The World Bank’s previously public data on microfinance and financial inclusion has recently been locked away behind a paywall. It’s hard to figure out why. However, it raises larger questions about the Bank’s strategies for microfinance and knowledge more broadly.
(This is a background piece to an article published on the IDS blog.)
Since the 1990s, the World Bank has sought to present itself as not only as a lender, but also a global “Knowledge Bank” that collects and provides knowledge as a global public good. It has garnered some praise, and perhaps more criticism, for ostensibly seeking to monopolise knowledge about development. In 2012, the Independent Evaluation Group concluded the objective of creating a global Knowledge Bank had not been achieved, criticising a lack of uptake of knowledge within the Bank and “intellectual silos”.
So how about intellectual vaults, with knowledge securely locked away? Turning public monopolies into private (or pseudo-private) monopolies; now that doesn’t sound like something the World Bank would be in favour of, does it? It’s precisely what happened with the World Bank’s microfinance data platform earlier this month.
The MIX (also known as “Microfinance Information Exchange”, or “Mixmarket.org”) was created by the World Bank’s in-house-but-arms-length microfinance governing body, CGAP, to improve the transparency of the microfinance industry. Since 2002, the MIX (whose connections to the World Bank are not made very clear, but its headquarters are across the street) has collected data about the global microfinance sector, packaged primarily to cater to investment decision-makers.
The MIX’s “.org” suffix denotes its claim to serve the greater good. The data were made available on-line. Anyone with an interest in microfinance could access it: “a big win for open data in international development”.
Get the “public” data – for upwards of $486
Those days, it seems, are over. All the data which were previously available for downloading and (usually after some cleaning) analysing in a spreadsheet are now behind a paywall. What used to be a “global public good” is now priced at at least $486 a year – clearly too much for most students or researchers, let alone those from developing countries.
(Image: screenshot from themix.org)
For any given country, anything beyond the names of financial service providers and their loan portfolio size, borrower numbers, savings deposits and savers, is now “premium” information. This is what you still get (see screenshot):
For example, India – and yet much of the information is out of date, or missing (Image: screenshot from themix.org)
I come at this as a researcher. Researchers are dependent on data. Over the years, I’ve used MIX data for a fair number of things, from systematic calculations (the conclusions of which CGAP and MIX may not always agree with, but that’s the nature of free debate) to, very often, quick fact-checking. I imagine many others do the same, and feel the same frustration of late at being excluded.
The lip-service which the MIX now pays to research (see “Students and Researchers“) is particularly infurating: “Research is a key driver of progress in the financial inclusion industry. MIX is committed to supporting researchers working across the development landscape.” The adjacent link “learn about our solutions” leads to the generic page which explains the different purchasable packages and their costs (there is no special access or reduced price for non-commercial users). What’s on offer now is:
- practically nothing (as shown above): “for Public, Media and FSPs” (free);
- what used to be free, now called “Essentials”: “for Networks, Consultants and Researchers” (from $486 per year);
- more data and tools, “Intelligence”: “for FSPs, Investors, and Networks” ($5,000-24,000 per year);
- and a (very nebulous) “Gold” package: “for Funders, Investors, and Networks” (price undisclosed; I requested a demo, was told I was not the intended user category.)
What’s on offer (Image: themix.org)
From global public good to private data vault
The MIX’s founding purpose was to catalyse the World Bank’s efforts at bringing commercial investors into microfinance. In particular, it aimed to make data related to the financial performance of microfinance institutions (which they give voluntarily, for free, to MIX) accessible and comparable. Also, in recent years, some semblance of social performance data has been added, albeit in a less systematic and comparable way than financial metrics.
In spite of persistent data quality issues, opaque definitions, and an overall clunky functionality, the site was rather useful. The large basic dataset was pretty much the best thing most researchers or investors could get their hands on, at least without shilling out major money. It offered a freely accessible overview of various metrics for around 2,000 microfinance institutions worldwide, alongside premium (“silver”, “gold”) packages which allowed users to get deeper firm-level data, and get more analyses. In short: despite weaknesses, it was a handy and above all necessary resource for anyone seeking disaggregated data on the microfinance sector.
