Financial Inclusion: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full? (Pt 1)

We can choose to see a glass as half empty or half full. And our perspective often has a lot to do with our initial assumptions.

Beth Rhyne and Sonja Kelly of the Center for Financial Inclusion (CFI) have generated discussion in the financial inclusion community with their paper exploring the latest Findex data, titled “Financial Inclusion Hype Versus Reality.” In the paper, Rhyne and Kelly express concern that the rate of access to new accounts slowed between 2014 and 2017 and that the usage gap for those accounts appears to be growing. They also highlight stagnation in the growth of credit and a decline in savings, but an increase in the use of payments. While I have very little to disagree with in their paper, I think the financial inclusion community has a lot more cause for optimism than it makes out.

Villagers use mobile phone in Philippines
Villagers use mobile phone in Philippines. Photo by Bernard Recirdo, 2017 CGAP Photo Contest.

Let me state up front that it has never been my expectation that we would reach full financial inclusion by 2020. Or even that 79 percent of adults in developing countries would have an account by 2020, a prediction made by Rhyne and Kelly in their previous paper, “By the Numbers: Benchmarking Progress Toward Financial Inclusion,” published after the release of the last Findex data set in 2015. The World Bank’s access goal is aspirational and meant to inspire action, which it clearly has. But as Rhyne and Kelly quite correctly point out, accounts are largely meaningless if people are not using them. The point of the Findex data is to help us measure progress against the overall access goal and to understand the levers that will take us to the next level. And there is plenty of food for thought on what the key levers might be in this year’s Findex.

Over the course of two blogs, I would like to offer a few reasons why I believe we have done better than Beth and Sonja think, starting with access.

While I would describe this year’s CFI report as overly pessimistic, I would say the 2015 paper was overly optimistic. The 2015 report assumed straight line increases in access, based on the rate of growth achieved between only two data points: the 2011 and 2014 Findex. While the report acknowledges that this was done to present a scenario for discussion, the net effect was to create an overly optimistic strawman. It seems obvious in hindsight that the pace of change achieved between 2011 and 2014 was not likely to be repeated. Why? Because progress doesn’t move in straight lines. New gains at the margin will be harder to reach than previous gains. This holds true at the country level and for important segments within countries.

At the country level, there is an implicit assumption in “By the Numbers” that all countries have equivalent regulations and providers willing to serve the poor. But all regulatory frameworks are not created equal, and not every provider has the same ability to serve the poor. One has only to look at the data for Sub-Saharan Africa to see this at work. Countries like Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania and the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) region put enabling regulatory frameworks in place and on average enjoyed a 2.5x increase in the rate of account access between 2011 and 2017, far outstripping the 43 percent increase for developing markets as a whole.

Financial inclusion rates in select African countries
Financial inclusion rates in select African countries. * Includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Cote d’Ivoire excluded because it had no 2014 Findex data point. ** Weighted by population size.

Africa also demonstrates that providers and regulations matter. The continent is full of mobile network operators (MNOs) trying to mimic the success of M-PESA in Kenya. Although this did not happen overnight, MNOs have by now clearly demonstrated that they are making a measurable difference in multiple African markets. In the 2014 Findex, there were only 11 countries globally that had more than a 5 percentage point differential between access to any account (including mobile money) and access to a financial institution account only. And the gap between these two numbers in Sub-Saharan Africa was 5 percentage points. By this year’s Findex, this had grown to 28 markets, all but two of which were in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the gap grew to 10 percentage points. This differential is almost entirely attributable to the work of MNOs. According to GSMA's 2017 State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money, MNOs have added 338 million accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa, of which 122 million are active (this is corroborated by the Findex estimate of 124 million active mobile money accounts in the region). It is safe to say that MNOs have been responsible for adding the better part of 141 million accounts in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2011, representing 10 percent of new accounts globally. Given that Findex counts only active mobile money accounts, this quite significantly understates the level of new account addition in Africa compared to other regions. 

But restrictive regulatory and competitive frameworks meant MNOs did not have the same opportunity everywhere. Nigeria, the continent’s largest market, has been a subject of great interest from MNOs for the past 10 years. But Nigeria has a regulatory framework that restricts the ability of MNOs to operate independently of banks, and this has had an impact on access. In contrast to the 2.5x growth in account access in the cohort of countries above, Nigeria experienced growth of only 33 percent in access to accounts from 2011 to 2017, and there is no appreciable difference between access to a financial institution account and access to any account. In the 10-country cohort, the average delta between any account and a financial institution account had grown from zero in 2011 to 21 percentage points in 2017. What’s more, the increasingly visible success of mobile money encouraged banks to expand their service offerings to the mass market. In these 10 countries, access to accounts in a financial institution grew by 52 percent, outperforming Nigeria, which grew financial institution accounts by only 30 percent. Providers and regulations clearly matter. 

An additional challenge as we add accounts at the margin is delivering financial services to difficult segments. Women and rural households are particularly challenging, albeit for different reasons: women because of cultural and legal norms inhibiting access, and rural households because they are difficult and expensive for commercial providers to reach.

The gender gap remains stubbornly persistent at 9 percent in developing countries and is particularly challenging in the Middle East and North Africa region and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The World Bank calculates that, of the remaining 1.7 billion unbanked, nearly half come from just seven countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nigeria all have substantial gender gaps: 29, 28 and 24 percentage points, respectively. If in these three markets alone, access for women had grown at a rate equivalent to that experienced by men, the access numbers for 2017 would have increased by nearly 50 million, representing a 9.5 percent boost on the 515 million new account holders added in the three previous years.

For rural populations, the picture is a bit brighter. Access for rural households grew from 44 percent to 66 percent globally from 2011 to 2017, largely driven by rapid change in China and India. But Africa has maintained a stubborn 4 percent gap between access for the rural population and access for the population at large. If we could lift the roughly 61 percent of Africans who live in rural areas up to just the regional average, it would add another 20 million new accounts. If we brought them to the same level as urban Africans, it would add roughly 50 million new accounts.

Regulatory change that opens markets to increased competition and a sustained focus on equal inclusion for women and rural communities would do a lot to move us in the direction of full financial access.

For me, the glass is still half full. Meaningful financial inclusion is hard, involving a complex interplay of factors: regulatory change, viable business models and significant behavior change by new account holders. And for certain segments, cultural and legal norms and distance represent significant barriers. We have to be realistic about how long this will take. When I read the CFI report, it took me back to a time when everyone was disappointed that a new M-PESA had not emerged overnight. It didn’t. But we now have a whole slew of providers that are beginning to look like M-PESA did five years ago, sometimes in surprising places. Progress happens, just not according to our wishful time frames. On access, we have already harvested the low-hanging fruit — now the hard work truly begins. 


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