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> Posted by Matt Collin, Research Fellow, the Center for Global Development

The following post was originally published on the Center for Global Development blog.

In a few weeks’ time Australia’s Westpac bank will start closing down the accounts of money transfer organizations used by immigrants to send money home. Westpac is the last major Australian bank still offering services to organizations in the country’s US$25 billion remittance sector.

Two weeks ago, Merchant’s Bank of California also decided to close the accounts of all money transfer organizations (MTOs) sending money to Somalia. The source of Merchant’s decision appears to have been a cease-and-desist order issued by the Office of the Comptroller of Currency (OCC) in June, purportedly due to the bank’s failure to appropriately monitor the destination of remitted funds.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a trend here. In 2013, Barclays’ closed the accounts of nearly 90 percent of its U.K.-based MTOs, despite being the last large bank in the country willing to do business with remitters. HSBC made the same decision the previous year, following a nearly US$2 billion penalty handed down by U.S. regulators.

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The most exciting trends and startups in inclusive finance this year

> Posted by Vikas Raj, Director of Investments, Accion Venture Lab

There has been a lot of buzz in the financial technology (FinTech) space over the last several months, with a high-profile IPO, several more apparently on the way, and more and more venture funding flowing into FinTech startups. Bold ideas for financial services innovation are getting more visibility – just this month, Australian Wealth Index (AWI) listed the 50 Best FinTech Innovators, and CFI’s Elisabeth Rhyne conveniently categorized the list so it’s easy to see at a glance where the innovations are.

At Venture Lab, we found the AWI list interesting but also felt it missed something significant: namely, that one of the biggest opportunities for FinTech is figuring out new solutions to include the billions of lower-income people who are today excluded from formal financial services. And it’s not charity that compels us to reach these customers – it’s good business. These customers represent a big market. In fact, they’re such a significant part of any emerging market’s customer base that any global providers with dreams of international expansion must cater to them if they want to succeed.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Amidst all the excitement about disruptive fintech innovators it helps to sort out what innovations are actually at play. Australia Wealth Investors, together with KPMG-Australia and Australia’s Financial Services Council, have created a list of the top 50 fintech innovators for 2014, based on a combination of ability to raise capital and subjective judgment about the degree of innovation or disruption the company represents.

I clicked on all 50 (so you don’t have to) to get a sense of where the action really is. Here’s my quick and dirty categorization. It may help to read this to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”, starting with:

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Rwanda has a lot to celebrate in terms of financial inclusion these days. Last week in Kigali the National Bank of Rwanda (NBR) hosted a conference in partnership with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) commemorating their 50-year anniversary. At the event, titled Financial Inclusion for Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Development, NBR Governor John Rwangombwa highlighted the country’s recent rise in access levels, from 48 to 72 percent between 2008 and 2012 across formal and informal providers. Rwanda now has the laudable goal of increasing this figure to 90 percent by 2020. To help it get there, on Friday the World Bank launched a $2.25 million program supporting key financial inclusion areas for the country.

Along with overall exclusion rates dropping from 52 to 28 percent over 2008 to 2012, formal services access increased from 21 to 42 percent during the same period, according to the 2012 FinScope Rwanda Survey. The new government goal of 90 percent access by 2020 is an extension of the country’s Maya Declaration Commitment of 80 percent access by 2017. Rwanda’s growth in formal access can be attributed to products offered by both banks and non-bank providers, like the country’s community savings and credit cooperatives known as Umurenge SACCOs. Over the past three years, Umurenge SACCOs have attracted over 1.6 million customers. Ninety percent of Rwandans live within a 5 km radius of one of the cooperatives. Countrywide, the number of MFIs, including Umurenge SACCOs, increased from 125 to 491 between 2008 and December 2013. Elsewhere in the sector, over the last three years, the number of banks increased from 10 to 14, the number of insurance companies increased from 9 to 13, and the number of pension providers increased from 41 to 56.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have illegally entered the United States, mostly through the Rio Grande Valley. Until the justice system processes their cases, they’re being held in miserably overcrowded border detention centers, military bases, and other facilities in Texas and elsewhere.

All kinds of reasons are given for this exodus – gang violence, lack of economic opportunity, the perception that under a “liberal president” amnesty will be granted. The policy wonks and talking heads can debate the causes of this humanitarian crisis and assign blame to their hearts’ content. And of course, we have to “study” the situation and make sure that if we allow some of these frightened minors to join family members in the United States, this doesn’t incentivize other youth to risk life and limb to set off on a dangerous journey from their homelands to reach the United States.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

Somalia is facing another potentially life-threatening drought. Aid agencies in East Africa indicate a strong possibility that drought in 2014 will be as severe as that of 2011, which resulted in the deaths of about 260,000 people. But this year, Somalia’s people may not be able to count on a trusted lifeline in times of drought: remittances from the United States and other countries. Remittances from the United States to Somalia are responsible for roughly $214 million annually, but increasingly, U.S. regulators are imposing a string of service provider shutdowns. If these services are constrained, the effects of a drought on Somalis will likely be exacerbated.

The reason for this challenge for cash flows between friends and family across the Somali diaspora? Regulatory issues centering on the risk of these remittances funding potentially dangerous individuals. In 2011, for example, two Somali-Americans from Rochester, Minnesota were convicted of supplying cash to the terrorist group al-Shabab. Such incidents prompt often sweeping regulatory action and/or preemptive actions by banks to avoid transactions involving Somalia.

