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Middle East and North Africa

Islamic Finance and Financial Inclusion: A Case for Poverty Reduction in the Middle East and North Africa?

Amin Mohseni-Cheraghlou's picture

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is home to about 70 million of the world’s poor (living on less than two dollars per day) and 20 million of the world’s extremely poor (living on less than US$1.25 per day). According to a recent Gallup survey, 95 percent of the adults residing in MENA define themselves as religiously observant. The combination of these two facts has produced a growing interest in Islamic finance as a possible tool for reducing poverty through financial inclusion among the region’s religiously conscious Muslim population (see Mohieldin et al. 2011).

Uneven access to financial services and instruments that are compliant with Shari’ah, or Islamic law, could be one of the contributing reasons for the low number of bank accounts in the MENA region. A mere 18 percent of adults (above the age of 15) have accounts in formal financial institutions, the lowest in the world (Figure 1). There is ample evidence that, if done correctly, increasing access to and the use of various financial services can help both reduce poverty and its severity (for example see Burgess and Pande 2005 and Beck, Demirgüç-Kunt and Levine 2007 among many). With no access to financial services, many of the poor in MENA will continue to be trapped in poverty with little to no chance of escaping it in the foreseeable future.

Should State Banks Continue to Play a Role in the Middle East and North Africa?

Roberto Rocha's picture

In the past three decades the role of state-owned banks has been sharply reduced in most emerging economies. This reflects a general disappointment with their financial performance and contribution to financial and economic development, especially in countries where they dominated the banking system. But despite their loss of market share, state banks still play a substantial role in many regions, especially in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia (figure 1).

Figure 1 Share of state banks in total assets by region, various years, 1970–2005


The arguments put forward to justify the continuing presence of state banks have included market failures (resulting from asymmetric information and poor enforcement of contracts) that restrict access to credit; the provision of essential financial services in remote areas (where supply may be restricted by large fixed costs); and the provision of countercyclical finance to prevent an excessive contraction of credit during a financial crisis. These arguments may well justify policy interventions in many countries, although it does not necessarily follow that state banks are the optimal intervention. Moreover, even where the presence of state banks may be justified, policy makers still face the challenge of ensuring clear mandates and sound governance structures in order to minimize political interference and avoid large financial losses.

Measuring Bank Competition: How Should We Do It?

Maria Soledad Martinez Peria's picture

Lack of competition in the banking sector has detrimental effects. Studies have found that it can result in higher prices for financial products and less access to finance, especially for smaller firms. Others have shown that it can lead to the entry of fewer new firms, less growth for younger firms, and delayed exit for older firms. Moreover, while a debate is still under way, new evidence suggests that lack of competition can undermine the stability of the banking sector, especially if some banks become too big to fail.

How to measure bank competition? In a recent paper Asli Demirgüç-Kunt and I propose a multipronged approach. While we apply this framework to Jordan, it can be used to analyze bank competition in any country. In fact, the approach developed in this paper has been used to analyze competition in China, the Middle East and North Africa, and Russia.

Islamic Banking: Can it Save Us from Crises?

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt's picture

Pundits in the financial press have been asking an intriguing question: if too much debt and insufficient equity was partly responsible for the financial crisis, might Islamic banking be part of the solution? After all, Islamic principles require that financial transactions cannot include interest rate payments on debt, but rather have to rely on profit-loss risk-sharing arrangements (as in equity). For example, demand deposits that do not pay interest are fine, but savings deposits generally participate in the profits of the bank since these cannot accrue interest. Lending also generally follows a partnership model where the bank provides the resources and the client provides effort and expertise, and profits are shared at some agreed ratio. So can the heightened risk-sharing required by Sharia curb excess risk-taking by banks?

In practice Islamic scholars have also developed products that resemble those offered by conventional banks, replacing interest rate payments and discounting with fees and contingent payment structures. Nevertheless, Islamic banking still retains a strong element of equity participation. How does this affect bank risk-taking? Conceptually, the answer is not immediately clear. On the one hand, the equity-like nature of savings instruments may increase depositors’ incentives to monitor and discipline banks. On the other hand, if deposit instruments are equity-like, banks’ incentives to monitor and discipline borrowers may also be reduced since banks no longer face the threat of immediate withdrawal. Similarly, the equity-like nature of partnership loans can reduce the important discipline imposed on entrepreneurs by debt contracts.

Credit Where Credit is Due: Partial Credit Guarantee Schemes in the Middle East and North Africa

Roberto Rocha's picture

Editor's Note: The following post was submitted jointly by Youssef Hassani, Economist, MENA, Zsofia Arvai, Senior Financial Economist, MENA, and Roberto Rocha, Senior Adviser, MENA.

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have established partial credit guarantee schemes (PCGs) to facilitate SME access to finance. These guarantee schemes can potentially play an important role, especially in a period where MENA governments are still making efforts to reduce risks for lenders by improving the effectiveness of credit registries and bureaus and strengthening creditor rights. However, the contribution of credit guarantee schemes to SME finance depends largely on their design. 

Well designed schemes may be able to achieve significant outreach and additionality, i.e. benefit a significant number of SMEs that have substantial growth potential but are effectively credit constrained due to lack of credit information and collateral. In some countries PCGs have also played an important capacity-building role. By contrast, poorly designed guarantees schemes may have a limited development impact by providing guarantees to firms that are not credit constrained. PCGs may also accumulate losses by providing overly generous and underpriced guarantees, and ultimately become a burden to public finances.

The Status of Bank Lending to SMEs in the Middle East and North Africa Region

Roberto Rocha's picture

Editor's Note: The following post was submitted jointly by Roberto Rocha, Senior Adviser, MENA, Rania Khouri, Director, Union of Arab Banks, Subika Farazi, Consultant, MENA, and Douglas Pearce, Senior Private Sector Development Specialist, MENA.

Small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly a priority for policymakers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, who see SMEs as key to solving the challenge of improving competitiveness, raising incomes, and generating employment. Data from the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys suggest that access to finance for SMEs is more constrained in MENA than in other emerging regions, with only one in 5 SMEs having a loan or line of credit. Yet until recently there has been no comprehensive survey of the supply of SME finance in MENA. SME policymakers may therefore lack comprehensive information to design reforms, while SME finance providers may not have access to valuable market information to inform design of SME financial services and delivery channels.

To fill this knowledge gap, the Bank recently carried out a survey in cooperation with the Union of Arab Banks of SME lending in the region. We were fortunate to receive a very high response rate – we have data from 139 banks, which account for about half of MENA banks and almost two thirds of the banking system loans in 16 countries. The survey covered the following themes: i) strategic approach to SME lending, ii) main products offered to SMEs, iii) risk management techniques employed, and iv) SME lending data. This is the first dataset of its kind for this region, and builds on similar efforts in the Latin America and Caribbean region.