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Reality check: Three ways we hype up financial inclusion breakthroughs

posted Aug 6, 2014, 9:17 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From Center for Financial Inclusionblog, 6 August 2014] 

I guess it happens in all human endeavors; we sometimes get carried away wishing things were the way we think they ought to be. Let me provide three cautionary observations relating to financial inclusion: about how we measure it, how we talk about it, and how we assess it. The point is not to dampen enthusiasm about the possibilities, but to reflect on our progress in a more realistic way.

Industry Showcases and the Numbers Game

Through numerous industry conferences and blogs, certain players get put up as shining examples for the industry to follow. M-Shwari is perhaps the latest one, I guess because it delivers large customer numbers to an industry that is still largely focused on coverage rather than usage, and it represents the kind of telco-bank partnership that many have been fantasizing about.

M-Shwari may indeed be every bit the financial inclusion success that it is made out to be, but how is one supposed to judge that, based on the sparse numbers that have been released? This is pretty much all we know: as of March 2014, 6.8 million registered customers, of which 3.6 million were active, collectively had $46 million in deposits and $14 million in loans outstanding; 15 percent of loan requests were approved, and 2.7 percent of loans were non-performing. Now, is the savings balance total the result of each of the 3.6 million active customers squirreling away $13 for a rainy (more like drizzly) day ($46m ÷ 3.6m = $13), or is it more likely that most of the savings comes from fewer than 100,000 busy traders who are saving $500 ($46m ÷ $500 = 92,000) in order to create more transactional head-room for their linked M-Pesa account? We just don´t know. But then, how can we have an opinion on M-Shwari’s efficacy as a financial exclusion buster?

We must refrain from unduly extolling cases on which we have not been invited to know enough. We need to look beyond average balances, which are typically highly skewed by large balances at the very top of the distribution. Donors, policymakers, and pundits must start asking for customer distributions before parading any savings effort as a success.

Digitization of Payments and the Journey to Cash-Lite

What do we mean when we talk about digitization of G2P payments? Most government payments have for a long time been digitized, at least at source. No ministry holds a huge cash stash to pay pensions and welfare benefits. Now the trend is to pay these directly into beneficiaries’ digital accounts, rather than to intermediary entities for onward distribution of the cash. But when beneficiaries are paid digitally, the practice pretty much universally is for them to withdraw the money in cash immediately and in full at local shops acting as agents, who have the thankless task of procuring the cash. So, in what sense has the payment been digitized? The same amount of cash is still involved, it just got to beneficiaries through a different channel. All we’ve done is outsource last mile cash distribution to retail outlets, via a financial service provider.

This is not to say there is no net benefit: account-based G2P payments are much less prone to corruption, and bank agents may be closer to where beneficiaries live than the old government cash distribution points. But people’s money is for the most part no more electronic than it was before. And by the way, this is true as much for P2P as for G2P payments, and in Kenya as much as everywhere else.

Moreover, because most electronic accounts are largely empty, users do not have a natural preference for paying electronically at the corner store, so local electronic acceptance by local merchants does not take off. Contrary to frequent commentary, digitization of payments is therefore not leading to a cash-lite world. We are confusing the digitization of payments (how money moves around) with the digitization of money (how money is held).

Impact Evaluation and Silver Bullets

Few would argue that there are any silver bullets—understood as simple solutions to complicated problems—in development. We know that progress occurs from the interplay of various forces and interventions—access to education, information, markets, finance, infrastructure, legal and physical security, etc.—and that none of these individually stands a chance to transform lives. The impacts of finance happen mostly through indirect channels, through a process not unlike multiple particle collisions. So when we insist on measuring the impact of financial inclusion programs by carefully isolating single treatments/collisions, aren’t we secretly wishing to find a silver bullet?

While I understand intellectually the need to conduct impact evaluation, how realistic is it to expect to find sustained, systematic impact from narrowly defined and precisely controlled financial interventions? How much mileage will we get from building ever-more precise Hadron Supercolliders in the social sciences?

I’m just sayin’…