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Financial Inclusion Beyond Payments: Policy Considerations for Digital Savings

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Across the developing world, financial institutions have leveraged digital technologies and innovative business models to expand access to digital financial services (DFS), such as digital transaction accounts and payment services, which serve as the gateway to financial inclusion. Providers are now diversifying their products offerings to newer DFS, such as credit, insurance, and savings. A recent World Bank Group report examines DFS products geared toward longer-term savings. Financial Inclusion Beyond Payments: Policy Considerations for Digital Savings, looks at how these digital savings products—though not yet mature–have the potential to advance an important element of digital financial inclusion.

Access to reliable savings products at regulated financial institutions is important for helping low-income and financially underserved segments safely meet their long-term saving goals. Yet significant gaps exist in developing regions between the proportion of adults who save and those who save at a financial institution. The gaps owe, in part, to limited access to savings products among low-income and rural populations, and to the perception among low-income individuals that their savings are not large enough to warrant a savings product at a financial institution, which may entail maintenance fees, minimum balance requirements, and high indirect access costs (e.g., transportation, time). Thus, accessible, flexible, and affordable digital savings products could bring existing informal saving into the regulated financial sector.

The report analyzes digital savings product deployments and relevant DFS policy issues across Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia. It focuses primarily on digital savings accounts or digitally-accessible, interest-bearing deposit accounts held by regulated deposit-taking institutions. Importantly, nonbank entities, such as nonbank e-money issuers (NBEIs), are often integral to digital savings account deployment models. Additionally, the report principally examines digital savings accounts that are accessible on basic mobile devices or agent-administered point-of-sale terminals.

How are digital savings accounts being deployed?

Among the 36 digital savings accounts examined in the report, three primary deployment models have taken shape. Partnerships between banking institutions and NBEIs, such as mobile network operators (MNOs) and other fintech companies, are common in the provision of digital savings accounts. MNO partnerships account for a greater share of the digital savings account deployments in SSA than in Asia, which reflects the historically MNO-centric DFS approach in SSA and contrasting bank-oriented DFS patterns in a number of Asian countries.

While many digital savings accounts constitute digital channels to legacy savings accounts at banking institutions, many others, such as M-Shwari in Kenya, M-Pawa in Tanzania, and MoKash in Uganda, are new accounts developed for digital savings. Moreover, new classes of institutions have emerged, such as India’s payments banks, which offer dedicated digital savings accounts. Though the report focuses on digital savings accounts, it also takes stock of alternative non-deposit digital savings products that enhance consumer choice, such as e-wallets offering customers a financial return and digitally-accessible pension products. 

Digital technologies and innovation help enhance access to savings accounts

The report finds that digital technology and innovative business models enable three broad product and market properties that enhance savings account accessibility: 

  • Value chain disaggregation, which occurs when banking institutions partner with nonbanks for the technology and distribution aspects of digital savings accounts, allows for expanded access points, improvements in the economics of low-cost savings accounts, leveraging of different entities’ comparative advantages, and scaling up of microbanking institutions.
  • Product tailoring and customization is made easier through digital technology and innovative business models, enabling providers to incorporate greater degrees of accessibility, flexibility, and affordability in their savings account offerings.
  • Leveraging of existing DFS ecosystems helps foster competition in the savings product space and facilitates access through use of existing infrastructure.

Policies and digital savings market development

Finally, the report discusses key policy issues that enable and constrain digital savings market development and offers policy considerations within the context of the G20’s High-Level Principles (HLPs) for Digital Financial Inclusion. 

Based on current market observations, three policy considerations seem most important for facilitating digital savings account deployments:

  • Enable banking institutions to pursue digital savings partnerships with nonbank entities.
  • Support the development of interoperability between banks and nonbank e-money issuers.
  • Harmonize customer due diligence standards for e-money wallets and low-risk bank deposits.

