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Harnessing and balancing innovation: Payments in the fintech era

Providing everyone with a transaction account to send and receive money electronically is widely considered the first step towards financial inclusion. For the unbanked, such accounts are seen as the gateway to savings, credit, insurance and a host of other financial activities and services.

Ongoing advances in financial technology (fintech) have introduced new ways to expand access to financial services and the range of services on offer, both for experienced customers and for unbanked people gaining access to transaction accounts for the first time.

Alongside the traditional offerings, some banks have moved to support “open banking” in coordination with third-party online service providers.

Innovations in fields like big data analytics, digital identity and biometrics have ushered in new ways to assess creditworthiness and onboard new customers.

With transaction accounts now offered not just by banks, but also increasingly via mobile money providers and other non-bank platforms, a wide range of players can be involved in enabling payments.

For financial regulators, this raises a range of questions, with the imperative to spur fintech innovation being balanced against the responsibility to manage risks.

Guiding principles

Guiding principles for Payment Aspects of Financial Inclusion (PAFI), released in 2016 and updated in 2020, rest on public and private-sector commitments to provide everyone with access to a transaction account, a suitable supporting legal and regulatory framework, and the necessary financial and digital infrastructure.

Fintech’s rapid rise to prominence in recent years has led to further review of PAFI principles, again led by the World Bank Group and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). This time, the institutions focused on detailing how the PAFI principles apply to the latest fintech innovations.

The latest report notes fintech’s potential to broaden financial inclusion through initiatives embedded in wider country-level reforms.

Inclusive payment systems depend on close coordination between regulatory authorities and industry players, both to harmonize oversight and establish resilient infrastructure for electronic payments.

The right balance is needed between increasing efficiency and ensuring safety, as well as between enhancing the customer experience and protecting personal data.

The movement towards increasingly digital financial life, industry experts caution, may deepen exclusion for some.

Striking the balance

Source: Bank for International Settlements and World Bank Group (2020): Payment aspects of financial inclusion in the fintech era.

Tracking financial inclusion

To help national authorities apply PAFI guidance, the project provides guidance for diagnostic studies to track transaction account access and use. The toolkit allows comparisons against international benchmarks or within each jurisdiction over time as countries strive for more inclusive payment systems.

Morocco’s inclusion strategy

The PAFI toolkit forms part of a country-level self-assessment for Morocco’s financial sector, says Hakima El Alami, Director of Payment Systems and Instruments Oversight and Financial Inclusion Directorate at Bank Al-Maghrib, the country’s central bank.

Morocco is making fintech solutions part of its national Financial Inclusion Strategy — which aims to give all citizens and businesses fair access to formal financial products and services, she said during the recent Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.

Albania builds trust

Market access for new entrants also requires careful consideration, so that entities of all sizes enjoy equal opportunities for competition.

“From our perspective as a regulator, we need the market to have as many alternatives as possible, and this comes into force only with tools like a framework, infrastructure, and giving access in a secure and mitigated way,” said Ledia Bregu, Director of Payments in the Bank of Albania’s Accounting and Finance Department.

Bregu cited financial literacy as a key challenge, along with building customer confidence.

“When we speak about innovation and fintech, we need to build trust, so the new or unbanked part of the population has the same understanding and the same trust to use innovative tools to become more financially included.”

Financial inclusion can drive investment and economic development — important considerations for Albania and other relatively small economies in the Western Balkans, she adds. “At the end of the day we see it as a tool for economic growth,” says Bregu.

Mexico seeks network effects

Exponential tech growth means not only new services, but also new types of firms providing services, says Miguel Manuel Díaz, Director of Payment Systems and Infrastructure at Banxico.

This, he believes, has ramped up the pressure on central banks and other regulators.

According to Díaz, five key balances need to be maintained by authorities working to accommodate new types of industry players and services:

  1. Innovation versus risk mitigation;
  2. Economies of scale versus competition;
  3. Efficiency versus system security;
  4. Achieving diversity versus efficient system standardization; and
  5. Privacy versus security requirements.

Díaz sees two key tools to expand access to payment services while mitigating associated risks:

First, a central enabling infrastructure available to everyone. This supports competition among payment services and introduces network effects that help services reach as many people as possible.

Second, in-depth analysis to ensure the consistency of regulations with new market realities. For example, regulators may consider shifting from overseeing different types of institutions towards overseeing the different functions involved in providing a service.