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> Posted by Amanda Lotz, Financial Inclusion 2020 Consultant, CFI

Javier moved from Honduras to the United States with his wife and their children in search of better work opportunities and to escape the violence in their community. His parents chose to stay behind. Luisa moved from the Philippines to Canada to pursue more lucrative opportunities as a nurse, hoping to support her family back home. Yousef fled from Syria to Lebanon, as a refugee, to escape civil unrest.

Javier, Luisa, and Yousef – fictitious characters – are only symbolically representative of some of the enormous global migrant population – estimated to total 232 million people in 2013. Certainly not homogenous, their reasons for leaving their home country can vary tremendously and may include economic opportunities, natural disasters, and security or political concerns.

In spite of the complications of migrating, there is an undeniable and increasing opportunity for financial service providers to serve migrants and their families. Today, I will focus primarily on migrants who move for economic and employment opportunities, though we recognize that these issues are more nuanced for migrants like Yousef who have fled their country of origin for the sake of their safety. I will save this smaller subset, 7 percent of all migrants, for another post. Though, I will mention that MasterCard has an innovative partnership with Banque Libano-Française for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which you can read more about here.

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

It is expensive to be poor. Case in point, if you don’t have access to a bank account and need to send money to a friend or family in a different location, often your only choice is an expensive cash wiring service. Last year the World Bank found that the average cost of remittance services worldwide was 9 percent.

Well, these rates could be changing quicker than anticipated. On the heels of rumors that Facebook is preparing to offer money transfer services, it was officially announced that Walmart will be offering cash transfers for customers between stores, and doing so at their famous Walmart prices.

Say what you will about Walmart, it is hard to dispute that they know how to lower prices. At least initially, they will provide cash transfer services at significantly cheaper rates than most money transfer service providers. For instance, to send $900 between Walmart stores would only cost customers $9.50, a Walmart press release indicates. Transferring the same amount via Western Union would cost at least $52, according to their online price estimator, calibrated for my sending city of Boston.

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Associate, CFI

A few days ago news broke that Facebook, the social media giant with over a billion users worldwide, is making preparations to begin offering international money transfer services. Although the development has been dismissed by Facebook as rumor, the prospect of this enormous network enabled for money transfer and the huge global need for this service makes this a story worth following.

The news, initially shared by the Financial Times and sourced from individuals involved in the proceedings, indicates that Facebook is weeks away from securing regulatory approval from Ireland’s central bank to allow its users to store money on the site and use it to pay others. Facebook’s headquarters for Europe, the Middle East, and Asia is in Dublin. If approved, Facebook would be permitted to issue units of stored monetary value represented as “claims” against the company. Regulation in this area pertaining to Europe would allow approval in Ireland to green light services throughout the entire continent. The Financial Times also mentions that Facebook has had discussions about potential partnerships with several start-ups that offer international money transfer services through both smartphone and online platforms.

Facebook’s reach is massive, 1.23 billion at the end of last year, and it’s becoming increasingly diverse. Last week, thanks to increases in internet access and mobile penetration, the company achieved a milestone in India: 100 million users. Some analysts say by the end of this year India will surpass the United States (with 180 million) as the country with the most Facebook users. The social media site is big elsewhere in Asia, too. It is the most popular social network service in all but six of the region’s countries. After the US and India, Facebook’s largest countries by-users include Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the Philippines. Facebook has a large presence in Africa, as well, with 13 million users in Egypt, 9.4 million in South Africa, 5.3 million in Nigeria, 1.8 million in Kenya, and 1.4 million in Ghana.

Like Facebook, remittances volumes are increasing on the whole around the world. In a new brief on remittances and migration released last week by the World Bank, it’s shown that remittances to developing countries reached about $404 billion in 2013, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2012. Annual growth is expected to increase to an annual average of 8.4 percent over the next three years. In 2013, India received the most international remittances with $70 billion, followed by China with $60 billion, and the Philippines with $25 billion.

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> Posted by Amanda Lotz, Financial Inclusion 2020 Consultant, CFI

The Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bankers (G20) is targeting financial inclusion through the G20 Development Working Group (DWG), which is in the process of finalizing an agenda for its 2014 goals. The DWG focuses on developing an agenda for tackling development challenges, with the intent to remove constraints to sustainable growth and poverty alleviation. Recently, through our participation in InterAction’s G20/G8 Advocacy Alliance, CFI teamed up with other non-profits in the financial inclusion community to develop a set of recommendations for G20 leaders. While the Alliance and DWG span a diverse range of issues, our focus was, of course, on financial inclusion.

Our recommendations to the G20 were developed in coordination with CARE International UK, the Grameen Foundation, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, HelpAge USA, and the Microcredit Summit Campaign, among others. They urge governments to implement national strategies for financial capability and client protection, ensuring that these strategies and targets address a full suite of financial services and include underserved groups. You can read the full set of recommendations and contributing organizations here.

Last week we had the opportunity to discuss our recommendations with senior leadership from the Australian G20 presidency. As you may know, the G20 Presidency rotates each year, and this is Australia’s year. Each presidency takes a lead in setting the agenda and priorities, which are then discussed and (ideally) implemented by all G20 members.

The G20 Australian presidency issued a global development agenda, which was supported by the DWG. It highlighted two major outcomes for 2014 related to financial inclusion and remittances. We were happy to see an expressed desire to move beyond a focus on cost reduction for remittances, where there has been a great deal of progress, to maximizing the potential of remittances to increase financial inclusion.

During the meeting, our financial inclusion team brought three key points to the conversation: Read the rest of this entry »

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.
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