Covid-19 News

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to hit hard the countries of the United Nations Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA) and highlights the need to diversify from current, resource-dependent models of economic development. This will mean putting ‘innovation and technology that focus on green and digital transformation’ at the centre of their recovery processes.

To achieve sustainable, innovation-led economic development requires the broad and systematic experimentation with innovative ideas across the economy, together with Government policies that play a catalyzing role. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have committed to stepping-up their efforts to enhance national innovation policies as well as regional cooperation and integration on innovation and technology under the “SPECA Innovation Strategy for Sustainable Development” (adopted in 2019) and the “Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway Action Plan 2022-2026”.

During 19 – 20 July 2022, the SPECA government representatives as well as experts and private sector representatives, gathered to take stock of the progress made on these commitments and discussed the way forward, at the Expert Group Meeting on Innovation and Technology for Sustainable Development, organized by ESCAP and UNECE in Almaty, Kazakhstan and online.

In follow-up to the outcome of the Expert Group Meeting, the third session of the SPECA Working Group on Innovation and Technology for Sustainable Development, held in Almaty and online on 20 July 2022, which was attended by the SPECA member countries, adopted a set of important decisions in the area of innovation and digitalization, such as: confirmation of their support to the implementation of the “Asia Pacific Information Superhighway Action Plan 2022-2026”, and the proposed establishment of a Digital Solutions Center for Sustainable Development in Kazakhstan to promote digital cooperation and integration in the sub-region.

In addition, the Working Group welcomed the launch of a pilot SPECA Network of Business Incubators and Accelerators for Sustainable Development, based on UNECE work on business incubators. In this connection, the Working Group expressed its support to the innovative high-growth firms in the sub-region, and the recent “Innovation for Sustainable Development Review” of Uzbekistan. Participants from the SPECA countries expressed their strong interest in engaging with this Network to enhance support to their innovative entrepreneurship.

UNECE and ESCAP have been providing extensive capacity-building and policy advisory support to SPECA and continue to support their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals through ‘innovation and technology’ as one of the key drivers towards their structural economic and social transformations.

This session presented the main findings of the ADB report on Aid for Trade in Asia and the Pacific 2022, which examined how trade and Aid for Trade can support developing Asia in meeting their sustainable development goals through the lens of regional cooperation. The report presents the Aid for Trade landscape in Asia, recent development in trade indicators and discusses the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated trade policy measures. It also explores the potential of trade and digital agreements to support a resilient, inclusive and sustainable development, with a special focus on the most vulnerable economies. It discussed Aid for Trade beyond “hard infrastructure” investments to show that more Aid for Trade focus should be placed on “soft infrastructure” at both, improving the capacity of developing countries to participate in, design and implement of trade and digital agreements. It also highlighted the need for a reform of the Aid-for-Trade Initiative to reflect the new trade challenges and evolving environment, promoting regional assistance and economic spillovers.

The session focused on the need for use of trade and digital agreements for sustainable development. The session saw the release of the Asian Development Bank’s 2022 report on Aid for Trade in Asia and the Pacific—Leveraging Trade and Digital Agreements for Sustainable Development. A presentation was also made highlighting the issues covered in the report.

Panellists stated that in an era which is seeing a weakness in the international trading system, focus on aid for trade (AfT) is needed. This can help build and enhance Low-and-Middle-Income Countries’ (LMICs) participation in the global economy by integrating them into the international market. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased inequalities and further increased the requirement to build back better by enhancing trade. Inclusivity of women, young people, MSME etc., who have been disproportionality affected from pandemic should become a priority.

After the pandemic, there has been a rise in regional agreement as opposed to multi-lateral agreements. In this scenario, how new trade agreements relate to the already existing multi-regional needs to be evaluated. Since new agreements do not super succeed existing ones, whether regulatory convergence and coherence is promoted or not with such new agreements needs to be evaluated through an evidence-based approach. Further, whether these agreements get used by the private sector or whether they are just signed and not used also needs to be evaluated. Monitoring the effectiveness of an agreement can be done by assessing utilisation rates. Low utilisation rates suggest that a preference scheme is not working. Further, high utilisation may not always be a positive sign. However, utilisation rates are important as they are key to increasing transparency.

Panellists also highlighted that not all AfT programs in the nature of capacity building have equal success. However, successful programs have a few things in common. All such programs are demand driven and based on custom. They are a response to immediate requirement and ownership is the key ingredient. These programs have forward looking effort and involve private sector and civil society. Further, they also have a strong donor coordination. Adopting such measures can lead to developing synergies so that comparative advantage of each stakeholder can be exploited.

