MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
The unbanked, who live primarily in developing countries, comprise nearly half of the world's working-age population. In some countries, as much as 90 per cent of the population lacks access to the formal financial system. This impedes their participation in the global economy by restricting their ability to buy goods and services, to borrow and save, or to invest in their future and that of their community and country.
Most global poverty-reduction efforts rely on 'top-down' solutions –development aid flows from rich to poor countries– that largely focus on education, food security, and disease management and prevention.
In general, homegrown solutions have proven to be more effective than externally imposed policies. While a single, universal solution will not work, understanding factors that are common across countries provides a useful way forward. In developing countries, an estimated 1.7 billion people own mobile phones, but have no access to banking services. Harnessing this technology to expand financial inclusion would be economically empowering, particularly for smallholder farmers and merchants in rural communities, who could use their mobile phones to access market-price data, transfer cash, make retail purchases, deposit income, and pay bills – all while tending their fields or shops.
This would encourage saving, which is crucial to building a business and providing investment capital to others. And legal, regulated options for safeguarding savings and accessing credit would reduce reliance on the black market or the informal economy, where financial exploitation flourishes.
In Kenya, regulators have created the conditions needed for an innovative mobile-phone financial-services system, M-PESA, to flourish. Since its 2008 launch, M-PESA has attracted nearly 14 million Kenyans – almost one-third of the country's total population – who use it for money transfers, savings, and other financial transactions.
Regulators and local private institutions can collaborate to create safe and accessible banking and credit instruments. That is how Brazil developed a regulatory framework that has enabled banks to build a network of 95,000 banking agents. As a result, an estimated 13 million Brazilians – in all of the country's nearly 5,600 municipalities, from the Amazon to the shanty-towns of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have been brought into the financial system.
Similarly, a state-owned Indonesian bank, Bank Rakyat Indonesia, is providing micro-financing services to 30 million people, while in India, new 'no-frills' savings accounts have attracted 12.5 million customers. Other homegrown regulatory success stories come from Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Uganda, South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand, and Mongolia.
Expanding and supporting financial inclusion is a win-win for both the global south and north. Developing countries can benefit from the opening of markets to new trade and investment, while the developed world can benefit from the infusion of new customers, suppliers, and capital (possibly in the trillions of dollars). If the world's 2.5 billion unbanked join the global economy, every industry will experience innovation and growth.
Rather than waiting for solutions from American, European, or other advanced country bankers, developing countries are leading the way toward financial inclusion, dramatically reshaping the global economy in the process. Opening the financial system to the world's poorest people will unlock their economic and social potential to the benefit of all.
Daniel Schydlowsky is the head of the Superintendencia de Banca, Seguros y Administradoras Privadas de Pensiones, which oversees Peru's financial sector.
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