I have written the contents of this blog for the World Bank's Inspection Panel. They contacted me, to my surprise, in response to several of my Twitter postings where I complained about the World Bank's inaction. I am very pleased that they did. Most Tweets were in relation to the treatment of community activist Tep Vanny whose land disputes should have been resolved after an Inspection Panel's previous report. In fact she continued to be detained by authorities for maintaining her community's protest. Next to her case I criticized the way Micro-Finance Institutions were operating in Cambodia in increasing rather than alleviating poverty: “MFI's have lost their way”. By chance our journalist colleague David Hutt released an article this week making much the same points.
Discussion with World Bank on 25 September below.
Although it is quite easy to look this up this topic as it is quite well-aired in the media, a good starting point is the 2014 conference: “Microfinance’s Irresistible Story: Already mythic in scope, the next chapter’s under way as the 17th Microcredit Summit begins”. (This was attended by the World Bank.
As with so much in international “#foreignaid”, Cambodia is a a pretty good indicator or microcosm of the subject as a whole, given the extent of the international community's efforts to rehabilitate it after the Khmer Rouge and Communist-era rules.
Cambodia's MFIs grew in much the same way and time as other earlier ones, with the lead taken to found them by INGOs such as Concern and World Vision as well as donors like the European Union. Today those MFIs they started now operate commercially as AMK; VisionFund, and PRASAC. Some being bought out by mainstream banking groups (like VisionFund by Woori Bank, Korea). They have moved a long way from their origins. The market leader in this respect was Acleda Bank.
I was aware of MFIs from 1998 onwards in my capacity at a domestic human rights NGO and then working directly with or alongside them from 2003 to 2016 in both community development and human rights projects. Although my interest stemmed from the concern for poor people taking on loans they could not manage, and paying a heavy penalty for it, in 2017, a case actually cropped up in my Cambodian wife's family, with her ending up paying a lot for the folly of her brother. This was in one of Cambodia's highest profile MFIs.
This case is significant because it involves the MFI Hattha Kaksekar Limited (HKL) headed by Oknha Hout Ieng Tong who is the President of the Cambodia Microcredit Association (CMA) and well-placed to establish best practice. The fact that he and other senior MFI leaders hold “Oknha” honorific titles shows just how far the sector has moved from its origins and in to the orbit of the ruling party.
Several of my former staff have since joined MFIs with one in a leadership role in Rangoon, Myanmar where as it happens he works on best practice.
Today in Cambodia you see literally dozens of MFI organisations and offices even for example in my provincial capital town of Takhmau, Kandal. CMA membership consists of 8 major organisations; 59 institutions and 19 rural credit associations. The larger ones have new expensive offices.
It is my contention that the growth of MFIs in Cambodia, most which are transitioning to banks, has outpaced capacity to operate effectively, embedding systemic weaknesses that are bound to lead to exploitation in a largely unregulated Cambodian sector with a national problem of weak rule of law. All donors must bear some responsibility including those that first allocated funds to NGOs to establish micro-credit and revolving-fund schemes. Major donors like the World Bank's IFC must bear much responsibility as its zero or low interest loans have been a major factor in the sector expanding rapidly and profitably.
Secondly this rapid growth was based on intimate, opaque even hidden relationships with authorities, especially commune authorities, that play two major roles that should be recognized as conflicts of interests. Firstly, because of their local knowledge of and “responsibility for” their residents, they take part in applications for loans as well as due diligence checks, to give references. Secondly they also exercise their control of “soft” land titles as collateral on behalf of MFIs/Banks, still the usual way to secure loans rather than “hard” titles issued by the Ministry of Land Management. (See below for more on this.)
It is my view that as well as as a more rigorous regulatory framework for all financial institutions – from informal small ones to the new banks – there should be codes of best practice to protect poor and vulnerable people. The National Bank of Cambodia is taking a greater interest but not from that particular perspective. The ruling party and legislators have taken little interest so far.
Institutions like the World Bank should in my view be more assertive in insisting upon better practice; standards, and safeguards. Indeed given the failings of its LMAP project – discussed below - the decision in 2016 to resume normal business in Cambodia must remain highly questionable, doing so despite little or no action on its Inspection Panel's report and Board of Directors resolutions,
3 Signs of the emerging problem.
I was working in an advocacy and development project with poor disabled people and was resident in Kampong Chhnang from 2003-5. My project, multi-donor funded, did establish our own micro-credit fund based the “Grameen” concept with community self-help groups. We did give much more power to the groups, we required to be corporately-run and fully-transparent, backed up by a federated body a “Governing Council” directly-elected by their members. Their role as more experienced and better-trained members was to mentor and supervise community groups. One recurring approved use for our loans was to relieve poor beneficiaries of the burden imposed by “loan sharks” - almost every village has one or more. There is no limit on interest to how much loan sharks charge but 10% per month was quite common. Our groups charged 2% per month for short-term emergency loans, although 3% is common in rural credit schemes. Many poor families rely on such credit in the event of medical expenses after illness or accident and for funeral-costs, i.e. unanticipated expenses. Another form of prohibitive loan charges, in the form of both cash and calculating the value of agricultural inputs and outputs, still common today, is levied on poor farmers by suppliers; buyers, and middle-men. Some years, with some crops, farmers are doubly-penalized because the market price of crops falls considerably, as for example, it did with Cassava from 2008 and up to 2016 - farmers having been persuaded to change from mono-culture of rice.
|A community self-help group meeting to discuss finances.|
Photograph taken for my article on "Sustainability".
