Sobering news on financial inclusion

Looking into the World Bank’s Global Findex data

By Michael Schlein

A person holding a phone and recording data on paper. Phone usage is one driver of financial inclusion reflected in the Global Findex.

The World Bank’s recent Global Findex report found that since 2014, 515 million new financial accounts were opened around the world. On the face of it, that seems like solid progress. But new research and analysis from the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) has found that roughly half of those new accounts — nearly 235 million — have not been used in the last year.

In fact, the number of active account holders only increased by 285 million, much less than the overall growth in account ownership from 2011–2014. The pace of progress is slowing.

Further, CFI’s report is sobering on many levels. Since 2014, in developing countries:

  • Savings has declined;
  • The use of formal credit is flat;
  • People are less resilient.

Perhaps the most disturbing news is the data on resilience. The Findex asked whether an individual could come up with an amount equal to roughly one month’s income in an emergency. The number of people who said that they could has declined in the last three years. In short, the most vulnerable people in the world — became even more vulnerable.

Though slowing down, today, more people have access to financial accounts than at any other point in history. Digital payments are another bright spot in CFI’s analysis: more people are using mobile phones (especially in Africa), bank cards, and the Internet to receive income and make payments. We should celebrate these accomplishments.

But it’s also quite clear that we’ve only taken the first step in a much longer and complex process to ensure that connections to financial institutions actually add value to people’s lives.

At least three billion people are still left out of or poorly served by the world’s financial sector. Though we are living in an era of spectacular innovation in financial inclusion, in the aggregate, families and small businesses around the world just are not getting the financial products and services they need to build better lives.

Some believed that digital financial tools would inexorably lead toward greater financial inclusion, but CFI’s report suggests that progress is not inevitable. It is clear that the hundreds of millions of dormant accounts are not particularly useful or beneficial to the people they were meant to serve. We need to do a better job of designing and delivering the services that people and small businesses really need to thrive. We have much more work to do.

We are grateful to the World Bank for publishing the Global Findex and pushing banks, fintech startups, regulators, and researchers around the world to work toward financial inclusion. However, CFI’s report makes clear that we must accelerate our efforts to create a financially inclusive world. Our work is more important than ever.

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