Lessons from Debt – a path to Advice?

Heard about Grameen Bank – the bank for the poor?

It presents a powerful working model of trickle-up development.

Founded in the mid-1970s by Muhammad Yunus in a country lacking first and second-world finance infrastructures, it has sprouted up in over 80,000 Bangladeshi villages, lifting millions of villages, their families and villages, out of poverty by providing approximately $USD18B in micro-loans.

It was built upon the simple proposition that access to credit is a fundamental human right.

For Grameen, social consciousness is not a ‘by-product’ of day-to-day operations, it is the backbone of the bank’s day-to-day business – lending micro-loans to predominately landless women. Grameen also aims to make profits, just like Australian banks.

But Grameen is a very different species of a bank.

The Bank provides possible clues on how to accelerate the spread of valuable advice to more Australians.


Australia’s financial advice marketplace is too complex.

As Australia’s superannuation funds grew another 10% over the last year to approximately $3.4T, there is another enquiry into an advice industry that serves only a minority (about 30%) of wealthier Australians despite all workers being forced to save for retirement and pay the fees of a well-oiled ticket-clipping financial services industry for three decades.

The number and frequency of inquiries raise as many questions as answers.

Since the introduction of compulsory superannuation, there have been a remarkable number of significant inquiries into financial services and advice.

The 1996 Wallis Inquiry, Financial Services Reforms of 2000/1, the Ripoll Inquiry of 2009, the Cooper Inquiry of 2010, the Murray Future of Financial Advice Inquiry of 2014, the Trowbridge insurance review in 2015, the Sedgewick banking review in 2017, the Banking Royal Commission of 2018/9, the current review run by Australian Law Reform Commission of Corporations Act alongside the Quality of Advice Review being undertaken by Michelle Levy.

If nothing else, the number of inquiries highlights the crucial role of the industry as well as the difficulty of managing equitable growth.

The industry is not sinister, but broken under the numbing weight of its product origins and exponentially growing expectations.

For instance, today’s high cost of living warnings coming so soon after Covid’s financial upheaval is adding more fuel to an insatiable demand for advice and guidance at a time when the advisory industry is still awaiting compliance clarity from a yet-to-be empowered regulator while balancing the high regulatory costs and growing needs to fund their growth. Demand will only grow as new attention-grabbing headlines of possible falls in house valuations raise anxieties for even more Australians wondering who to trust with their circumstances and concerns.

Advice needs significant and different reform.

Grameen provides a potential approach.


Grameen’s reason for existence wasn’t to sell credit.

It was to solve Bangledash’s complex social problem of poverty.

It combined micro-finance products, highly committed local credit officers (not from the finance industry or elite families, but trained by the Bank fresh from schools), and a trickle-up development model and rigorously implemented them as durable work practices.

It provides three possible lessons for Australia’s complex advice market.

Firstly, be clear about the problem needing to be solved.

Grameen did not set out to distribute credit products. It set out to solve an overwhelming social problem – poverty.

The overwhelming problem with advice in Australia is access to valued advice.

It is too complex making it affordable only to the wealthiest of Australians.

Attempts to rectify this with a cute byline of ‘affordable advice’ might be OK if buying advice were similar to buying a carton of milk, but for most of us, there are very significant long-term consequences of cheap advice.

Second, adopt Grameen’s trickle-up development model.

Grameen did not grow by leveraging the local Bangladeshi or international financial institutions, it grew from the ground up, enlisting and training local credit officers from fresh ranks without extensive product backgrounds, who were motivated to grow their own business, borrower by borrower and village by village.

A similar trickle-up development model for a first-world nation like Australia might be the equivalent of enlisting fresh ‘officers’ with some level of financial expertise but trained as financial ‘client project managers’ and importantly rewarded for the delivery of valuable advice to their local advice clients.

Thirdly, focus only on value for each client.

It was obvious to the founders of Grameen Bank, how their predominantly landless women valued the opportunity to acquire land, chickens, tools of their trade, bangles, dowries, or food.  Prior to Grameen, the complexities of their culture and circumstances most often meant a lifetime driven by hope.

Similarly, the only driver of advice must be value for the advice where the fee is determined by the majority of clients who willingly pay a transparent price based upon the value of the advice to them and nothing else.

Even when a price may cause short-term debt for the client, as it often does when clients make other valued purchases of education, homes, or holidays, the interests of both provider and client have to be aligned and the fundamental driver of the relationship – achieving what each client values.

Third-world strategies for first-world complexities might be too hard for some to consider. But Australia needs different thinking to crack a circular reform system of the last two decades that is fundamentally forcing valuable advice away from the Australians who need it the most.

Grameen’s trickle-up model might suggest that future advice institutions look less like today’s banks or tomorrow’s Google, and more like those institutions where social consciousness is no ‘by-product’ of operations but a driving objective alongside profitability.

The ‘client project managers’ within tomorrow’s advice institutions could be similar to Grameen’s ‘officers’ performing roles more akin to today’s nurses on the front-line of advice, providing the financial confidence and leadership for their niche of clients, referring to specialist advisers as needed.


Despite being forced to save for their retirement for three decades, the road to valuable advice has proven too steep, long and unpredictable for the majority of Australians.

The clients of Grameen’s ‘officers’ know the value and price of taking the necessary steps out of poverty for themselves, their families and fellow villagers.

Most Australians are not as concerned about having the right product as they are about being on the right path.

Different advice models like Grameen’s built on both objectives of social consciousness and profitability might help level the advice market back in favour of more Australians.

What do you reckon?




Photo credit: grameenbank.org



For over 30 years, Jim has influenced, coached, and consulted advisory firms across Australia. His consulting firm, Certainty Advice Group coaches, trains and builds advisory firms. He is growing a community of advisory firms aligned on Australia’s only Certification Mark advice standard for comprehensive, unconflicted advice – Certainty Advice.  He has authored four books regarding financial advice with his latest – What Price Value – available now since release in March 2022

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