Financial Inclusion: Past, Present, and Future

Elisabeth Rhyne discusses where we came from and summarizes challenges from the "Getting Inclusion Right" essays.

This post is adapted from Elisabeth’s opening remarks at the CFI 10th Anniversary Symposium.

Anniversaries always remind us to step back and remember what we were thinking and feeling when some momentous event happened. So, on the occasion of the Center for Financial Inclusion’s 10th anniversary, I thought back to why we started CFI.

In 2008, Accion – and I, too – were deep in the microfinance movement, which was reaching nearly 200 million people. That was an amazing accomplishment, but we wanted to know what came next, and there were reasons to think it would not just be more of the same.

We looked at the number of financially excluded people. It was still in the billions. And, despite efforts to shift the mindset and business models of microfinance, it remained stubbornly focused on credit. Yet the more we learned about the financial needs of lower income people the more we understood that other services mattered as much or more. We also worried about the growing number of over-indebtedness crises in microfinance.

Having first been a promoter for the commercialization of microfinance, I now became equally passionate about the need for those new commercial providers to embrace consumer protection, so we started the Smart Campaign.

At that time, policy makers sometimes used the term “bankarization”, as if opening a bank account were a magic key to prosperity. This sounded just plain boring. Who wants to be bankarized? Yes, accounts were a first step, but we had greater ambitions.

Accounts were a first step, but we had greater ambitions.

That’s why, when the United Nations and others first surfaced the concept “financial inclusion,” we seized on it. We viewed it as the right next goal: a drive toward financial services that would reach everyone in a meaningful way.

Early in CFI’s life, we created a vision statement for financial inclusion:

  1. A full range of services: payments, savings, credit and insurance
  2. Provided with quality: convenience, affordability, safe and respectful
  3. To all who can use them, including highly-excluded groups
  4. In a vibrant and competitive marketplace

We later added a fifth element, financially capable customers, in response to overwhelming concerns we heard about the need for customers to become better informed and to adopt healthy financial habits.

The sector has evolved since 2008, but our guiding vision remains the same. These five items are still what we mean by Getting Inclusion Right. Getting Inclusion Right is not just about access, but about products that people actively use and have the potential to improve their lives.

If I asked what the biggest change in the sector since 2008 has been, many people would say technology. But for CFI, the biggest change has been the players. The old microfinance community was tight knit. Everyone knew everyone, and there was a shared sense of mission. But financial inclusion involves an enormously diverse range of stakeholders, with many different purposes and ways of looking at the world. We now have fintechs, telcos, mainstream banks, and ecommerce giants, in addition to the smaller financial institutions that Accion traditionally worked with. The wide range of players made it harder to agree on the future of the sector, but it also made it possible to dream much bigger about achieving financial inclusion in a few years. Drawing on our experience in maintaining the social mission while microfinance scaled and commercialized, we decided that what CFI could do best would be to engage and challenge these various new players and unite them around the drive to empower and protect customers. And that has become CFI’s mission.


The world is much closer to full financial inclusion today than when we started. The Global Findex reveals that in the six years between 2011 and 2017, nearly a billion adults in low and middle-income countries – 20 percent of the adult population – opened an account. That’s another amazing achievement. Between 2014 and 2017, the percentage of people in the emerging/frontier markets who made or received a digital payment rose from 32 to 44 percent – which represents about 500 million people digitally included in just three years.

And the progress is very widespread. I was especially heartened to find 22 “surge” countries in the latest Findex results. In these countries, account ownership leaped up in just a few years – countries like Kyrgyzstan, which rose from 4 to 40 percent of adults with accounts in 6 years, or Mali, which climbed from 8 to 35 percent.

But where are we on our five-part vision? For one thing, we’re still counting accounts. The “bankarization” glass in emerging/frontier markets is not yet half full: only 48 percent of adults in those markets have active accounts with any transactions in the past year. Most worrying is the complete standstill during the past three years on indicators of savings, credit and resilience. Accounts do not necessarily translate into a wider range of services or improved outcomes. If we do not offer something more meaningful, we’ll be on track to get inclusion wrong.


We turn forward now, to look at what remains to be done and how to do it. To help us in a structured and serious way, we asked some of the leading actors and thinkers in the financial inclusion world. I’m grateful to the ten authors who contributed the Ten Essays for Ten Years, and to Citi Foundation for supporting the project. The authors are leaders inside banks, insurance, payments companies, fintechs, microfinance institutions and investment firms, as well as just plain experts in the field. They have written articulate, informed statements of each author’s convictions. Please read them, because taken together, they are the building blocks of the agenda for our next decade. Let me summarize, if possible, the most important messages I have taken from these essays.