Panellists opined that the digital economy is key to enhancing global trade. Pandemic has increased digitalisation and most of the new generation Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are focusing on digital economy. Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA) signed between Chile, New Zealand and Singapore is a good example. It has been based on factors like end-to-end facilitation of trade, Trust, innovation, and inclusion. Further, there are soft norms included such as focus on interoperability and coherence. New issues can be added and new members can join.

However, only 0.4% of total AfT is utilised for digital transformation. Thus, there is a need to refocus and modernise AfT. AfT can help in the following way for digital transformation. Digital agreements are happening between developed countries and developing countries missing from the table. Rules for trade are being developed right now and developing countries have to join in co-designing the rules. For this purpose, developing countries need to have a good policy framework such as a National Digital Strategy and further regulatory building blocks should be in place which include frameworks for data protection, cyber security, competition policy for digital economy, digital transactions, and consumer protection, among others. Policy makers need to know how to regulate the digital economy and its aspects like artificial intelligence, digital identity, etc. Here, civil society and businesses need to be brought on the table. Developed countries can open opportunities for engagement and collaboration for developing countries.

On the panel were Albert Park, Chief Economist and Director General, Economic Research and Regional Cooperation, Asian Development Bank; Amy Stuart, Counsellor (Services and Investment), Australian Permanent Mission to the WTO in Geneva; Jong Woo Kang, Principal Economist, Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department, Asian Development Bank; Francesco Abate, Adjunct Professor, Turin University; Pramila Crivelli, Economist, ERCI, AsDB; Andrea Giacomelli, Aid-for-Trade and Trade Policy Advisor, Permanent Delegation of the Pacific Islands Forum to the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and Other International Organizations in Geneva; Stephanie Honey, Co founder, Global Trade Insights; Roy Lagolago, Head of the PACER Plus Implementation Unit, (PPIU); Shawn Tan, Senior Economist, ERCI, AsDB.

Expanding people’s access to finance, reducing the cost of digital transactions, and channeling wage payments and social transfers through financial accounts will be vital to mitigating recent economic setbacks in developing countries. Governments and the private sector can help further this transformation in several ways.”

Around the world, high inflation, slow economic growth, and food shortages are hurting the poor the most. Coming on top of the unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, today’s multiple crises have already caused dramatic reversals in development and led to a substantial increase in global poverty.

On the positive side, the COVID-19 crisis spurred unprecedented change, especially in industries with a large digital component This digital revolution has catalyzed increases in access to and use of financial services in developing economies, transforming how people make and receive payments, borrow, and save. 

These changes are strikingly evident in the latest edition of the Global Findex database, compiled from a survey of more than 125,000 adults in 123 economies, covering use of financial services throughout 2021. The survey found that 71% of adults in developing economies now have a formal financial account – whether with a bank, another regulated institution such as a credit union or microfinance lender, or a mobile money service provider – compared to 42% when the first edition of the database was published a decade ago. In addition, the difference in the share of men and women in developing economies who own an account has fallen for the first time, from nine percentage points to six. 

This digital transformation makes it easier, cheaper, and safer for people to receive wages from employers, send remittances to family members, and pay for goods and services. Mobile money accounts can better handle high-volume, small-denomination transactions, which help users to access financial services and save in order to cope better with crises. Individual accounts also give women more privacy, security, and control over their money.

The share of adults in developing economies who make or receive digital payments grew from 35% in 2014 to 57% in 2021 . In Sub-Saharan Africa, 39% of mobile money account holders now use their accounts to save. And more than one-third of people in low- and middle-income countries who paid a utility bill from an account did so for the first time after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Importantly, the digital revolution also serves as a powerful anti-corruption tool, because it helps to increase transparency as money flows from a government’s budget to public agencies to citizens . Government social programs can now reduce delays and leakage by channeling transfers directly to their beneficiaries’ mobile phones. Millions of people in developing countries received payments in this way during the pandemic, helping to cushion the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods.

Building on these encouraging trends is crucial, especially given the current economic headwinds. Expanding people’s access to finance, reducing the cost of digital transactions, and channeling wage payments and social transfers through financial accounts will be vital to mitigating development setbacks resulting from the ongoing turbulence.

