Top 10 of 2021: CFI Research that Furthered Our Thinking in a Pivotal Year

The past year was one of building on what became our new reality in 2020.

While the full impact of the pandemic remains unknown, we know that financial services play a crucial role in mitigating the continued effects on livelihoods. We know that financial services are important for changing norms to achieve women’s economic empowerment. We also know that understanding data risks is needed for protecting low-income consumers against fraud and other hazards. And we know that financial services are needed for underserved customers so they can be resilient in the face of a changing climate.

So how have we advanced our learning on these key lines of inquiry in 2021?

The list below – 10 pieces of selected research, analysis, and recommendations from the year – is not exhaustive: CFI published 15 publications and nearly 30 blog posts this year. But it offers a cross-section of how CFI is thinking about the biggest challenges in our sector.

We look forward to furthering our learning in 2022 and continuing to advance inclusive financial services. We wish everyone a healthy new year with shared prosperity for all.

The Stories Algorithms Tell

By Alexandra Rizzi, Alex Kessler, and Jacobo Menajovsky

This flagship publication grounds universal challenges on the use of algorithms, automated decisions, alternative data, and bias in the context of inclusive financial services to present the current state of play among inclusive finance actors. The report is based on desk research and interviews from a sample of fintechs, regulators, and other experts.

Normative Constraints to Women’s Financial Inclusion: What We Know and What We Need to Know

By Julia Arnold, Mayada El-Zoghbi, and Alex Kessler

Financial services design and delivery play a part in ensuring women retain control over resources. But norms are increasingly recognized as a key constraint to women’s financial inclusion. This report reviews evidence on social and gender norms and financial inclusion and identifies areas for further improvement to understand and address the norms that influence women’s participation in the economy and the financial system.

Green Inclusive Finance

By Howard Miller

The role of financial services in helping low-income consumers respond to climate change is increasingly gaining acceptance in the inclusive finance realm as a key component of the global response to the great crisis of our time. This video and blog post map out CFI’s framework for green inclusive finance and provide four distinct but interrelated pathways for understanding how inclusive finance can help low-income populations prepare for and respond to climate change while improving green outcomes.

Promoting Prosperity in an Era of Uncertainty

By Mayada El-Zoghbi

In her welcome letter to Financial Inclusion Week, CFI’s Managing Director discusses the biggest trends in and challenges facing inclusive finance amid a pandemic that already has pushed an estimated 97 million more people into poverty. She provides a bird’s-eye view of the measures taken to avert the crisis, noting the bright spots – rapid mobile money adoption, impressive investments in inclusive fintechs, the flowering of the platform and gig economies – while striking a cautious tone regarding the challenges ahead.

The Precarious State of MSMEs: Understanding the Impact of COVID-19 and Opportunities to Support their Recovery

By Shradha Modi, Katia Huayta Zapata, Lauren Braniff, and Aeriel Emig

This brief shares how COVID-19 has impacted MSMEs over the last year and a half in four emerging markets: Colombia, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria. Backed by six waves of survey data collected from owners and operators of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), this brief offers four areas to focus on to navigate today’s challenges and build resilience for tomorrow.

Weathering the Storm II: Tales of Survival from Microfinance Crises Past

By Daniel Rozas

A follow up to the original report and case studies, published in 2011 in the aftermath of the 2007-09 financial crisis, Weathering the Storm II looks at the decade that followed the original paper and shares what became of the organizations profiled within it and how they’re facing the COVID-19 crisis. Nearly every type of financial institution – from NGO to bank – is included in this report that synthesizes experiences and lessons from 16 institutions in 14 countries on four continents over 15 years (including five new case studies from Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Nicaragua, and Palestine).

Yes, COVID is the Big Bang of Digital Payments

By Loretta Michaels

With over 300 million monthly active users in 2020 (up 17 percent year-over-year), mobile money has seen explosive growth. Not only is it an extremely useful tool for businesses and individuals, but mobile money has also been integral for rapid government-to-person (G2P) transfers in many countries in the first months of the pandemic. But there’s still untapped potential for mobile money in a post-pandemic world, especially for governments seeking universal access to financial services.

Trust of Data Usage, Sources, and Decisioning: Perspectives from Rwandan Mobile Money Users

By Alex Rizzi and Tanwi Kumari

Who is fairer: loan officers or digital lenders? The publication shares highlights of a qualitative study of 30 mobile money users in Rwanda that aims to answer this question. The survey focuses on user perceptions of and opinions on consumer data in underwriting and the evolving data ecosystem.

Leveraging Digital Financial Capability to Drive Women’s Financial Inclusion

By Julia Arnold and Marina Dimova

Financial capability must evolve to include digital financial capability. While digital tools offer promise, there is a risk of excluding women, oral communities, and others from the formal financial system, if focus is not given to helping people gain the knowledge and skills to effectively use digital financial services. This post provides a framework for developing effective digital financial capability programs and action steps to guide the way.

Reducing Bias in Algorithmic Decisions Cannot Rely on “Blind” Approaches

By Alex Kessler and Jacobo Menajovsky

What happens when gender-blind credit scoring is applied to financial products and services? We see products like the infamous Apple Card, which gave women consistently lower lines of credit in what researchers call “fairness through unawareness,” an approach that intentionally excludes data on sensitive attributes like race, ethnicity, or sex to reduce discriminatory outcomes. This post addresses the need for a better understanding of algorithms transforming the financial sector to mitigate against discriminatory outcomes while respecting limitations of data gathering needed to protect privacy.

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