South Africa recognizes limits of current regulation

While financial inclusion is a high priority today, this was not always the case in South Africa, says Pearl Malumane, Senior Analyst in the Policy and Regulation Division at the South African Reserve Bank.

“Over the years, the focus has always been on financial stability, but other regulators and also the South African Reserve Bank have come to realize the importance of financial inclusion,” she says.

“As a result, we have seen the growth of fintechs in South Africa, but we are aware that there are limits in our current regulatory framework. It is very restrictive in terms of what type of payment activities fintechs, or non-banks, are allowed to do.”

But the industry and its regulators need to persist in finding the right way forward, Malumane says. “Where fintech is enabled, it will enhance not only financial inclusion but also competition and innovation in the national payment system and throughout the country,” she says.

Note: This article is based on a panel discussion during the 2021 Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.
Play the session recording.

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Gender equality and digital development are inextricably linked. Yet globally, men are 21 percent more likely to be online than women, a figure that rises to 52 percent in low-income countriesThe Web Foundation estimates that barriers that keep women and girls offline — high device and data costs, lower digital skills, and restrictive social norms, to name a few — have cost developing countries about $1 trillion over the last decade.

The Digital Development Global Practice recently launched a new approach to accelerate its work on gender equality, with an ambitious vision that centers women and girls across its financing and analytics. The approach orients solutions to the five foundational pillars of the digital economy: digital infrastructure, digital public platforms, digital financial services, digital businesses, and digital skills. It also emphasizes the need for more and better sex-disaggregated data and to tackle risks, such as algorithmic bias and online gender-based violence.

Digital Infrastructure

Within infrastructure, practical solutions that increase access, affordability, and usage are critical. Intentional design that locates public Internet access points in safe spaces (for example, libraries and community centers) is a good start. Other interventions that support the closing of adoption gaps improve the affordability of devices and data plans and tailor digital skills programs for women. Traditionally underutilized universal service and access funds can help. However, only four out of 69 countries have deployed these funds to close the gender digital divide.  Device affordability schemes also show promise. The recently approved Uganda Digital Acceleration Project will test some of these innovations.

Digital Public Platforms

Access to digital public platforms often requires digital identification, which women lack compared to men. Barriers that women face often include legal requirements to present additional documents, for example, a marriage certificate. High registration costs and inconveniently located registration points also deter women. The Nigeria Digital Identification for Development Project conducted a qualitative study designed to understand the needs of women and marginalized groups, which surfaced several solutions. These include working through trusted networks and women’s groups to share information; locating registration centers close to communities; and designing registration policies that prioritize vulnerable groups. Other options include women-only registration centers, mobile registration services, and female enrollment agents.

Digital Financial Services

Digital payments, whether to provide wages, social assistance, or agricultural transfers, can save women time and provide added privacy, security, and control, thereby contributing to women’s empowerment. This is a key focus on the G2Px initiative, launched in early 2020 in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Benin, where an estimated 19 percent of women make or receive digital payments compared to 38 percent of men, another World Bank initiative aims to provide women smallholders with a safe and private place to store their money and connect them with other financial services. Complementary training on digital financial literacy for recipients and promoting a network of women agents can also help, as social norms often limit women’s ability to interact with male agents.

Digital Businesses

Women entrepreneurs often face a range of barriers, including unequal access to financing, legal discrimination, differences in skills, less access to networks, and more care responsibilities. They are also poorly represented in technology startups. To address these constraints, the Digital Cabo Verde Project aims to support women entrepreneurs with business and entrepreneurial mindset training, access to business networks, peer support, and mentoring.

Beyond comprehensive support for women-led businesses, tackling investor bias is critical. Research suggests that the persistent gender gap in financing cannot easily be explained by differences in education, experience, sector, intellectual property, or geography.

Digital Skills

Building digital skills starts early with hands-on exposure to technology to build girls’ interest and confidence. Typically, complementing technical skills training with soft skills, engaging role models, and creating structured linkages to the labor market through internships, apprenticeships, and job placement programs have positive outcomes. The Kosovo Digital Economy Project, which trains rural women in programming and web design to become online freelancers, shows how digital skills training can create pathways to economic prosperity. Women with disabilities, older women, and illiterate adults may require tailored curricula and flexible programs with active outreach to develop their basic digital skills — another key area for engagement.