Kicking off with my own essay, I distilled learnings about customers from CFI’s decade of research, trying to put myself into customers’ shoes. We learned that customers may already have good informal financial services – and if we want to serve them, we have to offer even better. They don’t necessarily manage their financial lives or use our products as we expect them to. We have to listen to them to find out. And we recognized their high emotional stakes because our services matter to their lives and they often feel vulnerable and powerless. My essay was a plea to apply such insights to design and deliver products tuned in to the customers’ wavelength.

Very happily, in four of our essays, we see providers doing just that: engaging creatively with customers in a digital environment.

Buhle Goslar of Jumo, challenges digital lenders to work on lowering prices, increasing transparency and designing products suited to customer needs. Wait… that sounds like the Smart Campaign and its Client Protection Principles. But Buhle isn’t trying to be “responsible” – she’s trying to make it work for her customers.

Mark Pickens of Visa argues that payments providers need to make digital payments more appealing for customers who have a strong preference for cash – such as by making it clear that digital payments put you on the road to credit access.

Garance Wattez-Richard of AXA explains how insurance companies need to upend conventional practices to reach the low end market – with radical notions like no-exclusion insurance (to keep costs low) and products designed to pay out frequently (to build trust). These four essays show how to pursue the first two tenets of CFI’s vision: “a full range of products delivered with quality.”

Shameran Abed of BRAC and B-Kash takes on the third tenet – “to everyone who can use them.” He reminds us that we must be more deliberate about ensuring that progress does not create a digital divide. He focuses on the multiple players that have worked together to enable his own highly vulnerable clients – poor rural women in Bangladesh – to receive and use financial services.

In each of these essays, we see providers taking customer-centricity well beyond lip service and grappling with customer needs and preferences in a nitty-gritty way. They set aside preconceptions and respond to direct insights from customers – and that’s not easy to do.

The remaining five essays speak to our fourth tenet: “a vibrant and competitive marketplace.” They examine how the sector can support the design, delivery and scaling of services like these. We need to get the ecosystem structure right to get inclusion right.

Chris Skinner of the Finanser sets the stage by asking why M-Pesa, so successful in Kenya, failed in India, while PayTM succeeded. From these examples he identifies the elements that must converge: an important customer need, the right technology, an enabling government, and companies that can put it all together. His essay reminds us that major technology players like Alibaba and Ant Financial are about to exert a major impact on the shape of the sector.

Tim Adams, head of the Institute of International Finance, makes the case for mainstream banks and financial institutions – by far the main providers of accounts and related service – to reach out to the still-excluded and underserved. It’s not only a matter of doing the right thing – it’s about understanding, preparing and remaining competitive into the future.

Simone di Castri and Ariadne Plaitakis of BFA make a strong pitch for regulators to explicitly add innovation and competition to their mandates. Jonathan Whittle and Monica Brand of Quona Capital describe how a spectrum of specialist investors is necessary to take companies from their beginnings to industry-changing scale.

Finally, in one of my favorite essays, Katharine Kemp, from the University of New South Wales, raises a challenge that concerns us as both providers and customers: protecting and securing the sensitive data of individuals that is increasingly central to inclusive business models. At CFI, we are seeking to integrate standards for data privacy and security into the Smart Campaign’s consumer protection standards.

Easier said than done.

In total, these essays provide an agenda for the future: work from the customer perspective to get payments, insurance and credit right; keep a special focus on reaching the most-excluded; build an ecosystem of mainstream providers, fintech investors and others who will apply technology to innovate, but will keep customers and their data protected.

This brings me to a note about values. Each of these writers spoke from conviction. Though they reflect the companies they work in, their personal sense of values comes through. We need to remember that companies only act consistently with values if the people in them can carry their own values deeply into their work. Technology – always a double-edged sword – will only create benefits if we bring our values along as we apply it.

As you can tell, I think these essays are very special. The authors exemplify the diversity of the financial inclusion sector. Coming from different perspectives, they create a unified message that aims the field in the right direction. And that is, perhaps, a metaphor for what I hope CFI can continue to do in its next decade: bring a community together around a shared vision. As you read our essays, we hope you will take away a clearer idea of the path forward and how you can best contribute – and, most important, renewed energy and commitment to getting inclusion right.

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