Access to financial services is an effective tool for poverty reduction. In recent years, delivery of financial services to the poor has increased worldwide. The numbers of formal public and private commercial banks, state-owned rural development banks, cooperative banks and informal institutions-such as self-help groups, and savings and credit associations that provide financial services to the poor have grown. Delivery approaches have varied based on population densities, type of clients, growth of financial institutions and in some countries, the history of community and self help initiatives. This growth has led to introduction of innovative products that have improved the livelihood of poor people, by building their assets and increasing their earnings.
Despite this growth in rural financial services and pockets of success stories worldwide, many people in rural areas, primarily those that are engaged in small-scale agriculture, still lack access to financial services. According to CGAP  , nearly three billion poor people lack access to the basic financial services essential for them to manage their precarious lives. A survey of 6,000 households conducted in two states of India found that 87 percent of the surveyed marginal farmers had no access to formal credit and 71 percent had no access to a savings account in a formal financial institution (WB 2007). The access is even weaker in neighboring Nepal, where only 16 percent of rural households have a bank account (WB 2006a). In Bangladesh, a country where some effective approaches of micro finance has been pioneered, only 27 percent of marginal and small farmers have access to formal sources of credit. For medium farmers, it's even weaker with 10 percent of farmers having access to formal institutions such as Banks and microfinance institutions (Khalily and others 2002). In Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru, credit-constrained population constituted some 40 percent of all agricultural producers. Producers who lack credit used an average of only 50 percent to 75 percent of the purchased inputs of unconstrained producers. They also earned net incomes (returns on land and family labor) between 60 percent and 90 percent of the unconstrained producers. (Boucher, Carter and Guirkinger 2006).
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Why are there still so many rural smallholders lacking access to finance? What have deterred financial service providers to reach this target group?
CONSTRAINTS ON INCREASING ACCESS TO FINANCE
Transaction Costs: Rural areas consist of low population densities and production is spatially dispersed. There is little access to local information leading to asymmetry in information. Information costs for providers and users are high because the rural transportation and communication infrastructure is usually less developed (Nagarajan and Meyer, 2005).
Price and Production Risks: Smallholders are at greater risk of facing natural disasters leading to crop failures. In the current global economy, many smallholders who depend on one or two commodities also face risks associated with price movements in the international markets.
Assets: Most of the Banks means of guarantee is immovable property, such as land. Many smallholders have limited assets.
Legal, regulatory and supervisory framework: Unclear property rights, particularly on land, hinder farmers to access financial services. They are unable to use it as collateral, even in cases where they qualify for loans. Furthermore, in some countries, regulations do not allow micro finance institutions to mobilize savings and accept deposits. Others have interest rate ceilings that discourage entry of MFIs to reach rural clients.
Seasonality and demand for smaller loans: Rural agriculture activities and incomes are seasonal. Their production cycles are longer and many financial institutions do not have appropriate financial instruments to fulfill the demands of small farmers.
The World Development Report (WDR) 2008 on Agriculture for Development recognizes these constraints but is optimistic that with innovations of various local institutions in developing countries, rural financial services can be provided to a large number of smallholders. Many institutions have already overcome the constraints and implemented effective programs. Grameen Bank is a well known example for its approach that has achieved great success in reaching to the rural poor, primarily for women through group based lending. However, they don't have appropriate products required by smallholders and to remote areas with low population densities.
WORLD BANK'S SUPPORT TO RURAL FINANCE
The Bank's Rural Development Strategy, "Reaching the Rural Poor," confirms that the rural areas are poorly served and emphasizes the need for improved access to the range of financial services. The strategy proposes to strengthen support for the development of diverse products and appropriate institutions to fill the financial needs of low-income rural clients. Since the preparation of the rural strategy, the Bank has not advanced much in supporting operations in rural finance. This finding is elaborated in a recent publication of the Agriculture and Rural Development Department (ARD). It indicates that a review of the Bank's portfolio (FY03-05) found there to be very few stand-alone rural finance projects that increase access to financial services. Most are not comprehensively designed in addressing the constraints faced by smallholders in rural areas and as a result have had modest impact. Some projects address rural finance, but are components of larger projects and contribute to the solution of specific, narrowly defined problems, mostly through provision of credit lines. (WB 2006b)
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There are exceptions to the general findings and it is worth highlighting some notable examples of Bank financed projects that include innovative aspects. The projects are described in detail below:
Savings and Rural Finance (BANSEFI) Phase II Project Mexico
In early 2000, the rural finance sector in Mexico consisted of about 600 SCI (Savings and Credit Institutions) providing financial services to some 3.7 million clients. All were not authorized to mobilize savings, nor were they regulated or supervised. To address the problem, Government of Mexico introduced major regulatory and institutional reforms to support the rural finance sector. With the introduction of policy reforms, BANSEFI was created to operate as a bank to provide second-tier central banking services (excluding on-lending of funds), to strengthen the sector entities and federations and to coordinate government investments and initiatives.
In 2004, Bank approved the Mexico BANSEFI Phase II project. The project played a key role in building the capacity of SCI sector; many would have to close because of their inability to comply with the government standard requirements. The innovative aspect of this project is the "technology development" component, which helps improve minimum standards of accounting and reporting that enable the rural finance sector to be more efficient, cost-effective, transparent and integrated. BANSEFI is now leading the development of an internet-based network of savings and credit institutions. Institutions participating in the program have reduced their transaction costs as they are operating with minimal cost and have used information for improved decision-making (ARD 2006).
