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Financial Inclusion Beyond Payments: Policy Considerations for Digital Savings

MD Staff

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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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A few ‘green shoots’, but future of global trade remains deeply uncertain

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Although global trade is making a frail recovery, the outlook remains uncertain, UN trade and development body UNCTAD said on Wednesday, in announcing its latest COVID-era update

Estimates show that world trade will drop by five per cent this quarter, compared with the 2019 level. While this is an improvement over the nearly 20 per cent decline in the second quarter of the year, it is still not enough to pull trade out of the red. 

Furthermore, UNCTAD expects the value of all good traded to contract by seven to nine percent compared to last year, depending on how the COVID-19 pandemic evolves in the winter months. 

Uncertainty aggravating trade 

“The uncertain course of the pandemic will continue aggravating trade prospects in the coming months”, said UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi. 

“Despite some ‘green shoots’ we can’t rule out a slowdown in production in certain regions or sudden increases in restrictive policies.” 

While the projection represents a decrease, the figure is a more positive result than previously expected, as UNCTAD had projected a 20 per cent year-on-end drop for 2020, back in June. 

Trade trends have improved since then, the agency added, primarily due to the earlier than expected resumption of economic activity in Europe and east Asia. 

China leads recovery 

The report points to China, which has shown a notable trade recovery. 

Chinese exports had fallen in the early months of the pandemic and stabilized in the second quarter of the year, before rebounding strongly in the next quarter, with year-over year growth of almost 10 per cent. 

“Overall, the level of Chinese exports for the first nine months of 2020 was comparable to that of 2019 over the same period”, the report said. 

Within China, demand for goods and services has also recovered.  Imports stabilized in July and August, and grew by 13 per cent in September.   

Growth and decline in Asia 

India and South Korea also recorded export growth last month, at four per cent and eight per cent, respectively. 

UNCTAD reported that as of July, the fall in trade was significant in most regions except east Asia.  

West and south Asia saw the sharpest declines, with imports dropping by 23 per cent, and exports by 29 per cent. 

The report also includes an assessment of trade in different sectors, with the energy and automotive industries hardest hit by the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, sectors such as communication equipment, office machinery, and textiles and apparel, have seen strong growth due to the implementation of mitigation responses such as teleworking and personal protection measures. 

Wealthy nations benefit from COVID-19 medical supply trade 

The report also gives special attention to COVID-19 medical supplies, which include personal protective equipment, disinfectants, diagnostic kits, oxygen respirators and related hospital equipment. 

Between January and May, sales of medical supplies from China, the European Union, and the United States, rose from $25 billion to $45 billion per month.  Since April, trade has increased by an average of more than 50 per cent. 

However, the authors found wealthier nations have mainly benefited from this trade, with middle and low income countries priced out from access to COVID-19 supplies. 

Residents of high income countries have on average benefited from an additional $10 per month of imports of COVID-19 related products.  This compares to just $1 for their counterparts in middle income countries, and 10 cents for those in low income nations. 

 UNCTAD warned that if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, the access divide between wealthy and poor countries could be even more drastic. 

The report urges governments, the private sector and philanthropic organizations to continue mobilizing additional funds to fight the pandemic in developing countries and to support financial mechanisms that will provide safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries

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COVID-19 crisis puts migration and progress on integration at risk

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Migration flows have increased over the past decade and some progress has been made to improve the integration of immigrants in the host countries. But some of these gains may be erased by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. Governments need to secure the health and safety of all workers in essential activities and maintain spending on integration to help migrants continue to contribute to society and the economy, according to a new OECD report.

The OECD International Migration Outlook 2020 says that the COVID-19 crisis has had unprecedented consequences on migration flows. Before the pandemic, permanent migration flows to the OECD amounted to 5.3 million in 2019, with similar figures for 2017 and 2018. Although there were fewer refugee admissions, permanent labour migration rose by more than 13% in 2019 and temporary labour migration also rose, with more than 5 million entries recorded in the OECD.

Following the onset of the pandemic, almost all OECD countries restricted admission to foreigners.

As a result, issuances of new visas and permits in OECD countries plummeted by 46% in the first half of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. This is the largest drop ever recorded. In the second quarter, the decline was 72%. Overall, 2020 is expected to be a historical low for international migration in the OECD area.