Governments and the private sector can help further this transformation in several critical areas. First, they need to create a favorable operating and policy environment. For example, enabling the interoperability of systems allows for payments across different types of financial institutions and between mobile money service providers. Improving access to finance depends much more on the mobile-phone system than on the physical banking system. Cheap and functional mobile phones and affordable internet access are prerequisites for expanding digital finance. Consumer protections and stable regulations are also needed to foster safe and fair practices that bolster trust in the financial system.

Establishing digital-identification systems also is essential, because lack of verifiable identity is one of the main reasons why some adults remain excluded from financial services . We know from the experiences of countries such as India and the Philippines that government identification programs and financial-inclusion programs can work in tandem to equip hard-to-reach populations with official identification documents and financial accounts. India, for example, has pioneered a successful accessible digital ID system that pays due attention to safety and privacy.

Another high priority should be to promote the digitalization of payments. The Global Findex data for 2021 show that 865 million account owners in developing economies opened their first account at a bank or similar institution in order to receive money from the government. This helped households directly and also helped build the digital financial ecosystem, because people who received payments into an account were more likely to use their account to make payments and access other services. Digital payments by governments thus serve as a foundation for assembling credible social registers and identifying gaps and overlaps.

As digital payments become more widespread and less costly, many private businesses will be able to pay their workers and suppliers electronically – and should. The digital revolution offers a chance to increase formal-sector employment without making compliance excessively burdensome. At a time of tighter government budget constraints, digital payments can help broaden the revenue base by reducing tax avoidance and evasion.

Finally, policymakers will need to make additional efforts to include underserved groups. The gender gap in financial access has narrowed, but it still exists. Women, along with the poor, are more likely to lack a form of personal identification or a mobile phone, to live far from a bank branch , and to need support to open and use a financial account. Financial-education programs, especially those that involve peer-to-peer learning (such as through women’s self-help groups) are essential as well.

The World Bank is firmly committed to expanding financial inclusion through digitalization. We will continue to support countries as they enhance mobile-phone networks, rework regulations to foster access to finance, adopt e-government platforms, and modernize social-protection systems. For the many millions of people who still lack an account, we need to redouble our efforts and find creative ways to connect them to the financial system, build economic resilience, and reap the benefits of inclusion.

This piece was originally published by Project Syndicate on July 7, 2022

Three quarters of adults now have a bank or mobile money account; gender gap in account ownership narrows

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred financial inclusion – driving a large increase in digital payments amid the global expansion of formal financial services. This expansion created new economic opportunities, narrowing the gender gap in account ownership, and building resilience at the household level to better manage financial shocks, according to the Global Findex 2021 database.

As of 2021, 76% of adults globally now have an account at a bank, other financial institution, or with a mobile money provider, up from 68% in 2017 and 51% in 2011. Importantly, growth in account ownership was evenly distributed across many more countries. While in previous Findex surveys over the last decade much of the growth was concentrated in India and China, this year’s survey found that the percentage of account ownership increased by double digits in 34 countries since 2017.

The pandemic has also led to an increased use of digital payments. In low and middle-income economies (excluding China), over 40% of adults who made merchant in-store or online payments using a card, phone, or the internet did so for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The same was true for more than a third of adults in all low- and middle-income economies who paid a utility bill directly from a formal account.  In India, more than 80 million adults made their first digital merchant payment after the start of the pandemic, while in China over 100 million adults did.

Two-thirds of adults worldwide now make or receive a digital payment, with the share in developing economies grew from 35% in 2014 to 57% in 2021. In developing economies, 71% have an account at a bank, other financial institution, or with a mobile money provider, up from 63% in 2017 and 42% in 2011. Mobile money accounts drove a huge increase in financial inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“The digital revolution has catalyzed increases in the access and use of financial services across the world, transforming ways in which people make and receive payments, borrow, and save,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass“Creating an enabling policy environment, promoting the digitalization of payments, and further broadening access to formal accounts and financial services among women and the poor are some of the policy priorities to mitigate the reversals in development from the ongoing overlapping crises.”

For the first time since the Global Findex database was started in 2011, the survey found that the gender gap in account ownership has narrowed, helping women have more privacy, security, and control over their money. The gap narrowed from 7 to 4 percentage points globally and from 9 to 6 percentage points in low- and middle-income countries, since the last survey round in 2017.

About 36% of adults in developing economies now receive a wage or government payment, a payment for the sale of agricultural products, or a domestic remittance payment into an account. The data suggests that receiving a payment into an account instead of cash can kickstart people’s use of the formal financial system – when people receive digital payments, 83% used their accounts to also make digital payments. Almost two-thirds used their account for cash management, while about 40% used it to save – further growing the financial ecosystem.

