

Stateless people and microfinance institutions

I recently had a conversation with Professor Thorsten Beck from the Department of Economics here at Tilburg. Our conversation lead to some interesting areas of how microfinance and its relatedness to statelessness. In this post I want to explore some of these, specifically how micro-finance schemes could be a means by which we can start addressing the lack of income security faced by many stateless people. While work is done on resolving statelessness through legal reform and naturalization we have to consider that protracted stateless situations require alternative strategies to overcome some of the hardships faced by many stateless people while their status is being resolved. This period of resolution can become significant with some people living their whole lives without a nationality. Restricted or no access to financial services, such as bank accounts or loans, has been noted as one of the major difficulties faced by the stateless. Microfinance institutions (MFIs) with their alternative banking, credit and insurance services can be, and have been, designed to overcome some of the barriers and obstacles that are shared by low income and disenfranchised groups (which includes some stateless).

MFIs are normally associated with the provision of financial services to low-income individuals as a means to allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. Despite critique such schemes have received growing interest over the last several decades and have been shown as one path to making financial markets work better for the poor. How alternative financial services could facilitate access for impoverished stateless persons and communities has however received little attention. I will draw on three areas where MFIs and related initiatives have been used to assist the poor with issues that also affect the stateless.

Firstly, the lack of any form of ID is a barrier to basic financial services such as opening bank accounts, transferring money, and accessing credit and insurance. The Credit Reference Bureau of Uganda found that, as no national ID was provided by the government, those who did not hold drivers licenses, passports or land deeds etc. found access to financial services problematic. With those holding ID not seen as the poorest members of the country as their lack of ID reflected their lack of resources (land, property, ability to earn an income through driving etc), alternative bio-data and unique numerical ID solutions were found. Other methods such as basing schemes on community cooperation and trust have also proven useful and could be implemented for both concentrated stateless populations and those who are dispersed, but embedded within the local community.  Such schemes would avoid the need to formally register the stateless receiving financial benefits, which is complicated, expensive and/or requires political will/cooperation. 

Secondly, phone banking has proved popular and successful in Kenya as a means to facilitate easy, affordable and accessible financial services. For stateless populations this could mean the easy transfer of money between dispersed families and communities, remittance facilitation, and transfer of funds to difficult to reach populations (both physically and politically) from MFIs and non-governmental organizations. Without access to bank accounts and the problematic nature of transferring money without ID cards, phone banking could provide a solution.

Finally, the provision of financial services to the poor, or making these services more accessible, can be seen as an individualized response. By that I mean that MFIs can circumvent some of the political issues of providing financial services to stateless populations by basing their services on need alone. This could manifest itself by providing these services through international organisations rather than the local government. In situations where the government refuses these services to the stateless - as non-citizens - this could be one path to reducing the impact of protracted statelessness through a measure of income generating schemes. This makes it possible to give real content to the international commitment to address the fundamental protection needs of stateless people, while a solution to their situation is found (a process that can take decades , or generations).

Lack of any form of ID, lack of access to financial services and the at times politicised nature of government provision of financial services has been overcome for impoverished communities in countries around the world. This can, and should, be explored more closely with a view to extracting relevant good practices that can be extended to the stateless more broadly. This would not only allow the stateless to lift themselves out of poverty, but also begin to challenge the assumption that granting or restoring nationality to stateless populations would be a burden or drain on a state’s resources. While we still have to consider other barriers that will influence the success of MFIs for the stateless, such as contexts of deep seated socio-political discrimination, lack of freedom of movement and lack of economic rights such as property ownership or access to the formal labour market, we should not forget the appropriateness of MFIs for the stateless. Economic empowerment could also potentially open new doors to more comprehensive solutions to statelessness by increasing the integration and participation of affected individuals and groups within the wider community. While not wishing to devalue the call for the stateless to be granted citizenship, we also have to consider that the poverty caused by the protracted situations of statelessness has to be tackled. MFIs have proven adaptable to overcome many of the barriers faced by the stateless for other disenfranchised groups. The discourse of MFIs should include the stateless as the short, medium and long term development of income sustainability for impoverished stateless groups is as important as finding a solution to their statelessness.  

The Stateless Programme is going to dig into some of these questions a little further and we would love to hear from microfinance experts who have information or insights to share.

Jason Tucker, Visiting Scholar, Statelessness Programme

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