Financial inclusion started to gain prominence in the beginning of the 21st century, when the World Bank and the United Nations started to highlight the connection between financial exclusion, development and poverty. Defined by the UN as “universal access, at a reasonable cost, to a wide range of financial services, provided by a variety of sound and sustainable institutions”, it has become a key theme of international development policy. It forms part of the Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 8 (Decent Economic Growth) Target 10: “Financial inclusion is universal access, at a reasonable cost, to a wide range of financial services, provided by a variety of sound and sustainable institutions.”
When the concept first became mainstream, financial inclusion (also called inclusive finance) traditionally targeted unbanked and underbanked populations, and with good reason: an estimated 1.4 billion people (a quarter of the world’s population) do not have bank accounts. Early success stories included the Grameen Bankfounded by Nobel Prize winner Muhammed Yunus, and the European Microfinance Network. Although access to financial services improved during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still gaps in terms of participation in and access to traditional financial institutions such as commercial banks, credit unions, insurance and mortgage companies. However, the inclusive financial sector has evolved to meet the changing financial needs of individuals, SMEs and countries.
Financial technology plays an increasingly important rolein providing solutions for inclusivity and equal access. Digital currencies (namely cryptocurrency) gained popularity because they provided a transparent, decentralised financial system that anyone could be part of. Despite security concerns, digital currencies have only grown more popular: even governments and central banks have shown interest with research into central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). Mobile money has revolutionised how people in the Global South access money and financial services. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, 136 million accounts were registered on mobile money platforms. Reports such as the ones published by the African Economic Research Consortium in 2020highlight how the introduction of mobile money platforms such as M-Pesa and Ecocash made good use of increased mobile penetration to attract users. As of 2021, M-Pesa hit 50 million users and was valued at close to $3 billion.
As fintech startups aim to leverage technology to improve financial services, investment in the right ideas and companies can provide people with more options and better deals for financing. From buy now pay later businesses such as Klarna and Afterpay, to cryptocurrency exchanges such as Coinbase, companies that began as small enterprises that have now become global mainstays due to financial investment from private individuals and venture capital funds. With technology now an ingrained part of international financial systems and business, it presents a way for both financial service suppliers and customers to remove all barriers to access and achieve true financial inclusivity.
Adel, I. (2023). Council post: Leveraging fintech to drive financial inclusion: Strategies and best practices. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2023/02/22/leveraging-fintech-to-drive-financial-inclusion-strategies-and-best-practices/?sh=66a70d33773e
DEMİRGÜÇ-KUNT, A., & KLAPPER, L. (2013). Measuring Financial Inclusion: Explaining Variation in Use of Financial Services across and within Countries. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 279–321. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23594869
United Nations. (2006). Retrieved from https://www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/migration/tr/summury_doc_bluebook.pdf
World Bank Group. (2022). Retrieved from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2022/07/21/covid-19-boosted-the-adoption-of-digital-financial-services