The Difficult Crawl Towards Non-Discrimination – Financial and Otherwise

> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

The painful crawl toward full inclusion of all citizens in all realms of activity is one of the major storylines in American history. It is a key measure of the success of our democratic experiment that we, the people of the 21st century, continue to work with uneven success to perfect our society. How far we have come from the republic of our 18th century founders when only white male property owners enjoyed the privileges of full citizenship! But the advances toward equal rights and opportunities for women, African Americans, gays, persons with disabilities, and other minorities have come through the hard work over many generations of devoted citizen activists fighting for their causes and constituencies.

The point is that rights are not obtained by one Presidential decree, like the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves in Confederate territory, or one legal remedy, like the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that enshrined women’s right to vote. These were essential milestones that secured progress, but they were preceded by decades of struggle and would have proven ephemeral if the generations that followed had not persisted in that struggle. There were many setbacks and detours along the way. Nothing was automatic or achieved without extraordinary persistence and sacrifice.

In pursuing financial inclusion, the Center for Financial Inclusion works toward this ideal of non-discrimination, with a special emphasis on economic equality and opportunity for poor people around the world. Nowhere is this more pointed than in the “Responsible Treatment of Clients” principle, one of the Smart Campaign’s Client Protection Principles for customers of financial institutions.

The Responsible Treatment of Clients principle declares that financial institutions will not “discriminate.” And in the accompanying guidance document it elaborates as follows: “Client selection and treatment should not involve discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, disability, religion or orientation. Non-discriminatory treatment is important for providing access to financial services to all clients who can use them and builds their confidence in the fairness of the provider.” And the newly promulgated certification standards will require compliance to this core principle if certification is to be granted.

Here is what worries me: Requiring immediate compliance with this noble non-discrimination principle may be unrealistic. The principle is ahistorical and non-contextual. It implies a global consensus on rights and assumes a universality that does not exist. Tolerance, let alone acceptance of homosexuality, just to name one example, is not a given in most countries. Far from it – as we know perfectly well to this day in the United States.

The principle may be at odds with a particular country’s local history, time-honored mores and folkways. When I look at how long it has taken, and continues to take the United States (more than 200 years) to come into imperfect compliance with the very principles upon which it was founded, I believe we need to be patient and tactful in asking for immediate compliance from financial institutions in other nations that have different founding premises. This is both unrealistic and unfair and could have the unintended consequence of provoking a fierce reaction and setting back the cause of equality.

At the same time, gently pushing institutions towards non-discrimination and equal opportunity should continue. The ideals enshrined in the Client Protection Principles are worth fighting for. But the principles must have enough built-in flexibility to take account of local realities. The certification teams will have to find ways to strike the right balance and should be prepared for the complexity of the task. The crawl towards inclusion is not a straight line.

Great change does not happen overnight.

Image credit: Victoria Labalme / Property Manager

Have you read?

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