Ghana Rural Financial Services Project
The key players in the rural finance sector of Ghana consisted of rural and community banks, savings and loans companies, credit unions and NGOs. Despite the large number of players, many were weak due to limited skills of staff, outdated technology and negative capital adequacy ratios. The dispersed geographic distribution of rural finance providers was also a constraint that did not allow the Ghana Central Bank to effectively supervise weak performing institutions.
In recognition of these constraints, World Bank financed the Rural Financial Services Project in 2000 to address institutional reforms in the rural finance sector through capacity building measures, strengthening linkages between informal and formal providers of rural finance and in creating an apex body that oversees rural banks. Key success of the project has been its ability to provide capacity building measures for diverse group of rural finance providers in the informal and formal sector. ARB Apex Bank has been doing very well in offering banking and support services to its member banks to be viable financial institutions. Through provision of varied services from check clearing, fund transfer to inspection and supervision of rural banks, ARB Apex Bank is considered a model in transforming the rural finance sector in Ghana.
India Andhra Pradesh District Poverty Initiatives Project
In several states of India, there is a history of community mobilization through self-help groups (SHGs) that have been instrumental in reducing poverty. There is also strong support from some state governments in implementing anti-poverty programs through community organizations based on demand-driven investments programs.
The Andhra Pradesh District Initiatives Project, which was approved by the Bank in 2000, was implemented in six poorest districts in Andhra Pradesh. The project recognized the strengths of these grassroots institutions and has effectively mobilized them to increase access to rural finance, in addition to building livelihoods and food security of the rural poor through community investments. By building the capacity of these groups, the project has improved opportunities for the rural poor to meet priority social and economic needs. Through the component on rural finance, the project has mobilized 5.7 million poor women into 469,941 self-help groups. Their collective savings have reached $226.7 million and they have been able to leverage commercial bank linkages of US$883 million since 2003. The project is now scaled up to cover the entire state with additional financing from the Bank.
Madagascar Microfinance Project
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The Madagascar project became effective in 1999 and at the request of the government, has been extended till 2009. The project aimed to strengthen and expand existing Savings and Loan Association (SLA) networks and to focus on making them sustainable. It also supported improvements of the legal and regulatory framework, supervision of SLAs to conform to prudential requirements, and training of microfinance practitioners and trainers.
This project demonstrates that savings-based approaches can lead to sustainability of interventions. The support has led to scaling up of networks of micro finance savings and loan associations and financial cooperatives, which has expanded to 150 in 2006, from 47 in 1999. One of the major achievements has been to reach operational self- sufficiency (ability of the institutions to cover their operating costs with their own revenues). Operational self-sufficiency has reached an average of 199%. This indicates that these networks are moving towards viable institutions.
OTHER APPROACHES - THAT WORK OR HAVE THE POTENTIAL
In the rural finance sector, there are already some interventions that have worked or with some modifications, have the potential to reach smallholders with appropriate products. Here are some examples:
Public and recently privatized agriculture development banks: Despite their past reputation, agriculture development banks, if reformed, have the potential to reach smallholders. Through successful restructuring and privatization and by establishing innovative governance structures, these Banks could be effective financial service providers. Their strength includes their extensive network and infrastructure in rural areas, along with their years of experience. Bank Rakyat (Indonesia), KhanBank (Mongolia), BAAC (Thailand) and NMB (Tanzania) are few examples of such institutions. The only concern about the public banks is that they are more likely to be politicized. But, with the appropriate governance and accountability measures and attractive incentives for their management, they have been capable of performing quite well.
Supply Chains: Supply chain financing that consist of either input suppliers or output processors are being recognized as a medium of financing where there are no financial institutions providing these services. These agents are often able to cost-effectively monitor on-farm behavior (eliminating information asymmetries). Thus, monitoring costs have been reduced and enabling financial institutions have accepted nonstandard forms of wealth as collateral, such as standing crops, or for warehouse receipt financing, harvested crops (Conning 2005). Primarily, the private sector has played a key role in these arrangements. Currently, however, governments and donors have an interest in better understanding how this arrangement works in reaching rural smallholders.
Financial Leasing: In urban areas, leasing of equipment is common among enterprises, but is a relatively new approach in rural areas. Smallholders with little or no assets, who are in need to make capital investments, may find this financing option attractive. According to a survey of ten leasing companies in 2003, the surveyed companies indicated that they require down payments of 15% to 25% as compared to 30% to 40% required by banks (FAO/GTZ 1998). Lower down payments and collateral free options are attractive products to rural smallholders.
Credit Reporting Bureaus: An innovative approach that addresses smallholders' lack of collateral is credit reports that capture their credit worthiness. The WDR states that credit bureaus establish a reliable, portable signal of the borrower's reputation. Lending institutions will now have more information in selecting borrowers based on their past credit history. However, they will still have to find mechanisms that encourage borrowers to pay back their loans on time.
WAY TO MOVE FORWARD WITH INNOVATIONS
The WDR's main message is that more public investments are required to scale up existing innovations and to make some services more financially viable. Financing options need to be introduced based on the demand of smallholders. Key themes and institutional mechanisms to be considered are:
Innovations in information technology that focuses on integration and establishments of credit bureaus have been successful in reducing transaction costs.
Financial services through approaches such as self-help groups and institutions like the financial cooperatives that are localized and are cost effective.
Input suppliers and output processors that provide credit to smallholders are filling the gap of unavailable credit.
Even rural development banks that have had poor performances in the past, if reformed, are found to be effective institutions.
Finally, stand-alone rural finance projects that are comprehensively designed make greater impact than projects that have components that address narrowly defined problems.