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Women’s financial inclusion: Good policy is not enough

Ahmed Dermish, Global Technical Specialist

We need trust, fairness, and to include women in decision-making.

 

Anyone with a mobile phone understands the potential of digital services at your fingertips.

And yet we also know that digital technologies are not always inclusive or fair. Women, in particular, have not equally benefited from digital technologies in their everyday lives. This is especially the case in financial services in Africa – and especially now in the time of COVID-19.

Improving choices for women

The economic activity of women and girls often goes unrecognized. However, women are actively engaged as economic actors across value chains: as producers, consumers, business owners, or community members who influence markets and policy (UNHLP 2016).

Creating equitable financial and economic systems recognizes women’s role as pillar of the economy and enables them to contribute in even larger ways, to the benefit of everyone — by to saving for the future, taking credit to fund a business, or making school payments. Digital technology can help do this. But it must be applied in a way that is inclusive and fair.

Creating an inclusive financial sector

Many variables impact the creation of an inclusive financial sector. For example, investment in necessary interoperable payment infrastructure, equitable ID systems, and rules that promote access and trust of services. The G7 Partnership for Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion in Africa is an excellent example of how governments, development actors, and services providers are coming together to address each variable, so the outcome is more than the sum of its parts.

UNCDF Policy Accelerator‘s role is to support governments reform their policies and regulations in order to accelerate digital financial inclusion and specifically women’s. There is no simple process to accelerate digital financial inclusion, but it highly depends on two crucial factors:

1. Policies and regulations

Policies and regulations play a critical part in promoting women’s financial inclusion because, they create space for digital financial services that women need, while keeping the system secure. Government policies have an outsized impact on how inclusive markets develop and leverage new technologies. Smart policies and regulations can address the built-in biases that often prevent women from accessing and using financial services.

There are many policies and regulations the impact financial inclusion, and among them several ‘basic’ regulatory enablers that are pre-conditions to large scale digital financial inclusion. Of these ‘basic’ regulatory enablers, making it easier to open an account and designing consumer protection rules to promote trust and fairness are critical to women’s economic empowerment.

Easy account opening

Account opening should be widely accessible, with or without identification. This is made possible if regulations are risk-based and establish thresholds limits that are affordable for women. There is a clear global precedent for risk-based account opening standards. Many markets need to adapt these to the local context.

Trust and fairness

Promoting trust and fairness is equally important but perhaps less clear. Defining ‘trust’ and ‘fairness’ in financial consumer protection regulation can be a murky process. Yet this should not dissuade regulators from doing so. Women are more likely to use new services when their privacy is protected and have recourse when mistreated. Services providers are responsible for building this trust, while governments are responsible for setting standards of practice and holding providers accountable.

2. Women are part of the process

Women need to be in the room when important decisions are made.

Governments should support female policymakers and regulators to develop their skills to design, govern, and adapt rules that promote inclusive financial services. Building the capacity of women in decision making roles is critical but also insufficient. Women’s groups and their representatives should also be consulted in designing and implementing policies that will directly impact them. This is particularly the case for consumer protection regulations, where privacy, transparency, and fairness are addressed directly.

It is also in the interest of governments to strive to understand the unique experiences of different groups of women in their markets so policy reforms are more targeted and meaningful. For example, women in cities will have a different experience than those in rural areas, while female entrepreneurs will likely suffer different limitations than stay-at-home mothers.

The process of empowering women to control their financial lives will not end with a single regulation or access to identification. Government reforms need to sustain the pace of change that is accelerating with the rise of digital services. That’s how today’s reforms will pay off in the long term.

UNCDF’s commitment

As a member of the G7 Partnership for Women’s Digital Financial Inclusion in Africa, UNCDF is committed to pursuing these avenues of change through its Africa Policy Accelerator project. In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the French Ministry of Finance, the Policy Accelerator supports governments to design (or improve) consumer protection and account access regulations to serve women’s financial needs in Africa. We will do that by, among other activities, helping governments learn more about women’s needs in their local markets through research, while ensuring that women have a seat at the table.

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WEF

Embracing new technologies defines a company’s competitiveness on the market today, its efficient operation and its future development. As businesses go remote, many of them transfer their valuable data to the cloud – experts predict up to 60% will be using external provider services by 2022. This allows companies to tune internal communications, process and store larger amounts of data and deliver more value to customers.

The Digital Transformation Officer (DTO) plays the key role in managing the strategic approach necessary to successfully undertake such transformations. Part of that success means managing cyber-risk. In fact, the World Economic Forum, in its guidance to boards of directors, recommends that organizational design supports cybersecurity. The DTO has significant responsibility in making sure this important obligation is met.

