Improving Consumer Protection Market Conduct: Lessons Learned in Benin

Where does market conduct supervision fit in the consumer protection landscape? What makes for successful intervention in supervisory conduct? As the Smart Campaign winds down, this third and final post in a farewell series reflects on the lessons learned from a multi-year initiative to strengthen market conduct supervision in Benin and other Sub-Saharan African countries.

Lake Nokoue, Benin

In the 12-plus years CFI has worked on consumer protection, we’ve seen again and again the importance of sound regulation and market conduct. While it’s not the only tool in the consumer protection playbook, sound regulation is necessary because even when providers are well-intentioned, it’s extremely difficult for “responsible” players to take action in an unfavorable environment.

As readers of this blog know, working with regulators can be time and labor intensive, but when successful, the impact can be immense. This post focuses on CFI’s multi-year initiative in several countries in the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) – Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo – and draws lessons from our work in Benin, in particular, where CFI’s engagement was multi-faceted. In particular, we focus on the support provided to the national supervisory body of Benin, the Agence Nationale de Surveillance des Systèmes Financiers Décentralisés (ANSSFD).

The Need to Strengthen Market Conduct Supervision: The Case of West Africa

WAEMU countries experience a relatively complex supervisory environment, with multiple entities sharing supervisory responsibilities. The microfinance sector is supervised by the Central Bank of the West African States (BCEAO), the Banking Commission of WAEMU (a specialized regional entity overseeing banking sector) at the regional level, and a specialized supervisory body under the ministry of finance in each WAEMU member country. The Banking Commission of WAEMU only oversees part of the microfinance sector (institutions whose total loans/deposits exceeds 2 billion CFA francs [about $3.3 million] for two consecutive years). Unlike the Banking Commission, specialized national supervisory bodies have the responsibility to supervise the whole microfinance sector in each country.

Supervision in the WAEMU region focuses on prudential regulation, ensuring the soundness and stability of the financial system. However, prudential supervision in itself is insufficient for detecting and addressing improper conduct of financial service providers vis-à-vis their clients. As such, market conduct supervision is an important complement to prudential regulation. Even globally, the interest for and proven practices around market conduct regulation and supervision are fairly recent, with the 2008 global financial crisis being a notable trigger. While there have been some recent efforts to incorporate aspects of market conduct supervision in the region – including the creation of local public ombudsman offices (the OQSF) in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire and the verifications related to disclosure practices and compliance with interest caps – this type of supervision is relatively new to the WAEMU region.

Market conduct supervision is an important complement to prudential regulation.

Benin is no exception. The focus on prudential regulation opens the door for poor consumer protection practices and a weak culture of self-regulation among financial institutions, as evidenced by low levels of consumer protection diagnostics and implementation of codes of conduct. The context in Benin is further complicated by a high prevalence of non-regulated financial service providers (FSPs). A 2015 unpublished survey by the ANSSFD indicated that about two-thirds of microfinance institutions operating in Benin were not regulated and operating without a license. The situation is also exacerbated by low literacy levels in the country, putting microfinance customers at heightened risk for fraud and unfair practices by financial institutions.

CFI’s Approach Builds on Client Voices Research

CFI’s client voices research in Benin indicated that about 17 percent of former microfinance clients surveyed were unable to withdraw part or all their savings. It also highlighted that late payers experienced a number of serious harms, such as shaming, confiscation of goods, requests for bribes, and involvement of police in debt collection as intimidation tactics. About one-third of respondents ignored how much they will pay in total for their loans and only 12 percent knew the interest rate. In addition, a vast majority of clients (86 percent) were not informed about where to complain.

Responding to these realities, the Smart Campaign, a consumer protection initiative housed at CFI, began a targeted approach in 2016 to build a more effective client protection ecosystem in five African markets. CFI engaged with ANSSFD, the supervisory body with the broadest mandate and most in need of resources. The two-year initiative in Benin was targeted at identifying and addressing gaps in market conduct supervision and mainstreaming market conduct supervision into Benin’s supervision system. The new interventions aimed at, among other things, supporting financial regulators to strengthen their frameworks and increase their capacity to conduct sound supervision.

The initiative in Benin was targeted at identifying and addressing gaps in market conduct supervision and mainstreaming it.

The campaign also engaged with regulators in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Benin and Rwanda. Each of these countries presented unique contexts with different consumer protection priorities, leading to bespoke interventions, including mystery shopping in Nigeria, digitization of complaint handling systems in Ghana and Uganda, and support for developing consumer protection regulations for tier IV institutions in Uganda.

Ingredients for a Successful Intervention: Lessons Learned

Though it’s too early to see the full benefits of this support, we learned several lessons from the implementation process in Benin. Overall, the success of such support depends largely on the capacity to change the behavior of supervisors and increase their ownership of the tools and approaches developed during the course of the program. Below we outline several factors that can help positively influence the behavior change and ownership necessary for success.

Learning by Doing

CFI’s approach involved trainings and post-training technical assistance on market conduct supervision. It was designed such that inspectors led the development of tools that they could integrate into their existing work. With some support from CFI, the inspectors developed a series of inspection sheets addressing each of the Client Protection Principles to be used during their on-site visits. By doing so, they incorporated the new inspection sheets into their existing practices, reducing the extent of change management needed.

Leadership Engagement

Buy-in and active participation by leadership is key to gaining traction for change. In 2019, following the training and technical assistance activities, the general manager of ANSSFD issued a memorandum to make the new consumer protection inspection sheets mandatory for all inspection missions. The issuance of the memorandum addressed both resistance to change (on the part of a minority of inspectors) and inconsistent use of tools within ANSSFD (tools were partly used or not used at all in some inspection missions prior to the memorandum). The commitment of the general manager was essential to ensuring widespread use of the new inspection sheets and improving oversight of consumer protection practices.

Change Takes Time

The timeline for regulator or supervisor engagements must allow for multiple iterations. CFI’s engagements have found that behavior change and adoption of new techniques generally require multiple cycles of “test, learn, adjust.” In Benin, it took two years to see some tangible results.

Select Budget-Appropriate Supervisory Tools

Changing supervisory practices is likely to have significant budget implications, including costs associated with technical assistance or the adoption of new supervision tools, such as mystery shopping and other survey methods. Tools and approaches should be proportionate with what fits for the supervisor, both technically and financially. Technical assistance providers should offer all necessary information on the costs and benefits of tools and make sure that the beneficiary agency makes informed decisions about the tools they choose to retain. In Benin, we did not recommend doing additional surveys or tools. Rather, we agreed to have an inspector that solely focuses on consumer protection and market conduct during routine inspection missions.

Progress, but the Journey is Not Yet Complete

As of today, all microfinance inspectors in Benin have been trained on market conduct supervision and the supervision tools are included in the inspection package of ANSSFD. All recent inspection reports include a market conduct section focused on consumer protection. This is tremendous progress and a great step forward.

All recent inspection reports include a market conduct section focused on consumer protection.

The promising results observed in Benin can serve as a model for other countries in the WAEMU region. The shared regulation among the countries should make it possible to leverage the process and tools developed for Benin to replicate this success in other countries. CFI held a workshop in October 2019 to share ANSSFD’s experience with sister supervisory agencies from Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Togo, which are facing similar gaps in market conduct supervision. Encouraging and guiding supervisory agencies to adopt market conduct supervision and the Client Protection Principles into their practices (as further outlined in CFI’s Handbook on Consumer Protection for Inclusive Finance) would contribute to creating market conditions that are fair, protection regimes that are enforceable, and better outcomes for vulnerable customers.

We’d like to thank the Mastercard Foundation for partnering with us on this journey.

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