Since its founding in 2008, the Center for Financial Inclusion, or CFI, has worked to ensure that efforts to expand inclusive finance for low-income and other vulnerable people remain focused on people. That proposition might seem in theory to be self-evident; in practice, however, efforts often fall victim to focusing on the means and lose sight of the ends. CFI was created to help keep that from happening. We were founded at a particular moment when it was becoming more apparent that market forces alone would not ensure positive outcomes for low-income people, and that sustained intentionality would be necessary. CFI works to ensure that we never lose sight of our vision — a world in which all people are able to use financial services and participate in the economy to improve their lives and prosper — and that low-income people and their needs are consistently and deliberately kept at the center of all that we do.
Twelve years later, CFI — and the whole world — faces a radically different historic moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 88 million people and killed over 1.9 million between the time it was first reported in December 2019 and at the time of this writing in January 2021. Beyond the rapid and catastrophic spread of illness and deaths, the pandemic has devastated global economies. Millions of micro, small, and medium enterprises around the world have seen revenues plummet and have suspended operations or gone out of business altogether. Hundreds of millions of families have lost jobs and incomes, and many of them live in countries where social safety net protections are patchy at best. The pandemic also reversed, seemingly overnight, social and economic development gains that had taken decades to achieve: The World Bank estimates that between 88 million and 115 million people are at risk of falling into poverty. Women and children have been among those most affected; children because schools around the world have been shuttered, and women because they are more likely than men to lose their jobs and to shoulder the responsibility of supervising and homeschooling children.
This global crisis has no precedent in modern times. And yet, like all crises, the COVID-19 pandemic also presents an opportunity: to “build back better,” as the saying goes, to ensure that similar crises are averted and that we are much better prepared to respond effectively when they hit. For CFI, that means developing a deep understanding of how financial services reduce vulnerability for low-income populations and how to overcome the obstacles preventing so many from participating in the financial sector, and then working with key stakeholders and advocating for evidence-based change to ensure that such services fulfill their intended purpose. As tragic as the pandemic’s consequences have been and continue to be, it has laid undeniably bare the failures of the status quo and has created a heightened sense of urgency for financial services, no less than for health care, emergency relief, and other sectors, to build back better.
The pandemic’s consequences have laid bare the failures of the status quo created a heightened sense of urgency for financial services.
CFI brings more than a decade of experience to this intensified global effort, with expertise in understanding the financial needs and behaviors of low-income vulnerable populations. Complementing CFI’s strengths in demand-side research, our recent integration with MIX brings supply-side expertise to the table, as the MIX had been studying and reporting about financial service providers for the past 20 years. These complementary strengths, combined with our history of thought leadership and our role as conveners, position CFI to pursue an ambitious strategy made all the more urgent in the context of the pandemic.