What amounts to recent the privatisation of the (I repeat: freely and voluntarily given) data mirrors one of the darker trends in microfinance as a whole, where institutions are first set up with public or charitable money and supported for years (MIX was funded with millions of dollars in charitable, tax-deductible donations), but then are turned onto a revenue-maximising, commercial course, confronting their users with a hard-nosed commercial lender. Even though in practice this restructuring often fails to yield truly commercial returns (and behind the scenes the institution continues to be supported with soft money) the beneficiaries still must deal with what poses as a for-profit business, stripped of the more “social” promises that lured them in. Take it or leave it.
The “new” MIX clearly contradicts the World Bank’s claim that “development knowledge is a global public good that belongs to everyone”. Development knowledge, as defined by MIX, is now investor knowledge, which is for sale as proprietary packages.
“We redesigned our website to make it easier to access financial inclusion insights”;
at the same time as saying:
“You will notice that some content which used to be free to the public now requires either registration (free) or a subscription to one of our solutions.”
Almost all data which used to be freely accessible are now for paying subscribers only – how is that “easier to access”?
What I really can’t comprehend is the rationale. Why would the new MIX website privatise and paywall its (publicly-funded, freely-provided) data collection? Explaining their new strategy, MIX now says
“We transform the relationship between data providers and data consumers”
(not users, consumers). They add:
“our efforts have increased the transparency of financial inclusion by providing views into the industry for investors, regulators, and policymakers”
(note the past tense). One wonders, how is that compatible with:
“MIX Market is a public data hub where financial service providers (FSPs) and supporting organizations share institutional data to create transparency and market insight. This exchange enables users to establish reporting standards, reduce reporting burden, and promote responsible investment.”? (emphasis added)
The rationale which the MIX puts forward is that user registration and payments (ostensibly) allow them to better understand user behaviour and needs, helping them figure out “what content you find most valuable” – only what is paid for has value.
While that sort of logic certainly isn’t without precedent at the World Bank, in this case it doesn’t make any sense. Cookies or user surveys could easily do the job. Or if need be, just registration of all users, without payment.
Trying to cash in; restrict access; or close off investments?
Only three logical explanations come to mind:
- The aim could be to cash in on their microfinance/financial inclusion sectoral knowledge.
Firstly, that appears ethically questionable as it makes the microfinance sector even less transparent, and it is at odds with the World Bank’s (proclaimed) broader strategies. This frustrates many legitimate users. If the idea is to cash in, MIX must strike the “.org” suffix. And questions about whether the organisation still qualifies for 501(c) tax exemption status as a public charity would also be due, as would be questions about what justifies the $4.7m in grants (PDF) per year from its “partners“.
But secondly, the monetisation gambit won’t work. As with the privatisation and commercialisation of microfinance institutions, the changes at MIX don’t suggest things necessarily will improve as they get more expensive. MIX has always been clunky, and successive iterations of the site have rearranged much while improving little. For instance, users were once (around 2010) greeted with global aggregate data on the microfinance sector (very handy); then suddenly there were no global figures anywhere on the site (one had to manually add up “regions” from different pages – why?); now global data are again foregrounded on the home page (presumably in a gambit to showcase what riches of data may lie behind the paywall).
Judging from a trial run with an MIX client relationship manager (24 June 2016), the recent changes haven’t made the site any better, and I suspect few will pay the price they are being asked to pay. Behind the paywall actually lurks the same data collection and interface as before. The only discernibly new product category are semi-automatically produced reports on selected countries, which are supposed to save users the work of doing their own data crunching.
There are, however, new odd glitches and quirks; for instance, when searching for microfinance institutions via the site’s primary gateway, a drop-down list leads to numerous countries and territories with “No organizations found. No publications found.” (Such as the famously microfinance-relevant Finnish Åland Islands.) The MIX (friendly and competent-seeming) representative ran into numerous “that shouldn’t be there/funny, that should work/I’ll ask about that” issues, which may or may not be due to the new site being in beta mode.
All publications were still locked in my trial “Intelligence” account – an error, apparently.