Digital savings represents a relatively new area of inquiry for digital financial inclusion research. The report largely focuses on supply-side factors in the digital savings market. As products mature and more data become available, researchers will be able to evaluate questions that bring together supply and demand side factors, thus developing a clearer picture of what works best in the digital savings market. The report concludes with a series of future research questions meant to elucidate key outstanding issues. These focus on the digital savings product attributes that drive responsible uptake and usage, as well as product economics and competition. Policymakers should consider these future research topics in concert with the policy considerations discussed in the report. 

World Bank

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Post-COVID-19, regaining citizen’s trust should be a priority for governments

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coronavirus people

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated governments’ ability to respond to a major global crisis with extraordinary flexibility, innovation and determination. However, emerging evidence suggests that much more could have been done in advance to bolster resilience and many actions may have undermined trust and transparency between governments and their citizens, according to a new OECD report.

Government at a Glance 2021 says that one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic is that governments will need to respond to future crises at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency. “Looking forward, we must focus simultaneously on promoting the economic recovery and avoiding democratic decline” said OECD Director of Public Governance Elsa Pilichowski. “Reinforcing democracy should be one of our highest priorities.”

 Countries have introduced thousands of emergency regulations, often on a fast track. Some alleviation of standards is inevitable in an emergency, but must be limited in scope and time to avoid damaging citizen perceptions of the competence, openness, transparency, and fairness of government.

 Governments should step up their efforts in three areas to boost trust and transparency and reinforce democracy:

 Tackling misinformation is key. Even with a boost in trust in government sparked by the pandemic in 2020, on average only 51% of people in OECD countries for which data is available trusted their government. There is a risk that some people and groups may be dissociating themselves from traditional democratic processes.

 It is crucial to enhance representation and participation in a fair and transparent manner. Governments must seek to promote inclusion and diversity, support the representation of young people, women and other under-represented groups in public life and policy consultation. Fine-tuning consultation and engagement practices could improve transparency and trust in public institutions, says the report. Governments must also level the playing field in lobbying. Less than half of countries have transparency requirements covering most of the actors that regularly engage in lobbying.

 Strengthening governance must be prioritised to tackle global challenges while harnessing the potential of new technologies. In 2018, only half of OECD countries had a specific government institution tasked with identifying novel, unforeseen or complex crises. To be fit for the future, and secure the foundations of democracy, governments must be ready to act at speed and scale while safeguarding trust and transparency.

 Governments must also learn to spend better, according to Government at a Glance 2021. OECD countries are providing large amounts of support to citizens and businesses during this crisis: measures ongoing or announced as of March 2021 represented, roughly, 16.4% of GDP in additional spending or foregone revenues, and up to 10.5% of GDP via other means. Governments will need to review public spending to increase efficiency, ensure that spending priorities match people’s needs, and improve the quality of public services.

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Sweden: Invest in skills and the digital economy to bolster the recovery from COVID-19

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Sweden’s economy is on the road to recovery from the shock of the COVID-19 crisis, yet risks remain. Moving ahead with a labour reform to facilitate adaptation in a fast-changing economic environment, and investing in digital skills and infrastructure, will be crucial to revive employment and build a sustainable recovery, according to the latest OECD Economic Survey of Sweden.

The pandemic triggered a severe recession in Sweden, despite mild distancing measures and swift government action to protect people and businesses. GDP fell by less than in many other European economies in 2020, thanks to reinforced short-time work, compensation to firms for lost revenue and measures to prop up the financial system, but unemployment still rose sharply. Solid public finances provided room for further stimulus in 2021 to buttress the recovery.

 The Survey recommends maintaining targeted support to people and firms until the pandemic subsides, then focusing on strengthening vocational training and skills and increasing investment in areas like high-speed internet and low-carbon transport. Addressing regional inequality, which is low but rising, should also be a priority as the recovery takes hold.