Among IT initiatives worldwide, digital transformation is a leading priority.
Among IT initiatives worldwide, digital transformation is a leading priority.
Image: Statista

Investments in digital transformation are projected to reach $1.78 trillion in 2022. In this regard, the DTO plays the key role – their task is to drive the company’s digital transformation by ensuring seamless integration of novel technologies into business operations. This mission is complex and does not only mean introducing new software and hardware. It is about full revision of internal and external processes, training of staff, and, perhaps most crucially, implementing new approaches to security.

The need for the effective cybersecurity is growing in parallel with the increasing digitalization of work processes. Over the past two years, many industries have seen a substantial rise in security incidents.

Cyberattacks are rising across multiple sectors worldwide.
Cyberattacks are rising across multiple sectors worldwide.
Image: ENISA

 

Unless a DTO pays sufficient attention to security, one incident may disrupt the whole strategy of a company’s transformation and future development, bringing enormous financial and reputational damage. For example, in 2021 the average cost of a data breach has risen to $4.24 million, the highest in the past 17 years.

The main challenge for a DTO is not only to take a company to new heights through digital transformation, but to ensure that transformation is sustainable. This means she or he must ensure continuity of the company’s processes and not let a single cyberattack disrupt operations. With that in mind, cybersecurity becomes an integral part of every digital transformation strategy.

We recommend DTOs consider the following trends:

1. Securing digital assets

Moving to remote work revealed a lot of challenges and new risks – one in five companies were not ready to ensure stable business processes in case of failures in their IT infrastructure. To stay on the safe side, a DTO should manage a detailed inventory of digital assets. This will point out the most important resources that require protection in the first place, be they data, network repositories or workplaces; it may also reveal a wide range of unaccounted assets that could appear during digitalization. BI.ZONE research shows that 60% of data leaks and 85% of network compromises are linked with such assets. These incidents may disrupt the company’s daily operations. To avoid that, the digital assets need to be accounted and secure.

2. Cloud security

Moving to cloud offers companies significant flexibility as well as potential security benefits. Still, there are certain challenges, most commonly when a company becomes dependent on only one cloud service provider, e.g. due to specific data storage formats. In the event of vendor lock-out – if the service provider goes bankrupt, leaves the market, or suffers a cybersecurity incident itself – all the company systems in the cloud will be unavailable. In light of these challenges, the DTO needs to have a deep understanding of how their company is using and securing the cloud. It is important to learn in advance what solutions and formats are utilized by the supplier, as well as their compatibility with formats by other vendors, and to assess the cybersecurity level of this supplier. A DTO can arrange this internally or hire third-party IT experts for help.

3. Developing skills to operate novel technologies securely

Recognizing the human factor in digital transformation may offer significant benefits. Digital transformation requires new skills both from technical and non-technical specialists. Human mistakes and lack of knowledge often lead to cyber-incidents, notwithstanding a company’s investments into expensive security means. BI.ZONE research shows 80% of successful cyberattacks utilize social engineering methods. Therefore, a DTO can reduce the risks of incidents by promoting regular trainings for every employee and top management on how to work safely in the new digital reality.

4. New approaches to cyber-incident management

If any crisis strikes, the company should be ready at all levels to keep the operations going. A DTO should work closely with the company’s Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) to improve and regularly update business continuity and incident response plans, and to promote regular crisis-management trainings for all company members, including the board. Also, it is important for a DTO to be aware of the latest trends, and to test and introduce new methods of incident management. For example, there are managed detection and response services that foresee proactive approach to threats, or threat intelligence for building better security. Smooth introduction of these approaches may require specific experience and supervision of experts.

5. Outsourcing cybersecurity tasks

As digital transformation is an ongoing process, these tasks are complex, require substantial investments and may turn out rather difficult for a company to deal with. Besides, businesses are facing a deficit of qualified personnel – the global shortage for cybersecurity specialists has hit 3 million. Today there are expert organizations that help companies to go through digital transformation securely. They possess the required experience and capacities, the expensive equipment and software, and are aware of the tendencies within the field. They can also help to address cybersecurity issues and avoid common mistakes.

Digital transformation is a challenging but manageable task. It is important for a DTO to work as a team with the CISO, senior leadership, and the board and to stay tuned with the rapid changes in business and technologies. Addressing all the elements in a cross-functional way and prioritizing cybersecurity will facilitate secure digital transformation and ensure your company’s stable development for years to come.

Embracing new technologies defines a company’s competitiveness on the market today, its efficient operation and its future development. As businesses go remote, many of them transfer their valuable data to the cloud – experts predict...

ITU

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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WTO

“Digital Jobs Albania” is a new World Bank initiative that will help women in Albania gain better access to online work opportunities and connect with the global economy. The initiative will provide intensive 3-month training in digital skills for women aged 16-35 years, empowering them to access online freelancer job opportunities in graphic design, web development and digital marketing.

