This week the Smart Campaign is celebrating its 10th anniversary year with a bang by releasing its new standards for digital financial services. These standards represent the opening of a new phase for Smart to meet the growing challenges of the digital age.
The Smart Campaign began in the context of the 2008 global financial crisis. The financial system, and indeed the world economy, had just been brought down by interlocking defects in the financial system, a chain of events triggered by reckless lending in the U.S. mortgage market. A parallel phenomenon was taking place in the microfinance market in countries as diverse as India, Nicaragua and Morocco, with fast growth and commercialization leading to widespread over-indebtedness among customers, and a resulting backlash in public opinion. Customers suffered and providers lost the trust they had enjoyed. No greater object lesson can be imagined for prompting a focus on consumer protection.
Smart quickly became a vehicle for the growing community of financial service providers, investors, regulators and support organizations who wanted to embed consumer protections into the microfinance sector. With the Client Protection Principles, the community created a common language and, with detailed guidance, standards and tools, it improved consumer protection and built trust.
Over the past decade, Smart has expanded its reach into the broader financial inclusion sector, and now there are thousands of endorsers and networks of providers and practitioners around the world who are engaged in embedding client protection standards into their products and practices. Today, more than 115 financial service providers, serving over 45 million customers, have been awarded the Smart Certification seal, which demonstrates their commitment to treat customers with fairness and respect. Investors have adopted the standards in their due diligence and social impact assessments. Regulators in many countries rely on the principles and the Smart’s research to design policies that balance client risk with provider sustainability, taking the voices of both providers and clients into account. Smart has facilitated the collaboration needed to create a world in which clients can access financial services with confidence.
In recent years, Smart has examined the new risks emerging as financial inclusion goes digital. Digital financial services make access much more available and more convenient for many of the people who were previously excluded, but care is needed to get it right for the vulnerable. After much research and consultation, we’ve developed practical guidance and standards for digital providers.
After much research and consultation, we’ve developed practical guidance and standards for digital providers.
As we launch these new standards, we see some parallels with the situation ten years ago, though with different headline risks. In the mainstream economy, concerns over the rising power of “big tech” and the appropriate use of personal data are causing widespread anxiety and mistrust. In the financial inclusion sector, data privacy and protection are also central concerns. The Smart Campaign standards address these concerns, as well as more traditional issues like over-indebtedness and transparency, which must be handled differently when digital interfaces replace face-to-face. Smart commends digital financial services for giving more people greater access to powerful financial tools. Our goal is to ensure that the digital revolution develops in a way that is healthy for customers and providers alike.
A heartfelt thank you goes out to all who have been part of this movement. We are thrilled to continue this journey together with many partners who are old friends and many more who are new ones. As we celebrate a decade of practical action to instill good practices, we ask stakeholders across the sector to join us in ensuring that the digital revolution builds trusting relationships and mutual benefits for customers and financial service providers well into the future.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the launch of the digital standards, which will provide in-depth discussion of the new standards. For now, this post from the standards’ comment period provides more detail on what these standards are.