Maximizing access to financial services in remote rural areas requires us to face a range of challenges that demand, in turn, a range of solutions. The problem is no more uniform than the regions that the services need to get to or the nature of the services required.
Access is not an end in itself but merely an important means towards progress for rural families and the communities they inhabit. That means that there are two sides to the question of access. On one hand, we must ask: what are the most effective ways to deliver financial services to especially hard-to-reach areas. Getting standard financial services to some areas presents significant challenges. On the other, there are distinct products and services that can help families living in remote rural areas in important ways. In other words, there is both a question of delivery of services and a separate question of the design of those services. In this paper, we have chosen to focus almost exclusively on the delivery of services.
Even if we limit our analysis to the question of delivery, the answers we present must vary for the various standard financial services we consider. If the issue is access to credit, we believe that one cutting edge approach to delivery continues to be a well-tried model: opening branches in underserved areas that spread their reach through traditional solidarity-group credit centers. The key to this approach remains ensuring attention to what we call the three pillars of standard solidarity-group microcredit: center attendance, 100% repayment, and proper investment of loans. We will discuss our own experience re-establishing these pillars at one rural branch as well as our new effort to shift center leadership from MFI staff to local credit center members.
We also believe, however, that increasing access to savings and remittances requires solutions other than brinks and mortar. We will say, briefly, why we believe this to be true and then point to several complementary strategies that promise to take these services farther than new branches could. We will discuss the following strategies:
adding mobility to branches,
branchless banking through agents,
developing partnerships with other agencies, and