Over that three year period we encountered more applicants seeking loans to pay off MFIs and ACLEDA Bank (the only bank then in Cambodia with extensive rural outreach) as well as suppliers; buyers and middle-men. A familiar pattern emerged in many cases. Many loans had been arranged by agents, either direct sales people employed for that purpose, or similar-looking smart “professional” people acting as intermediaries. Due diligence was conducted with commune or village officials not by neighbours in the way it operated in self-help community groups. Basically the process of obtaining loans evolved to be done increasingly by people from outside the community. Most had some kind of formal arrangement with local authorities – the commune chief and village chiefs. Literacy and numeracy skills were lacking in many families, so – as stated above – these people often played conflicting roles in both “endorsing” applicants as well as the acting “on their behalf” in explaining formal documents and obtaining/witnessing their approval through the use of thumb-prints. We often saw the same officials acting in concert with the agents to enforce contracts after defaults. Most worrying was to see people resorting back to loan sharks to pay off MFI loans.
In this sense, evidence was building up that MFIs were actually increasing poverty rather than helping families to emerge from it.
Cambodia's National Bank did in fact order a cap on interest charges to alleviate the problem, although MFIs and others insisted that this was no long-term solution and would even lead to reduced availability of credit.
Prime Minister Hun Sen before Cambodia's 2017 Commune Elections issued orders to try clear up what he felt was a misconception that MFIs were integrated with government. However, although banners were posted outside commune halls to announce this (pictured above), no formal changes were made to operating arrangements. The fact is this remains an important form of supplementary income for low-level officials on very small salaries. (US$222 per month for commune chief, $40 for village chief.)
The banner showing MFIs posted outside all Commune Offices
4 Witnessing at close-hand how MFIs operate.
4.1 We observed our neighbour in Takhmau over the years take out MFI loans, sometimes more than one at a time, and unable to meet repayments. Eventually she borrowed from a “loan shark” to pay off the MFI. She was also unable to pay her off and as a result two large parcels of land were taken from her. The story is narrated in my blog scroll down to “Mrs Luck Un”.
4.2 My most insightful observation of MFIs in Cambodia occurred after my Cambodian wife received a visit from her Father to tell her that he was being chased for non-payment of a loan taken out by her youngest brother and his wife. He was pressing her (and me) to make the payments, fearing that he would lose his own property – as a pensioner and former state employee his income was much too low.
|HKL Branch Takhmau|
I therefore wrote to HKL and after prompting CMA to ask them for a reply, we were invited to HKL HQ. The story was slightly more complicated with another brother having already agreed to take over the payments with documents issued and signed – not my wife, although she and he somehow believed that he could do this on her behalf, from her one fifth share of the inheritance that he held. HKL explained that this was a better solution for them than fore-closing or pursuing the brother and his wife. She was estranged living in Kampong Cham. It seems the money was used to help her start a karaoke business and he used it for a motor-cycle and other personal purchases. HKL also claimed that they had carried out “thorough checks” of their character and ability to repay the loan. They claim that the brother was “an electrician” in regular work and the wife had a “steady job” in the garment factory. They were not aware that the brother had failed to attend school; was illiterate, not a qualified electrician and had been in trouble with the Police. They appeared not to check that the factory employment could also have been very recent as the wife too had never held regular employment.
It was and remains my opinion that the HKI coerced the wider family in to assuming responsibility for the loan instead of accepting that it had been negligent. Furthermore in my view it compounded this folly at the end of the loan when all repayments had been made. I asked them to give a final statement to be used to protect my wife's interest in the property – the loan repayments made on her behalf including capital and interest. They refused as “we can not provide loan information of any client to third party as it is protected by the law”. (They insist that the borrower must give permission.)2
|An HKL branch with Acleda Bank next door|
The question is how were references obtained to satisfy HKL's loan approval procedures? Were informal payments (bribes) paid? How could the local Commune Chief validate credentials given that both borrowers, husband and wife, had not lived in Prey Hor for very long? Or is the truth simply that as the loan was secured on the strength of the “soft [land] title” that they knew they held the upper hand so no need to worry about the risk of defaulting? The soft title refers to the record of land ownership and transfers kept and processed by Commune Councils (in contrast to the hard-title issued by Cadastral Commissions/Land Ministry). In effect it meant that the landowner cannot sell the land and property without the Commune Chief's approval. His office's record would have a record of the MFI's interest or stake in it, to be observed until the loan had been paid off and they had certified it accordingly.