Cutting across these pillars is the need to address restrictive gender norms that prevent women from fully participating in the digital economy. Solutions to tackle these vary with context but addressing gender stereotypes and engaging men and boys are essential steps in shifting beliefs and behaviors.

Ensuring that women and girls have equal access to and use of digital technologies — mobile phones, computers, and the internet — is central to their economic and social empowerment and inclusive economic recovery. As we accelerate our efforts on the digital inclusion of women and girls, we call on our partners to join us in this ambitious agenda.

UN

Some 2.9 billion people still have never used the internet, and 96 per cent live in developing countries, a new UN report has found. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the estimated number of people who have gone online this year actually went up, to 4.9 billion, partially because of a “COVID connectivity boost”.

This is good news for global development, but ITU said that people’s ability to connect remains profoundly unequal – as many hundreds of millions might only go online infrequently, using shared devices or facing connection speeds that hamper their internet use.

“While almost two-thirds of the world’s population is now online, there is a lot more to do to get everyone connected to the Internet,” Houlin Zhao, ITU Secretary-General said.

“ITU will work with all parties to make sure that the building blocks are in place to connect the remaining 2.9 billion. We are determined to ensure no one will be left behind.”

‘Connectivity boost’

The UN agency’s report found that the unusually sharp rise in the number of people online suggests that measures taken during the pandemic contributed to the “COVID connectivity boost.”

There were an estimated 782 million additional people who went online since 2019, an increase of 17 per cent due to measures such as lockdowns, school closures and the need to access services like remote banking.

Uneven growth 

According to the document, users globally grew by more than 10 per cent in the first year of the COVID crisis, which was the largest annual increase in a decade. But it pointed out that growth has been uneven.

Internet access is often unaffordable in poorer nations and almost three-quarters of people have never been online in the 46 least-developed countries.

A ‘connectivity Grand Canyon’

Speaking in Geneva, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU said: “The internet divide runs deep between developed and developing countries. Only a third of the population in Africa is using the internet.

“In Europe, the shares are almost 90 per cent, which is the gap between those two regions of almost 60 percentage points. And there is what the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, has called in his Common Agenda blueprint for the future, “a connectivity Grand Canyon”.

‘Digitally excluded’

The report found that younger people, men and urban dwellers are more likely to use the Internet than older adults, women and those in rural areas, with the gender gap more pronounced in developing nations.

Poverty, illiteracy, limited electricity access and a lack of digital skills continued to hinder “digitally excluded” communities, ITU noted.

WBG

For citizens in countries around the world, paying taxes is among their most challenging and time-consuming interactions with government.  For many governments, enhancing tax compliance and collecting sufficient revenue have been a matter of necessity to finance public goods and services.

That is why tax administrations are undertaking the digital transformation and automation of their systems. The adoption of technology can enable successful and sustainable tax reforms, ensure the proper taxation of the digital economy, and reduce the obstacles to compliance. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a boom in the use of digital commerce, made this change especially urgent for tax administrations.

The transformation has progressed increasingly rapidly over the past decade, as the cost of digital technologies has plunged and powerful tools to develop applications have become more user-friendly. One example of the falling cost: Cloud storage is now over 50% cheaper than it was a few years ago.

The rise of big data is an important factor in the shift because it can allow easy cross-checking of information, which enhances compliance by taxpayers. Overall, global data volume from mobile payment providers, electronic cash registers, online marketplaces, and other digital sources is expected to nearly triple from 2020 to 2024. 

Digital transformation is also being driven by the rapid growth of e-commerce, which is projected to expand 24% from 2020 to 2025, making it an increasingly important part of the tax base.

The increasing use of cashless payments, through mobile phones and other devices, is also powering the change. Such payments can be easily reviewed by tax administrations and often leave a digital trail that can be audited.

Digitalization makes life easier for authorities by easing the administrative burden, which gives officials more time to focus on higher-value activities.  But it also allows authorities to simplify procedures and reduce the compliance burden on taxpayers. Research shows that in South Korea, for example, digitalization has reduced compliance costs by as much as 19% in the 2011-2016 period.