 The Survey shows that Sweden has been among the most resilient OECD countries in the face of a historic shock. Yet, like other economies, it faces challenges from demographic changes and the shift to green, digital economies. Investments in education and training, and labour reforms along the lines negotiated by the social partners, will support job creation and strengthen economic resilience. Building on Sweden’s leadership in digital innovation and diffusion will also be key for driving productivity.

 After a 3% contraction in 2020, interrupting several years of growth, the Survey projects a rebound in activity with 3.9% growth in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022 as industrial production resumes and exports recover. The recovery in world trade is bolstering the Swedish economy, however the country remains vulnerable to potential disruptions in global value chains.  

The pandemic has aggravated a mismatch in Sweden’s job market, with unfilled vacancies for highly qualified workers coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants. The public employment service needs strengthening to provide better support to jobseekers, including immigrants and women, and labour policies should strike the right balance between supporting businesses and workers and supporting transitions away from declining businesses towards growing sectors.

A rising share of youths and older people in the population, especially in remote areas, is affecting the finances of local governments, which provide the bulk of welfare services. Strengthening local government budgets and ensuring equal welfare provision across the country will require providing tax income to poorer regions more efficiently and raising the economic growth potential across regions through investments in innovation. Improving coordination between government entities and reinforcing the role of universities in local economic networks would help achieve that aim.

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Fewer women than men will regain work during COVID-19 recovery

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Generations of progress stands to be lost on women and girls' empowerment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: ILO

Fewer women will regain jobs lost to the COVID-19 pandemic during the recovery period, than men, according to a new study released on Monday by the UN’s labour agency.  

In Building Forward Fairer: Women’s rights to work and at work at the core of the COVID-19 recovery, the International Labour Organization (ILO) highlights that between 2019 and 2020, women’s employment declined by 4.2 per cent globally, representing 54 million jobs, while men suffered a three per cent decline, or 60 million jobs. 

This means that there will be 13 million fewer women in employment this year compared to 2019, but the number of men in work will likely recover to levels seen two years ago. 

This means that only 43 per cent of the world’s working-age women will be employed in 2021, compared to 69 per cent of their male counterparts. 

The ILO paper suggests that women have seen disproportionate job and income losses because they are over-represented in the sectors hit hardest by lockdowns, such as accommodation, food services and manufacturing. 

Regional differences 

Not all regions have been affected in the same way. For example, the study revealed that women’s employment was hit hardest in the Americas, falling by more than nine per cent.  

This was followed by the Arab States at just over four per cent, then Asia-Pacific at 3.8 per cent, Europe at 2.5 per cent and Central Asia at 1.9 per cent. 

In Africa, men’s employment dropped by just 0.1 per cent between 2019 and 2020, while women’s employment decreased by 1.9 per cent. 

Mitigation efforts 

Throughout the pandemic, women faired considerably better in countries that took measures to prevent them from losing their jobs and allowed them to get back into the workforce as early as possible. 

In Chile and Colombia, for example, wage subsidies were applied to new hires, with higher subsidy rates for women.  

And Colombia and Senegal were among those nations which created or strengthened support for women entrepreneurs.  

Meanwhile, in Mexico and Kenya quotas were established to guarantee that women benefited from public employment programmes. 

Building forward 

To address these imbalances, gender-responsive strategies must be at the core of recovery efforts, says the agency. 

It is essential to invest in the care economy because the health, social work and education sectors are important job generators, especially for women, according to ILO. 

Moreover, care leave policies and flexible working arrangements can also encourage a more even division of work at home between women and men. 

The current gender gap can also be tackled by working towards universal access to comprehensive, adequate and sustainable social protection. 

Promoting equal pay for work of equal value is also a potentially decisive and important step. 

Domestic violence and work-related gender-based violence and harassment has worsened during the pandemic – further undermining women’s ability to be in the workforce – and the report highlights the need to eliminate the scourge immediately. 

Promoting women’s participation in decision-making bodies, and more effective social dialogue, would also make a major difference, said ILO. 

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