In sum, trying to cash in on the MIX’s microfinance sectoral knowledge this way looks destined to fail. (Perhaps even almost comically so. One industry insider has previously described it as “the world’s s***iest website”. So either there must now be a highly efficient machine behind the paywall – or it’s just the world’s most expensive “s****y website”. The upper end of MIX’s “Intelligence” package places it in the same price league as a Bloomberg terminal. They can’t be serious.)
- The aim could be to actively restrict access to information about microfinance and financial inclusion.
It’s hard to know, but MIX and its sponsors might be concerned about information getting into the “wrong hands”. Do they perhaps fear it may be used against them, or against specific microfinance institutions? Did some institutions perhaps request the information to be locked away?
For instance, regarding interest rates, no other public resource exists, since last year MicrofinanceTransparency was declared “dead”. According to its founder, Chuck Waterfield, this was because of persistent difficulties in getting the information they needed to do their job from microfinance institutions.
For years, MFIs have been reporting voluntarily to the MIX, and much more than just interest rate data. If the MIX and its funders intend to restrict access to that data, they must explain why. If not, they should explain why they consider the loss of transparency to be an acceptable outcome (in light of what greater good?).
- The aim could be to cordon off microfinance investment by making data more expensive.
This may also be part of a new, as-yet uncommunicated strategy at the World Bank for the microfinance/financial inclusion sector. Are they trying to cordon off the microfinance investment market by making relevant information accessible only to larger institutional investors? Are new entrants no longer wanted? Given MIX’s new pricing policy, “small-fry” and general public investors face a high barrier to entry, which will either dissuade them or drive them into the hands of larger institutional investment managers.
There could be various reasons for the World Bank and its arm’s-length body CGAP to want to contain and condense the pool of capital-providers and actors in financial inclusion, for instance making the investor scene easier to manage and govern. Certainly, looking at the parent companies of the foundation “partners” funding the MIX, making data on microfinance accessible only to larger investors could also be in their interest. These funders may not have much of an interest in creating a global public good.
Whither the “Knowledge Bank”?
These possibilities raise questions about what this means for the World Bank’s strategy for financial inclusion – how “inclusive” is it supposed to be? – and for knowledge for development: is the “Knowledge Bank” dead? Explanations from MIX, its funders, and the organisation that initiated MIX, the World Bank, are urgently needed.
To conclude, I should admit I started drafting this blog just as a (short) angry tirade after being denied access to an information resource I was accustomed to using (and I still just don’t feel nearly $500/year is fair). I wanted to say: come on – are we not living in an age of open access (just one recent example)? Isn’t the MIX getting its data for free from microfinance institutions?
But this post got longer as I came to realise that, while these changes might appear trivial at first sight, they actually raise far broader questions, including those above, and more:
- Who controls MIX, and for what or whose purposes is it being run? What justifies the $17 million in grants (PDF) given to MIX from 2009 to 2013?
- Why must freely-received, publicly-funded data be moved from the public sphere to behind a paywall, after for years it was possible to make the data publicly available? What changed to suddenly make that impossible?
- How can an “essential” dataset cost upwards of $39/month, and how are any non-commercial users, especially from developing countries, expected to afford this?
- How “inclusive” does the global financial inclusion industry really aim to be, if even basic data about it are treated as exclusive private goods?
- If transparency and free information aren’t essential to the functioning of markets, then what is? If it isn’t the MIX’s task, whose task is it?
- How does MIX’s “knowledge vault” strategy fit the World Bank’s goal of being a “global knowledge bank” – is that idea dead now?
- Is this part of a broader battle of ideologies, or a new strategy, regarding both microfinance and development knowledge at the World Bank group?
I strongly urge Mixmarket and its partners to reconsider their decision to privatise and paywall data (at least the raw data, which they get for free, should remain free), and would welcome a response on why this paywall has been brought into being and how they will address the issues raised here. At present, I cannot see how the new situation serves development, research, transparency, freedom of knowledge, or the clients of microfinance.
I’d love to get answers and will be happy to publish any explanations from MIX and/or their sponsors here.