A real-time, more user-friendly future

With these changes underway, taxation is likely to look a lot different in the future:

  • Instead of storing huge amounts of taxpayer data, administrations will have access to encrypted, distributed ledgers that allow them to capture tax information seamlessly and in real time. This has the added benefit of making tax administrations “less visible” to the public.
  • The decisions of the tax administrations will increasingly be supported and strengthened by artificial intelligence. But the system will need to be closely monitored for errors.
  • Tax administrations could become warehouses for more and more government data. That will give them a central role in the formulation of economic policy, enabling policymakers to review transactions in the economy and allowing better forecasting.
  • The tax system could become much more user-friendly. Services could include prefilled tax returns, taxpayers’ access to their own filing information, the sharing of data with banks to expedite credit approval, along with privacy preserving queries on the tax file by researchers and local communities.
  • Tax administrations will streamline the interface between taxpayers and tax officials, for instance by connecting corporate accounting systems with the tax administrations’ e-filing and e-payment platforms.

Making change work

Despite all the benefits, this transformation is up against major challenges. Research shows that most digital transformation initiatives don’t succeed. Of the $1.3 trillion spent in 2018, an estimated $900 billion was wasted.

To have the desired result, the digitalization of tax systems must enlist a broad coalition of stakeholders to make the necessary legal reforms and provide the funding. 

The shift should also focus on providing value by simplifying procedures and permanently bringing taxpayers into the e-filing, e-payment, and e-document ecosystem. The value could be provided by reduced compliance costs, increased tax certainty, and higher compliance.

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ITU

ITU Digital World 2021 SME Awards showcase sustainable digital solutions, helping creative start-ups forge partnerships and attract investment

​Inspiring technology solutions hold the potential to change and improve lives across the globe through the drive and dedication of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Winning solutions from digital SMEs based in Hong Kong (China), Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, South Korea, and the United States were showcased and announced at the ITU Digital World Awards Ceremony, the finale of the ITU Digital World 2021 event and a key SME promotion programme from the United Nations tech agency on Wednesday.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – the UN’s specialized agency for information and communication technologies (ICTs) – has highlighted SMEs as crucial contributors to help harness the world’s ongoing digital transformation to ensure sustainable development.

The latest ITU Digital World Awards recognized outstanding SME contributions to advance connectivity, smart cities and smart living, e-health, digital finance, and education technology.

“Innovative tech SMEs – fast-moving and responsive to the needs of different markets on the ground – have a vital role to play in accelerating digital transformation,” said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao. “Governments and the ICT industry need to act together to foster a climate that supports technology and business innovation, helping companies like our award winners scale up and flourish.”

Six winners emerged this year, spanning the five key categories.

Winning SMEs

The winners were:
Company Category​ Country
Benefit Vantage Limited – Ipification Connectivity Hong Kong, China
WIWI Connectivity Mexico
URBIT GROUP LLC Digital finance United States of America
Baobabooks Education Sàrl Education technology Switzerland
Mawidy E-health Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
SCE Korea, Inc. Smart cities, smart living Republic of Korea

ITU Deputy Secretary-General Malcolm Johnson recognized the winners and presented their certificates in the presence of Viet Nam’s Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, Phan Tam.

This seventh edition of the Awards marked the final event of a three-month online conference and exhibition co-hosted by Viet Nam. Opening in September, ITU Digital World 2021 also marked the 50th anniversary of ITU’s flagship Telecom conference and exhibition series.

During the ceremony, a new partnership for ITU with US technology firm Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) was announced, aimed at accelerating the programme next year and equipping SMEs with access to HPE tools, networks, and mentoring.

Competitive selection

The competition was open to all SMEs worldwide, with winning projects ranging from mobile authentication and information accessibility to connectivity for public transport, financial technology (fintech), creative writing, and healthcare powered by artificial intelligence (AI).A jury of experts, representing the fields of business, technology and entrepreneurship, selected the winners from a total of 133 eligible applicants from 53 countries.

Prepping transformative SMEs

The ITU Digital World Awards formed part of an expert-led SME Programme of online masterclasses and pitching for digital SMEs. Maintaining the virtual format, the final awards ceremony celebrated the creativity and innovation behind digital solutions meeting real-world needs.

The special masterclasses explored areas such as sustainable start-ups and SME-corporate collaboration, bidding for government procurement opportunities, customer service and innovation, e-health, designing for disability inclusion and fundraising. The SME Programme and Awards are key components of ITU Digital World 2021, which was co-hosted with the Government of Viet Nam and took place from September-December 2021.

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