The global economic crisis presented additional challenges to microfinance institutions around the world. Yet, Kiva partner, Ameen s.a.l. in Lebanon managed to keep its place in the MIX Global 100 Ranking * and impressively, moved up the rankings from #87 in 2008 to #17 in 2009. I was fortunate to spend a few minutes with the young and charismatic General Manager of Ameen, Mr. Ziad Halaby, to learn more about Ameen’s organizational strategy and to hear his thoughts on why Ameen has remained a top performer in Lebanon and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The MIX report notes that many microfinance institutions (MFIs) became more cautious in their lending in 2009 and the decrease in the number of borrowers was the major reason for slowed growth for the majority of surveyed institutions. In 2009 Ameen managed to increase its market penetration from 0.8% in 2008 to 1.57% in 2009 and experienced a sizeable positive growth in borrowers from 7.1% in 2008 to 33.4% in 2009. Mr. Halaby, believes that Ameen’s strong relationships with four major banks in Lebanon, greater emphasis on direct lending programs such as Kiva, targeted efforts to build Ameen’s internal capacity in 2007 and 2008, and commitment of the entire staff were key reasons for the organization’s continued growth last year.
The MIX report also comments that increased transparency efforts resulted in a move up the ranks or first-time entrance to the MIX 100 for a significant number of institutions; 23 of the 34 organizations to make the list for the first time had “improved their position significantly because of better transparency”. This emphasis on greater transparency through public information sharing and third party audits is integral to the industry’s success and certainly a key priority of Kiva. Mr. Halaby notes Ameen’s voluntary reporting to the Mix Market since 2002 as a prime example of Ameen’s commitment to financial transparency. He further notes that Ameen’s position as a non-bank financial institution (registered with Lebanon’s Central Bank) holds the organization to higher standards of financial reporting and transparency.
In addition, Ameen is participating in the pilot stage of Kiva’s social performance management initiative using the Cerise tool. Mr. Halaby is keen to include Ameen in opportunities that focus on transparency and social performance. Mr. Halaby strongly emphasized that Ameen’s work has been and will always be focused on achieving its mission to provide financial services to Lebanon’s low-income and working poor population. He noted the difficulty that arises at times when working with bank partners who do not always share Ameen’s same commitment to social objectives. However, he did cite the example of one of Ameen’s bank partners offering lower interest rates to 100 of Ameen’s borrowers as proof that Ameen’s dedication to social goals can positively impact its bank partners.
Efficiency is the third criteria that the MIX report evaluates. Despite the crisis, Ameen was able to achieve operational self sustainability at 107%. Ameen has been able to achieve 100% operational self sustainability or higher for the past several years. Mr. Halaby believes that the excellent quality of Ameen’s staff and their continued efforts to keep output levels high and effectively manage Ameen’s large case load are significant contributors to Ameen’s continued success in achieving operational efficiency.
Although Ameen experienced continued growth and success in 2009, Mr. Halaby articulated the challenges that Ameen has faced in recent years. In 2006, Ameen had to stop lending activities due to the War on Lebanon, also called the “July War”. Political insecurity also plagued Ameen in 2008 and 2009. Finally, market distortions in 2009 added further complications to Ameen’s work. Nevertheless, the MIX Rankings suggest that Ameen is a global microfinance leader and it is clear that Ameen’s senior leadership can create a culture of stability even in times of uncertainty.
*The Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX) Market is one of the largest resources for the global microfinance industry. For the past few years, the MIX has published the MIX Global 100 Ranking to give “a composite picture of MFI performance using a series of attributes: outreach, efficiency, and transparency” (www.themix.org). In 2009, the MIX ranked the 100 top profitable institutions that achieved the highest results in the three abovementioned areas. The entire surveyed group, which consists of over 955 institutions (712 that are profitable) from almost 100 countries, represents “nearly 85 percent of the known pool of microfinance borrowers, serving 72 million borrowers” (www.themix.org).
Nishita Roy is a Kiva Fellow (Class 10) serving in Lebanon. Get involved with Kiva’s Lebanon partners, Ameen s.a.l. and Al Majmoua, today! Make an impact by lending to a Middle East entrepreneur today!