Despite the advances, many adults around the world still lack a reliable source of emergency money. Only about half of adults in low- and middle-income economies said they could access extra money during an emergency with little or no difficulty, and they commonly turn to unreliable sources of finance, including family and friends.

“The world has a crucial opportunity to build a more inclusive and resilient economy and provide a gateway to prosperity for billions of people,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the supporters of the Global Findex database. “By investing in digital public infrastructure and technologies for payment and ID systems and updating regulations to foster innovation and protect consumers, governments can build on the progress reported in the Findex and expand access to financial services for all who need them.”

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the lack of an identity document remains an important barrier holding back mobile money account ownership for 30% of adults with no account suggesting an opportunity for investing in accessible and trusted identification systems. Over 80 million adults with no account still receive government payments in cash – digitalizing some of these payments could be cheaper and reduce corruption. Increasing account ownership and usage will require trust in financial service providers, confidence to use financial products, tailored product design, and a strong and enforced consumer protection framework.

The Global Findex database, which surveyed how people in 123 economies use financial services throughout 2021, is produced by the World Bank every three years in collaboration with Gallup, Inc.

Regional Overviews: 

Global Findex 2021 Regional Overviews


In East Asia and the Pacific, financial inclusion is a two-part story of what is happening in China versus the other economies of the region. In China, 89% of adults have an account, and 82% of adults used it to make digital merchant payments. In the rest of the region, 59% of adults have an account and 23% of adults made digital merchant payments—54% of which did so for the first time after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Double-digit increases in account ownership were achieved in Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand, while the gender gap across the region remains low, at 3 percentage points, but the gap between poor and rich adults is 10 percentage points.


In Europe and Central Asia, account ownership increased by 13 percentage points since 2017 to reach 78% of adults. Digital payments usage is robust, as about three-quarters of adults used an account to make or receive a digital payment. COVID-19 drove further usage for the 10% of adults who made a digital merchant payment for the first time during the pandemic. Digital technology could further increase account use for the 80 million banked adults that continued to make merchant payments only in cash, including 20 million banked adults in Russia and 19 million banked adults in Türkiye, the region’s two largest economies.


Latin America and the Caribbean saw an 18 percentage -point increase in account ownership since 2017, the largest of any developing world region, resulting in 73% of adults having an account. Digital payments play a key role, as 40% of adults paid a merchant digitally, including 14% of adults who did so for the first time during the pandemic. COVID-19 furthermore drove digital adoption for the 15% of adults who made their first utility bill payment directly from their account for the first time during the pandemic—more than twice the developing country average. Opportunities for even greater use of digital payments remain given that 150 million banked adults made merchant payments only in cash, including more than 50 million banked adults in Brazil and 16 million banked adults in Colombia.


The Middle East and North Africa region has made progress reducing the gender gap in account ownership from 17 percentage points in 2017 to 13 percentage points—42% of women now have an account compared to 54% of men. Opportunities abound to increase account ownership broadly by digitalizing payments currently made in cash, including payments for agricultural products and private sector wages (about 20 million adults with no account in the region received private sector wages in cash, including 10 million in the Arab Republic of Egypt). Shifting people to formal modes of savings is another opportunity given that about 14 million adults with no account in region—including 7 million women—saved using semiformal methods.


In South Asia, 68% of adults have an account, a share that has not changed since 2017, though there is wide variation across the region. In India and Sri Lanka, for example, 78% and 89% of adults, respectively, have an account. Account usage has grown, however, driven by digital payments, as 34% of adults used their account to make or receive a payment, up from 28% in 2017. Digital payments present an opportunity to increase both account ownership and usage, given the continued dominance of cash—even among account owners—to make merchant payments.


In Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile money adoption continued to rise, such that 33% of adults now have a mobile money account—a share three times larger than the 10% global average. Although mobile money services were originally designed to allow people to send remittances to friends and family living elsewhere within the country, adoption and usage have spread beyond those origins, such that 3-out-of-4 mobile account owners in 2021 made or received at least one payment that was not person-to-person and 15% of adults used their mobile money account to save. Opportunities to increase account ownership in the region include digitalizing cash payments for the 65 million adults with no account receiving payments for agricultural products, and expanding mobile phone ownership, as lack of a phone is cited as a barrier to mobile money account adoption. Adults in the region worry more about paying school fees than adults in other regions, suggesting opportunities for policy or products to enable education-oriented savings.