Who can bank the world’s 2 billion unbanked?
by Rob Reeve
Globally, about two billion adults have no access to basic banking and financial services. According to the World Bank, the numbers have been falling recently, but the numbers of unbanked still represent both a massive global humanitarian challenge – one depriving people of livelihoods and diminishing their quality of life – as well as a commercial opportunity.
Who holds the key to fixing the problem and what’s the right approach: pursuing a goal of “universal financial access,” or tangibly addressing the barriers in each country with a significant unbanked population?
World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim spells out a sweeping view: “Access to financial services can serve as a bridge out of poverty. We have set a hugely ambitious goal – universal financial access by 2020 – and now we have evidence that we’re making major progress,”, adding: “This effort will require many partners – credit card companies, banks, microcredit institutions, the United Nations, foundations, and community leaders. But we can do it, and the payoff will be millions of people lifted out of poverty.”
Missing from Kim’s statement however, are the crucial partners who hold the key to the solution: mobile operators with the infrastructure, resources and reach to deliver mobile financial solutions rapidly, and the governments and regulators, who decide, essentially, what services they will allow to be made available to their populations.
In countless countries with favorable regulatory climates, mobile operators are already acting as banks, offering similar services to banks, or operating in partnership with banks to provide improved customer experience and a more tailored range of services.
The challenge is replicating mobile banking across a world with a patchwork of countries with differing banking and telecoms regulations, where regulators are balancing the needs of customers with those of existing local financial institutions, and in some cases, currency restrictions and other policies.
The difference between what our companies in Pakistan and Bangladesh can offer customers is a clear case in point. In Pakistan, we are a leading provider of money transfers and are delivering an increasingly sophisticated range of financial and insurance products with our in-house microfinance bank and a major commercial bank partnership. In Bangladesh, however, our ability to offer banking services is severely restricted.
Mobile operators are prepared to deploy their global relationships and knowhow, but it is the local regulatory dynamic that defines the range, spread and complexity of services offered in each country.
If financial services are to become universally available by 2020, who will play the most important role: the United Nations and NGOs, or individual nations and their mobile operators?