By T. Keyzom Ngodup, co-founder and Executive Director at Ideas sYnergy, an Iraq based private sector development consulting company.
For a long time now, the discussion continues within different circles and corridors in Iraq, on whether microfinance institutions (MFIs) can operate as NGOs and continue providing micro-loans to low-income entrepreneurs who lack access to finance for their ideas and enterprises. The NGO Directorate and the Central Bank of Iraq, both of whom recognize the importance of financial intermediation for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) applaud the work of MFIs with a few reservations on ownership of the fast growing assets of the lending NGOs, on interest rates (which is the lowest among MENA microfinance industries and globally), and on the transformation of NGO-MFIs to Non Bank Financial Institutions.
There are 12 microfinance institutions, operating as NGOs, providing access to finance for those living in poverty and those without access to banks, namely the un-banked. As of December 2010, these MFIs, operating in all 18 governorates of Iraq, boosted an outstanding loan portfolio of $106.4 million and 75,182 active clients, growing by 28.4% and 27.7% respectively since 2009. The support of USAID has been instrumental in the sustainability of these NGO-MFIs, and USAID-Tijara continues to provide technical assistance and lead the sector’s development. However, in order for NGO-MFIs to scale-up, institutional transformation to NBFIs is recognized as one of the most effective strategies for achieving a significant scale by offering a wider range of services, accessing commercial sources of capital and improving operational efficiency through enhanced systems, controls and transparency in reporting that would result from links to the Central Bank and other banking expertise.
The banking system, comprising of state, private and foreign banks, is highly liquid with total deposits amounting to $33 billion in 2009. Bank liquid reserves to bank asset ratio increased from 98% in 2004 to 156.6% in 2009, compared to 14% for Saudi Arabia and 12.32% for UAE in 2009. According to CBI, total bank loans amounted to $5.8 billion as of June 2010. This compares to around $22.4 billion for Syria and approximately $250 billion for Saudi Arabia. While there is a steady rise in credit to private sector as a percentage of GDP, at 6% in 2009, Saudi Arabia and UAE record above 50%, and even low success economies such as Libya and Syria record 16% and 21% respectively. Although the banking sector is the main component of the Iraqi financial system, the banks offers few credit facilities, and the credit culture is poor. USAID, through the recently incepted Iraq Financial Development Project (IFDP), in partnership with CBI, is working to address the infrastructure of the financial sector through targeted reforms, credit information systems such as credit bureau, and enhancement to the national payment systems to enable cost-effective financial intermediation.
Success achieved by the NGO-MFIs need to be accordingly considered within the Central Bank’s reform priorities, and clear guidelines need to be issued for NGO-MFIs that are considering transformation in order to access mainstream commercial capital for their target clients: the poor and the un-banked. NGO-MFIs CHF and Amalkom have demonstrated not just commitment, but also the capability to ‘mainstream’ towards a regulation institution and access the $90 million line of credit from OPIC, however unclear guidance from CBI and correspondence with the NGO Directorate has stalled the process, or in other words, delayed the deployment of enterprise financing that the young entrepreneurs in Iraq need.
T. Keyzom Ngodup is co-founder and Executive Director at Ideas sYnergy, an Iraq based development consulting company committed to economic and social development through market-based solutions that help build and scale innovative businesses for sustainable and inclusive private sector development.