There are strong signs that mobility will not return to previous levels for some time. This is due to weaker labour demand, persistent severe travel restrictions as well as the widespread use of teleworking among high-skilled workers and remote learning by students.

“Migration will continue to play an important role for economic growth and innovation, as well as in responding to rapidly changing labour markets,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report with European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson. “We need to avoid rolling back on integration and reaffirm that migration is an integral part of our lives.” 

Migrant workers have been on the frontline of the crisis. They account for a large share of the OECD medical workforce, with one in four medical doctors in the OECD, and one in six nurses. In many OECD countries, more than a third of the workforce in other key sectors, such as transport, cleaning, food manufacturing and IT services, are immigrants.

Yet immigrants are facing a hard time in the labour market. Much of the past decade’s progress in employment rates among immigrants has been wiped out by the pandemic. In all countries for which data are available, immigrants’ unemployment increased more, compared to their native-born peers. The largest increases for immigrants were observed in Canada, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the United States. In Sweden, almost 60% of the initial increase in unemployment fell on immigrants. In the United States, unemployment of immigrants was lower than their native-born peers by almost one percentage point before the pandemic, it is now 2 percentage points higher.

Migrants are highly exposed to the health impacts of the pandemic as a result of working on the frontline during the pandemic but also vulnerabilities linked, for example, to housing conditions and poverty. Studies in a number of OECD countries found an infection risk that is at least twice as high as that of the native-born. 

Going forward, getting migration and integration policies right will be essential if we are to achieve a strong and truly inclusive recovery.  

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Global Deal report: Social dialogue crucial to tackling impact of COVID-19

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Social dialogue between employers, workers and government can play a central role in managing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the workplace and has great potential in ensuring that the livelihoods and opportunities of those hardest hit are protected, according to a new report.

Social Dialogue, Skills and COVID-19, published jointly by the OECD, ILO and Global Deal.

Partnership, says the pandemic has exposed and intensified underlying inequality and is having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups already facing insecurity, such as the low-skilled, informal workers, youth and women.

The report argues that social dialogue and collective bargaining have a key role to play in building back a more sustainable economy in which the benefits of growth are distributed across the whole of society.

Agreements between business, trade unions and governments have often played an important role in establishing the short-time working arrangements aimed at protecting incomes and firms during lockdowns. The key ingredients have been commitments by employers not to fire workers while unions accept shortening working times and a lowering of wages. Governments have then stepped in with benefits or wage subsidies to make up for the wage shortfalls.

Such agreements can help shore up consumer confidence by keeping workers in jobs and maintaining incomes. The report looks at how such arrangements have worked in a number of countries, including in Germany, Italy and France. In Denmark, the job retention scheme managed to limit the rise in unemployment to 0.1 percentage point between February and May 2020. In Korea, social partners agreed to lift the employment retention subsidy from 63% to 75% with additional emergency support available for small businesses and workers on non-standard contracts.

The report points to the importance of involving all social partners in ensuring safe working conditions during the pandemic, particularly as individual workers may be even more reluctant to voice their concerns during the crisis for fear of losing their jobs. Social dialogue provides a forum to understand workers’ concerns and negotiate balanced approaches.

Presenting the report alongside ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and Swedish Trade Minister Anna Hallberg, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said, “Social dialogue has shaped the policies that supported workers and sustained the economy, helping to boost confidence during the crisis. Social dialogue’s importance is not limited to the immediate management of the crisis. It also helps countries to meet their UN 2030 Agenda commitments and prepare for global trends such as digitalisation, globalisation and climate change.”

With many of the essential ‘frontline’ workers on low wages, such as those in healthcare, food processing, or for instance supermarket cashiers, setting appropriate minimum wages via statutory provisions and/or collective bargaining and achieving balanced decisions through social dialogue can improve standards of living. Fairness and equity will result in a more resilient labour market and a stronger economic recovery, the report says.

Beyond the challenges brought by the COVID-19 crisis, labour markets are having to adapt to technological change creating a demand for new skills. The report says clear policies and mechanisms are needed to promote lifelong learning and skills development. Social dialogue is needed at national, sectoral and firm level, and involving workers in the decisions can facilitate effective adoption of the skills development programmes.

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