One more factor emerged. HKL was charging a rate of interest working out at 19. 4% per year. It explained that this high rate was “essential” due to the extra risk involved in relying on the soft title as collateral.3
5 Relevance to World Bank's remit and portfolio in Cambodia and ill-fated “LMAP” project
The World Bank suspended official bilateral assistance to Cambodia in 2011 after serious problems with its major land reform project with the Cambodian government. In 2016 it resumed assistance with grants of US$130, despite the issues causing the suspension not to have been fully addressed and resolved. They have not been resolved to this day in 2018.
During that suspension, as the links to IFC/AIDA advances to MFIs show this instrument of funding continued throughout the period presumably as it was not direct assistance to the government.
The project in question was the “Land Management and Administration Project” (LMAP) intended to modernize and establish how land and property changed hands and was documented in Cambodia. The project was the subject of an internal evaluation by the World Bank as well as by its Inspection Panel whose findings were then endorsed by the World Bank's Board of Directors.
To most people in Cambodia the LMAP project, what it set out to do, and any work with MFIs are intricately-linked. For the purpose of this paper, I wish to concentrate on the most relevant one.
Tep Vanny has been incarcerated for leading community protests against loss of land around Boueng Kak Lake, a case that festered on since 2010 when it was decided arbitrarily to fill it in and displace long-time residents, As stated above the World Bank's Inspection Panel found government and its officials had been at fault.
The flaw remains intact today. Whether it is involuntary or agreed land transactions, expert help is not forthcoming for most people. Legal aid has actually declined since 2011 as international donors have reduced funding. It is only wealthy people like developers who can afford private legal fees. This means that the only assistance to the poor comes from local authority officials who are, as stated above, beholden to the ruling party and its interests, and for whom such formal and informal duties are essential supplementary income.
It all means that there is a grossly unequal relationship between the “ haves” and “have nots” in Cambodia6
It manifests itself in the processes practised by MFIs. It is inherently unfair to ordinary people who have little recourse to independent expert help. It means that they are easily exploited.
Donors like the World Bank cannot claim to have “pro-poor” development policies while this imbalance persists.
My Cambodian wife and I have been subjected personally to the same unfair processes, of developers associated with local officials, as one has had designs on our land in Takhmau. They wanted to confiscate a large share of it without compensation, and almost certainly if it was not for me, they would have succeeded. Even today they are pressuring us to leave or to sell very cheaply. This saga is fully documented in another of my blogs.
Over the years I have made representations to donors as well as working with my human rights and development NGO partners in their advocacy campaigns on related issues. I have been heavily involved in land issues affecting poor rural people – loss of lands and forestries – especially indigenous peoples.
A cursory examination of my twitter account, search “lowriejohn MFIs” will show the issues I have pursued. My main recommendation has been for MFIs in Cambodia to adopt an ethical code of conduct, that should be self-regularity. However where it does not work MFI customers should have recourse to external advice such as an “Ombudsman” as well as the National Bank invoking its regulatory powers.
25 September 2018 - Discussion with World Bank Inspection Panel.
Robert Patrick Doherty<firstname.lastname@example.org> and : Dilek Barlas <email@example.com>
Basically they maintain interest in cases like Boueng Kak Lake that they have inspected but say their brief means that once they have handed their report to Management (Board of Directors + Country Director), it's for them to decide policy and what to do. As we know they decided to re-engage with the Cambodian Government despite it refusing to address the original key land issue failures of no proper consultation; legal representation, or compensation for poor people affected. At some point a new complaint would need to be made for them to re-inspect.
I explained why I linked land and MFI issues due to the way land titles are used for collateral.
2 October 2018 Update
Good article here by Philip Heijmans "in Cambodia where everyone has a loan."
Alex Wilemyns and Mech Dara in the Phnom Penh Post in June 2017 also picked up the same story "Kandal drowning in debt". Takhmau is the provincial capital of Kandal and is located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It is the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his garrison bodyguard.
1 Anecdotally, I have heard that this is common. Cambodians refer to “keeping things in the family” hence they feel under a sense of obligation towards family-members in trouble that would not pertain in other societies, one that officials are keen (and find worthwhile) to enforce.
2 I am happy to provide the World Bank with all correspondence in confidence.
3 HKL's Chen Boranchanborath 17 Jann2017: “In terms of currently pricing of the loan, you may know well the development of micro-finance in Cambodia as you are one of the advisors dealing with micro-finance almost from its inception. Annual 19.2% interest charge is a market rate now to cover the high cost of fund from overseas lenders and preserve for higher risk of loan due to accepting soft property title to safeguard loan, decreasing from MONTHLY 5% interest charge with flat rate when its start”.
6 Cambodians in Khmer may refer to the Rich as “mean” literally to have, and poor as “min mean” to have not.