What’s in a Score? Reconciling Financial Access and Usage With the Microscope Rankings

Using an index to score complex policy and regulatory environments has its pluses and minuses.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Microscope is a robust data set that offers a deep dive into the policies and regulations that are considered important for financial inclusion in 55 countries. The indicators are derived from an expert-based consultation process to identify the most likely policy and regulatory conditions under which financial access and usage is likely to thrive.

The Microscope’s approach is to bundle the indicators into an index so that performance across countries can be compared easily. It also allows the EIU to simplify a set of complex conditions in which no one indicator can sufficiently signal a country’s environment for financial inclusion. Using an index approach to aggregate the indicators has both positive and negative implications. On the positive side, it simplifies a complex set of variables into a score than can easily be understood: a low score is bad and a high score is good. An index also creates a certain level of competition among countries that are covered in the index. Like with other indices that use this approach, such as Doing Business, many countries put resources behind improving their score year in and year out. The ranking serves as motivation for action.

An index allows the EIU to simplify complex conditions in which no one indicator can signal the environment for financial inclusion.

On the other hand, there are several drawbacks with the use of indices for something as complex as the policy and regulatory environment in a country for financial inclusion. The first drawback is squaring the results with the evidence on the ground. According to the EIU’s Microscope, Colombia has the highest score, 82, in the enabling policy and infrastructure index, yet Colombia’s access figures from the 2017 Global Findex shows that the country’s financial access is only 46 percent for adults over 15. This is significantly lower than the global average of 69 percent and lower than the 63 percent average in developing countries. A country like Bangladesh is ranked very low in the Microscope (38), but has higher access figures than Colombia, reaching 50 percent in the latest Findex round.

So why is there such a disconnect between a country’s ranking in the Microscope with its access and usage data from Findex? It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the reality on the ground can lag behind regulations. For example, while the US has equal-rights legislation on the books, experience among minorities in the US confirms frequent and continued discrimination in practice. So it isn’t a surprise that even though some countries have favorable policy and regulatory conditions for financial inclusion, there may be cultural issues or social norms that aren’t in line with the regulatory change and may require time and additional effort to change. Change may also require enforcement or supervisory capacity to ensure that there’s compliance with policies and regulations.

But perhaps more importantly, policies and regulations are only part of the financial system, and financial service providers and the users of the financial system have many other influences on their choices and behaviors. If we’re only looking at the policy and regulatory viewpoint, we’re not seeing the full picture of what drives outcomes on the ground.

If we’re only looking at the policy and regulatory viewpoint, we’re not seeing the full picture of what drives outcomes on the ground.

The second drawback is lack of clarity on which policies actually matter. The Microscope tracks five domains with a total of 69 indicators. Each of these indicators has an equal weight in the score. But is it true that each indicator is equally likely to drive inclusion? The Microscope doesn’t do enough to help countries prioritize from among the 69 indicators it tracks. For example, in the new indicators on women’s financial inclusion, variables such as “non-discriminatory access to IDs” and “differences in access to a mobile phone between men and women” are included as indicators. How important is one or the other towards women’s financial inclusion? When everything is important, nothing is. The index may be inadvertently contributing to either paralysis or misguided prioritization by policy makers.

The Microscope doesn’t do enough to help countries prioritize from among its 69 indicators.

Regulators and policy makers are looking for evidence on what works to drive financial inclusion. This is where there is potential for researchers and the EIU to take this important data set and do additional analysis to identify which of the indicators correlate with results on the ground. The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2018 publication did a deep dive on financial inclusion which did this type of analysis linked to women’s financial inclusion, for example.

While correlations have their own set of limitations, they are nonetheless a step closer to helping us unpack which policies and regulations are priorities to drive inclusion. In the next round of the Global Microscope, we’d like to see less emphasis on rankings and much more effort devoted to helping policy makers understand which policies and regulations should be prioritized.

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