Research & Analysis

Digital Financial Inclusion

With the prospect of reaching billions of new customers, banks and nonbanks have begun to offer digital financial services for financially excluded and underserved populations, building on the approaches that have been used for years to improve access channels for those already served by banks and other financial institutions. Innovative digital financial services involving the use of mobile phones have been launched in more than 80 countries (GSMA 2014). As a result of the significant advances in the accessibility and affordability provided by digital financial services, millions of poor customers are moving from exclusively cash-based transactions to formal financial services. The benefits of this development include economic growth and stability, both for the customers and for the economies where they and their families reside. However, the use of digital financial services by formerly excluded customers brings not only benefits but also risks, due in part to the characteristics of a typical poor customer (inexperienced with formal financial services and unfamiliar with consumer rights). Some of the risks are new while others, although well known, may take on different dimensions in the financial inclusion context.

This Brief aims to provide national and global policy makers with a clear picture of the rapid development of digital financial services for the poor and the need for their attention and informed understanding. It proposes a concise definition of “digital financial inclusion” and summarizes its impact on financially excluded and underserved populations; outlines the new and shifting risks of digital financial inclusion models that are significant to regulators, supervisors, and standard-setting bodies (SSBs); and concludes with observations on digital financial inclusion issues on the policy-making horizon.

“Digital financial inclusion” can be defined as digital access to and use of formal financial services by excluded and underserved populations. Such services should be suited to the customers’ needs and delivered responsibly, at a cost both affordable to customers and sustainable for providers.

Today’s providers of such financial services can be divided into four broad groupings based on the party holding the contractual relationship with the customer: (i) a full-service bank offering a “basic” or “simplified” transactional account for payments, transfers, and value storage via mobile device or payment card plus point-of-sale (POS) terminal; (ii) a limited-service niche bank offering such an account via mobile device or payment card plus POS terminal; (iii) a mobile network operator (MNO) e-money issuer; and (iv) a nonbank non-MNO e-money issuer. All four models function via three components: a digital transactional platform, an agent network, and the customer’s access device. With these components in place, payments and transfers, as well as credit, savings, insurance, and even securities, can be offered digitally to excluded and underserved customers.