The emergence of online freelancer job markets is creating new opportunities for Albanians to connect with the global economy. Websites such as Upwork, Fiverr and People Per Hour allow Albanians with the right skills to access online project work commissioned by companies and individuals anywhere in the world, while staying in their local communities.

Women in particular stand to gain. The female labor force participation in Albania is still 14.6 percentage points lower than for males. The gender pay gap remains 6.6 percent, according to 2020 data from the Albanian National Statistical Authority (INSTAT). The emerging online freelancing work model can play an important role in narrowing these gaps. Flexible work hours and the ability to work from home can help more women with the right skills stay in the labor market and gain financial independence.

The Digital Jobs Albania initiative, implemented in partnership with the Government of Albania, Coderstrust (an international digital skills training provider), and EuroPartners Development (a local consulting company), will provide an online training program to equip selected participants with in-demand technical skills. It will also provide mentorship to participants and help them develop the soft skills needed to successfully compete for project work on online freelancer websites.

“This initiative offers an exciting new opportunity for Albanian women to acquire digital skills and join the online economy – a blueprint to inspire future projects in this space,” says Emanuel Salinas, World Bank Country Manager for Albania. “No one can afford to be left behind in the ongoing digital transformation.”

The initiative is part of broader ongoing World Bank engagement in Albania to help the country leverage the economic opportunities associated with digital trade in goods and services.

“Albania has recognized the importance of digital markets as an opportunity for economic development. We have mobilized a team from across the World Bank to support this effort, through this new initiative and others in the future,” says Christoph Ungerer, the World Bank task team leader for the Albania Digital Trade Project.

To learn more about the Digital Jobs Albania initiative and how to participate in it, please visit: https://www.digitaljobsalbania.com/

“Digital Jobs Albania” is a new World Bank initiative that will help women in Albania gain better access to online work opportunities and connect with the global economy. The initiative will provide intensive 3-month training...

UNCTAD

The funds will support activities that can enable more countries to engage in and benefit from the evolving digital economy.

 

Switzerland has announced a contribution of $4.4 million (4 million Swiss francs) to UNCTAD’s e-commerce and digital economy programme.

The funds to be provided through the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) will support the programme’s technical cooperation, research and consensus-building activities until 2024.

UNCTAD and Switzerland signed an agreement on 13 September.

“We sincerely thank Switzerland for the generous contribution,” said Isabelle Durant, deputy secretary-general of UNCTAD. “The financial support will enable us to scale up our efforts to foster more inclusive and sustainable development gains from e-commerce and the digital economy for people and businesses in developing countries.”

“Switzerland is proud to contribute to UNCTAD’s programme on e-commerce, which supports the establishment of favourable framework conditions for e-commerce in developing and least developed countries,” said Didier Chambovey, ambassador of the Swiss Permanent Mission to the World Trade Organization and the European Free Trade Association.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, a robust e-commerce ecosystem is needed to maintain trade flows and mitigate economic and social consequences in times of crisis, particularly in the most vulnerable countries.”

Spreading the benefits of the digital economy

The UNCTAD programme aims to reduce inequality, enable the benefits of digitalization to reach all people and ensure that no one is left behind in the evolving digital economy.

Its activities include, among others, the biennial Digital Economy Report, the eCommerce Week, eTrade for alleTrade for Women and eTrade readiness assessments.

The Swiss contribution will boost the programme’s ability to respond to the growing demand from countries for UNCTAD’s support, not least in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has accentuated the need to support countries with the lowest levels of readiness to take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the risks presented by digitalization.

Committed to digitalization

The contribution demonstrates Switzerland’s commitment to strengthening its support to digitalization in line with its International Cooperation Strategy for 2021-24 and its Digital Foreign Policy Strategy 2021-2024, both of which recognize the role of digitalization in meeting current and future development challenges.

The contribution will finance at least three eTrade readiness assessments, which will provide a diagnostic of the state of e-commerce in the countries concerned, covering seven policy areas considered most relevant for e-commerce development. It will also build on a close collaboration with selected eTrade for all partners.

In 2020, Switzerland topped UNCTAD’s Business-to-Consumer E-commerce Index, which ranks 152 countries on their readiness to engage in electronic commerce.

It scored highly across all four dimensions of the index, with 97% of the population using the internet (2019) and 98% of the population aged 15 and older having a bank account (2017).

It also ranked 7th in the world in terms of postal reliability according to the Universal Postal Union, and 5th among the countries included in the index for secure server density, a proxy for online stores.

The funds will support activities that can enable more countries to engage in and benefit from the evolving digital economy.

 

Switzerland has announced a contribution of $4.4 million (4 million Swiss francs) to UNCTAD’s <a href="https://unctad.org/topic/ecommerce-and-digital-economy" target="_blank"...

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