The Outlook for Universal Financial Access in 2020

The World Bank’s leadership is changing as its Spring Meetings are underway this week. How will this affect its commitment to financial inclusion?

World Bank Group President David R. Malpass speaks to employees on his first day on the job. - World Bank Photo Collection / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How is the world – and the World Bank – doing on its campaign for Universal Financial Access (UFA) by 2020?

With 2020 just a short year away, this question will be asked wherever financial inclusion is discussed at the World Bank Spring Meetings this week. Only so much can change in a year, so it is just a small leap to imagine the likely situation in 2020. During last year’s meetings, the World Bank cited a figure of 69 percent of adults in the world having accounts, according to the 2017 Global Findex data collection round. Our own look at the 2017 Findex numbers, which removes fully dormant accounts, shows that only 48 percent of adults in low- and middle-income countries had accounts that they actually used.

We think this is the right number to focus on: it sets aside the many useless accounts that inflate the rolls and avoids the overly rosy picture that emerges from including high income countries where account access is no longer a relevant challenge. Based on what we’ve seen in the past several years, we could guesstimate that by 2020 active account access in the developing world will be somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of adults, still well short of universal. We won’t know the 2020 result until 2021, when the Findex 2020 data is published. The Findex team is gearing up now for that massive data collection and analysis effort.

The World Bank could declare victory, recognizing the enormous increases in account access that have occurred, and expressing confidence in the momentum around financial inclusion across the world, which will surely result in universal access within the next decade.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and its partners are focusing on upholding their institutional commitments to the UFA campaign. The bank pledged to contribute to the inclusion of one billion people. Many others have also made numeric pledges, including VISA, Mastercard, and GSMA (500 million people each), large mass-market-oriented financial institutions (Ant Financial, China, 100 million; Equity Bank, Kenya, 50 million; and Bank Mandiri, Indonesia, 50 million) and associations like the Partnership for Responsible Financial Inclusion (70 million) and the World Savings Bank Institute (400 million). I am aware first hand of the efforts of some of these organizations to take their pledges seriously, putting in both resources and high-level attention. This week we hope to see some of these partners report on the progress of their efforts.

With the departure of its former president, Jim Kim, who championed the UFA effort personally, one wonders how much attention the World Bank will continue to pay to financial inclusion. The new chief, David Malpass, begins his term with this weeks’ meetings. Malpass, a former Bear Stearns economist and Trump campaign advisor, has been highly critical of the World Bank. Understandably, World Bank watchers are speculating intensely over whether he will pursue his critiques of the bank, though in the lead-up to his arrival he softened his prior calls for the bank to end lending to upper middle-income countries like China and Brazil and affirmed the focus of the bank on elimination of extreme poverty and on economic growth. This sounds compatible with maintaining a focus on financial inclusion, though staff inside the Trump foreign policy world have reported that the administration does not often use the words “inclusion” or “inclusive”, preferring “market development.”

Unless the new president takes the World Bank in a radically different direction, it’s hard to see his arrival affecting the UFA campaign greatly.

Nevertheless, unless the new president takes the World Bank in a radically different direction, it’s hard to see his arrival affecting the UFA campaign greatly. Perhaps it will not receive the same spotlight it has enjoyed in recent years, but work will undoubtedly continue off stage. As bank staff members I recently spoke with noted, financial inclusion is embedded in many departments of the bank, with dozens if not hundreds of professionals working with individual countries to make progress every day. Barring a drastic turn in the World Bank’s mission, this will continue, regardless of who takes the helm.

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