By Sulita Levaux, CEMC Policy Specialist, AFI and Eliki Boletawa, CEMCWG Policy Manager, AFI
Consumer empowerment embodies efforts that re-balance the focus of financial services regulation towards demand-side factors, such as consumer needs, behaviors and outcomes. This is a core principle of AFI’s Consumer Empowerment and Market Conduct Working Group (CEMCWG), which is marking 10 years of achievements this year.
In celebration of this milestone, let’s look back at the CEMCWG’s work over the past decade and how financial inclusion has evolved as AFI members have developed and implemented consumer protection and market conduct policies and practices.
Sowing the seeds (2007-2011)
The 2007 global financial crisis laid bare the potential of financial services firms to use innovation to disregard legitimate consumer needs and expectations of fair and responsible treatment. Three years later, a microfinance crisis unfolded in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh that raised fresh questions about client indebtedness, a lack of control in the microfinance institutions’ lending process and the protectionist nature of the financial sector.
Harmful practices persist today with some consumers still being excluded from the financial market altogether while others only have access to poor quality financial products and services. Customers can also be purposefully left in the dark by holding less information about their own transactions than the institutions providing those services, resulting in excessively high interest rates, a lack of understanding about financial options and insufficient avenues for redress. Although many financial institutions have adopted practices to ensure that customers are well served, some have used their information advantage to boost profits at the expense of consumers.
The regulatory implications that arose from past financial crises led to AFI issuing a policy note on levelling the playing field in financial inclusion in 2010. The document, the organization’s first major milestone in consumer protection, examined the role of consumer protection, critical issues, policy solutions and practical examples.
Growing recognition that the empowerment and protection of financial consumers can secure access to and improve the quality of financial services was formalized with the network’s launch of its Consumer Empowerment and Market Conduct Working Group (CEMCWG) in April 2011. The event, which took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, saw members acknowledge that the expansion and innovation of products, services and technology had delivered significant economic benefits at the national and international levels. Additionally, by expanding the reach of financial services, consumers – including those who have historically struggled to access these market benefits – are more encouraged to use them.
Taking shape (2012–2016)
Consumer empowerment and market conduct (CEMC) policies are viewed not only as a means to enhance protection for consumers but also promote healthy competition and contribute to financial and economic stability.
The implementation of a CEMC policy requires an institutional framework able to deliver two key outcomes: enhanced market conduct through responsible behavior and sound business practices among financial services providers; and empowered consumers through broad access to affordable, high quality financial services for all segments of society.
Reflecting ever-changing consumer needs and risks, regulators must continually assess the effectiveness of supervision tools. With the aim of making Malaysia’s financial system more resilient and competitive following the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, Bank Negara Malaysia developed a Financial Sector Masterplan. Described as ‘the cornerstone’ of Malaysia’s CEMC framework, the masterplan laid the foundations of a 2011 case study on the central bank’s consumer and market conduct framework.
Five years later, CEMCWG published its flagship knowledge product, a guideline note that offers guidance to policymakers on the development and implementation of sound market conduct supervision of financial services providers. It also ensures strong consumer protection for consumers and vigilance in preserving financial system stability against new risks arising from the digitization of financial services.
Key AFI pillar (2017-2021)
Consumer empowerment, financial education and financial inclusion
A central tenet of the CEMC approach to regulation is that consumers should be able – and willing – to make informed choices about financial products and services. As such, building financial resilience and self-efficacy across different age groups, gender, income and education levels – particularly during a crisis or emergency – through financial education and capability has always been in a focus of AFI and essential pillar for financial inclusion.
The following year, a special session at the 2018 AFI Global Policy Forum in Sochi, Russia, was dedicated to financial education. During the event, Dr. Seeku Jaabi, deputy governor at the Central Bank of The Gambia stated that “financial literacy should be approached in a holistic manner. It is about empowering the customer and instilling the right mindset and discipline around finance.”
Dr. Jaabi’s sentiment was crystallized in the AFI’s 2019 Kigali Statement. The four-page document highlights the need to promote and implement financial education and consumer protection policies, regulations and programs through cross-agency collaboration for effective financial capability and redress mechanisms suitable for disadvantaged groups such as women, youth, older persons, forcibly displaced persons, and persons with disabilities.
Market conduct and consumer protection for digital financial services
Another important component covered by CEMCWG is a central bank’s role in complaint handling, supervision and management processes. In line with this, in 2020, two pivotal knowledge products were published by CEMCWG: a framework on complaint handling in central banks and a policy model on consumer protection for digital financial services.
Fast-paced growth of digital financial services over the last decade has greatly expanded financial inclusion. Such progress has not, however, come without its drawbacks, specifically consumer protection-related risks.
Helping members avoid such pitfalls, CEMCWG and AFI’s Digital Financial Services Working Group created the 2020 Policy Model on Consumer Protection for Digital Financial Services. The knowledge product codified key policy guidance from relevant AFI knowledge products developed over the previous 10 years and collated best practices within the AFI network.
The digitalization of the financial landscape and the need to strengthen digital financial literacy (DFL) are at the heart of regulators’ agenda. DFL appeals to different segments of the population, and a main question would be to know how to achieve an inclusive use of digital tools.
Some key examples of innovations and DFL happening in countries presented in CEMCWG and DFSWG’s DFL publications include Mexico’s enabling policy environment for digital financial literacy, El Salvador and Uganda directly implementing digital financial literacy in their national strategies, guidelines for private sector in Nigeria and Philippines’ digital literacy and cybersecurity awareness program.
The way forward
The importance of financial education, complementing financial inclusion and consumer protection policies, and its contribution to financial stability has led many AFI members to develop national financial education strategies (NFES). CEMCWG published several key publications on the topic, including a newly-released NFES toolkit. It also led to growing demand for capacity building events that address the development of national financial education strategies, stakeholder engagement, monitoring and evaluating financial education initiatives, and digital financial literacy.
Amid more recent economic turbulence triggered by COVID-19, which is threatening financial inclusion gains, AFI members are actively sharing financial consumer protection measures implemented specifically to mitigate the negative impacts for the pandemic. These range from amending and implementing policies and regulations to supporting the financial industry and providing assistance to consumers. Here, the role of monitoring and supervising market conduct within the financial ecosystem becomes more important than ever.
Once again, CEMCWG members are up to the task and will soon publish its 23rd publication – a guideline note on consumer protection during a crisis. AFI’s CEMCWG has many proud years ahead and we, at AFI, are excited to continue our work with members to advance financial inclusion globally through combined efforts in consumer empowerment and market conduct!
“Much has been accomplished to elevate consumer empowerment and market conduct practices around the globe. At the core of CEMCWG’s success, then and now, is the unwavering support of its members who willingly shared and tirelessly built on one another’s diverse yet rich ideas and experiences to push for policies that matter to the lives of ordinary consumers.”
Ma Belinda Caraan
“In CEMCWG, you witness countries uniting to create a better world. You are part of how the new policy architecture for consumer protection and financial education is being created. Over 100 policy changes empowered the excluded to advance financial opportunities. It is an astounding experience.”
“The CEMCWG is a hotbed of regulatory expertise and experiences, which effectively harnessed producing knowledge products that highlights the importance of empowering consumers through synergistic implementation of financial inclusion policies with market conduct regulations and financial education programs.”
“In the last decade, CEMCWG’s membership has grown and scored considerable successes in areas of knowledge products development, peer learning and capacity building programmes which have resulted in numerous CEMC related policy changes in many member countries. I wish to thank members for their unwavering commitment and look forward to even more achievements in the next decade.”