It was Jim Yong Kim, the 12th President of the World Bank Group who said: “Universal access to financial services is within reach. Thanks to new technologies, transformative business models, and ambitious reforms to significantly increase financial access for those who are now excluded.”
Almost 10 years later, as financial services continue to digitalize, we are seeing an ever-growing gap between those with access and those without. While significant efforts have been well underway to address this, we must do more to close the gap. Lack of broadband internet access is most often cited as the primary reason for lack of financial inclusivity.
A problem that has come under even greater scrutiny during the lockdowns that followed the outbreak of COVID-19.Looking at some of the regularly reported figures, this can be a difficult argument to beat. While 85 per cent of the world population lives in an area covered by 4G, 3.5 billion are still unable to connect – most commonly because of affordability. In fact, research shows that in some countries, mobile broadband can be up to 18 times more expensive in proportion to average local salaries.
Financial inclusion roadmap
It was in 2015 when the United Nations outlined their 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, with an eye toward achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. Seventeen goals were outlined, ranging from ending poverty and inequality to ensuring quality education, good health and wellbeing. Achieving financial inclusion was identified as critical to the success of eight of these goals.
The global imperative to develop the necessary infrastructure to enable safe and secure financial access for all cannot be clearer. Otherwise, we will be hard-pressed to achieve these goals in the 21st century, let alone in the next eight years. Recognising this, the Edison Alliance, a global movement of 46 organizations from both the public and private sectors, launched its ‘1 Billion Lives Challenge’. Its aim is to plug the gap in digital services and improve people’s lives worldwide by increasing affordable digital access to healthcare, finance, and education by 2025.
Western Union has pledged to enable 300 million people to digitally connect to the global economy through mobile wallets. Apollo Hospitals, which provides telehealth services to 16.5 million people worldwide, aims to expand its program and reach additional 20 million people. In 2020, Mastercard reached its 5-year goal of bringing 500 million previously unbanked people into the financial system and has plans to reach another 500 million over the next three years.
There are plenty of other digital inclusion initiatives taking place across the GCC. In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi government launched its Digital Month in March 2020 to shine a spotlight on the importance of digital transformation and digital inclusion to the country’s Vision 2030.
Banked or unbanked, continuing to find ways to include everyone in the global financial system such as pairing digital networks with retail cash networks, means we can serve consumers better and more inclusively. It is why Western Union built a cross-border platform that is uniquely versatile so consumers can choose to send money in virtually any form, from anywhere. As individual needs diversify and expand, strategic partnerships such as with telecom and financial services providers come into play.
COVID-19 reinforced the lesson that global problems require global solutions—only global cooperation and collaboration could bring the pandemic under control. Achieving true financial and digital inclusion shouldn’t be any different. It is incumbent on us to accelerate cross-sector collaboration to build an infrastructure that ensures equal access for all. Only when we bridge the digital divide will we be able to bolster robust access to financial products and services, and be one step closer to creating a fairer, more equitable world for all.
This article first appeared on Gulf News