On 19 June, the Centre for Finance and Development and the World Bank organised a joint event on “Leveraging Technology to Scale Financial Inclusion and Private Sector Growth”. The event consisted of a discussion between four high-level specialists moderated by Lore Vandewalle, Associate Professor of Development Economics and Pictet Chair in Finance and Development at the Geneva Graduate Institute. The full recording of the event is available below.
Financial inclusion has played a significant role in Western nations’ economic and social development. Based on this historical perspective, financial inclusion will be central to the economic growth of low-income countries. For instance, SDG indicator 8.10 – strengthening the capacity of domestic financial institutions to encourage and expand access to banking, insurance and financial services for all – is directly linked to financial inclusion. However, increased access to financial services needs to unfold sustainably to promote actual development. The event explored this topic through a discussion between Leora Klapper, Lead Economist of the Development Research Group at the World Bank; Christopher Woodruff, Professor of Development Economics at the University of Oxford; Liliana de Sá Kirchknopf, Head of the Private Sector Development Division at the Swiss State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (SECO); and Valérie Breda, Technical Expert at the International Labour Organization’s Global Centre on Digital Wages for Decent Work.
Access to financial services, especially digital ones, is far more than just a convenience: it is a leverage for individuals to save, invest, access diverse new opportunities, and pull themselves out of poverty. In addition, it allows for greater transparency and monitoring of financial flows. Digital financial services are safer and allow for more control over expenses. During her presentation, Leora Klapper presented the latest edition of the Global Findex Database, the world’s first comparable and harmonised database on the use of formal financial services. In the past decade, over half a million people have been interviewed on their use of financial services. This data has been used to identify gaps and problems in financial inclusion and track progress over time. The data shows the importance of mobile technology in advancing account ownership, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Digital payments were also a fundamental instrument for public policy during the pandemic, as many governments had to deposit money directly into the accounts of people in need. Many countries, especially in Latin America, also experienced an increase in digital merchant payment using a card or phone during the pandemic.
Is this progress sustainable? Today, over 75% of adults have bank accounts they use frequently, a 30% increase compared to 10 years ago. However, as much as these advancements are significant, it is also crucial to note there are a number of equality gaps, especially related to gender and income. In addition, the remaining unbanked population is typically less educated and more vulnerable to financial fraud and abuse. This highlights the importance of providing ongoing financial education, ensuring that financial service providers offer complete and accurate information, and that financial products are designed for adults with less financial experience as well.
Main takeaways from the panel discussion
- There are currently about 1.4 billion unbanked people, which indicates that the challenge of financial inclusion is still significant. Governments should develop a national financial inclusion strategy to allow policymakers to analyse where the country stands, to define ambitious goals (e.g. regarding the most underserved individuals or entities, such as women, rural populations, and SMEs), and to develop timelines to achieve these goals. To speed up the progress, governments can take a multi-stakeholder approach, involving different agents such as companies and the civil society. In addition, different ministries should work together to balance stability on the one hand and growth of financial inclusion on the other hand. Finally, policymakers must also prioritize infrastructural developments, as financial inclusion requires access to power and/or the internet.
- Digital payments were crucial during the pandemic. In some countries, the encouragement to shift to digital wage payments improved financial inclusion and security. However, many workers cash out on payday, which can create costs and expose their income to additional risk. Therefore, digital wage payments can promote financial inclusion, but it needs to be done in a responsible manner, where workers also benefit from additional financial services that can withhold them from withdrawing immediately. Furthermore, digital wage payments can create a payment history, which can be used for credit scoring and thus to improve access to loans. It can also increase the likelihood that a company contributes to the worker’s social security, as digital wage payments may improve the likelihood of firm formalisation.
- Digital wage payments help households to save more and to improve their economic resilience. Regulations play an essential role in responsibly expanding access to digital financial services though, through consumer protection and data protection.