What counts as financial inclusion? Reporting the number of active accounts in a country is a common way to measure progress in financial inclusion. But as access to, and uptake of, accounts increases, we need more powerful indicators to help us understand the dynamics of how people use financial services, and digital financial services in particular.
At insight2impact, we’ve spent the last four years exploring these questions and have tested our measurement frameworks and emergent indicators on both demand-side survey data and transactional data in Mexico and Nigeria. We also went further by linking the data sets for the same person to analyze a more complete picture of people’s financial lives, both within and outside of formal financial services. What we found was both curious and transformative for our thinking on how we measure financial inclusion.
Frequency as a Means to Track Digitization
The first step to financial inclusion is having access to a transactional account. If I choose to take up an account, I’m able to store money or send and receive payments, but if I use my account very rarely, am I still financially included? Maybe I receive a payment and immediately withdraw it all at an ATM. What if all the transactions I need to do can only be done in cash?
Analyzing frequency of usage gives us an indication of how populations are (or aren’t) switching to digital channels for transacting. We analyzed bank transaction data in Mexico to better understand financial service usage patterns. Debit-card usage by customers was relatively high, with 78 percent using their cards weekly, but 60 percent of monthly card usage occurred at ATMs to withdraw cash, not for purchases via POS or online. The frequency of ATM vs non-ATM card usage paints a more realistic picture of digitization in Mexico. It’s a picture of incomplete digitization, with cash remaining central for most people.
Secondly, we linked the transaction data to survey responses to compare people’s online vs offline transaction behavior. This revealed that most people still use cash for their regular expenses, even if they have a bank account. The graph below shows both banked and unbanked people’s cash usage for regular expenses such as rent and bills, and daily expenses such as groceries and transport. Cash was ubiquitous, regardless of gender, socio-economic segment or account ownership. By only counting the accounts, we would miss the scale of non-digital financial lives.