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> Posted by Kimberly Lei Pang, Digital Learning Specialist, UNICEF

In the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the magical word “sesame” was used to open the seal of a cave where Ali Baba found hidden treasure. In China today, the same word is connected to another kind of magic, one that reveals hidden identities of the socially and economically disadvantaged. Sesame Credit (“芝麻信用” in Mandarin) is a product launched by Alibaba that pulls from transaction records on e-commerce platforms to understand a person or company’s creditworthiness. Such innovation in credit scoring is part of the “social credit system” that the Chinese government is building to make up for the longstanding shortage of credit data.

Access to credit, a major indicator of financial inclusion, has gained increasing attention from Chinese policymakers in recent years. For a country experiencing an economic slowdown and widening income gap between the rich and the poor, credit accessibility has the potential to spur growth and level the playing field for the poor. However, despite China’s efforts to improve financial access, a large portion of its population neither uses nor has access to credit. Data from the World Bank’s Global Findex study showed that Chinese people (aged 15+) have relatively high levels of formal bank account ownership (79 percent, 2014) but low levels of credit usage (14 percent, 2014). In fact, China’s formal credit use is the lowest among the five BRICS economies. Aside from the rigidity and costliness of financial institutions, a significant barrier to borrowing is the lack of reliable credit scoring in China. Established just 11 years ago, China’s credit bureau CCRC covers credit profiles for only a quarter of China’s 1.4 billion population and shares that information only with selected banks. Lenders thus often have no access to borrowers’ financial histories and tend to make rather arbitrary decisions on borrowers’ creditworthiness. As a result, many individuals and microenterprises find it difficult to get a loan, as steady employment and collateral assets are commonly required for formal credit.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

The role of data is increasingly crucial as the financial services industry shifts to digital delivery, alternative analytics, targeted marketing, and data-driven customer segmentation. As outlined in the recent Accion report, Unlocking the Promise of Big Data to Promote Financial Inclusion, the future of financial inclusion will include higher volumes of better quality and more wide-ranging data to expand access, lower prices, reduce bias, and drive innovation. However, the use of big and alternative data in financial inclusion is not a value-neutral trend—nor should it be.

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

Ant Financial, the Chinese inclusive finance powerhouse founded by Alibaba Group, and Euronet Worldwide, a U.S. giant in the money transfer game, are in a bidding war over MoneyGram. Financially, this makes sense as the global remittance market is estimated at about US$600B and MoneyGram commands a market share of roughly 13 percent of the world’s largest remittance route, from the U.S. to Mexico.

When two large companies compete to acquire another large company you might hear about it on CNN Money and promptly move on to other thoughts. But this particular news struck me because it touches on three of the (many) insights about the future of financial inclusion that I took away from attending this year’s Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance just last month.

Big players will increasingly drive the financial inclusion sector moving forward while, in the past, only small companies served the financial needs of the low end market. Microfinance has shown the poor to be a commercially viable customer segment, and as competition heats up, many big financial players are looking for ways to better tap into the commercial potential of new clients at the base of the pyramid. These big players have the deep pockets to innovate, experiment, and take the risks required to figure out how best to serve the billions of people still financially excluded. In addition to Alibaba’s Ant Financial, China’s WeChat, the social messaging app which connects over 800 million people, now allows for money transfers.

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> Posted by Patrick Traynor, Associate Professor, the University of Florida

CFI Fellow Patrick Traynor, an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) at the University of Florida, is launching his research effort on the security of data in mobile lending applications.

Mobile phones and networks are transforming the world of financial inclusion. However, we know that we cannot simply “copy and paste” traditional financing mechanisms into this mobile context and expect widespread inclusion. For example, the traditionally-excluded often lack the standard data lenders use to underwrite credit decisions (such as government audited tax forms, formal pay stubs, property deeds, and so forth). A plethora of companies are attempting to measure creditworthiness using alternative data – including the data trail created through mobile money applications. Alternative data for underwriting holds the potential to dramatically expand access to credit if successful, but it also poses new challenges.

For instance, how secure is data used in digital credit?

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> Posted by Antoine Navarro, Blaine Stephens and Nikhil Gehani, MIX

Enabled by technology and fueled by the desire to improve business outcomes, over 60 percent of financial service providers (FSPs) are serving clients through ATMs, mobile money, agent networks, and other channels outside of branches, according to a recent global survey by MIX. While FSPs continue to deploy these alternative delivery channels (ADCs), assessing their performance presents a challenge. Even though many FSPs are developing internal metrics to track performance, basic information like number of transaction failures is largely unavailable outside the institution. And even when such information is available to external parties, comparisons against the market are hampered by a lack of standard metrics in the industry.

With the right reporting systems and processes in place, FSPs can compare internal channel performance to optimize their channel mix. FSPs have told us they need visibility onto the rest of the market to benchmark their performance against peers, inform managerial decisions and improve actual results. MIX’s recently published report, “Measuring the Performance of Alternative Delivery Channels” aims to do just that. Through research supported by The MasterCard Foundation, IFC’s Partnership for Financial Inclusion and UNCDF’s MicroLead program, we were able to engage with a number of FSPs in sub-Saharan Africa to develop and refine a set of standard metrics. We also created initial benchmarks based on the data collected from these institutions, which are published in the report. It is our hope that FSPs around the world will begin collecting and reporting on these metrics so market actors will have a common reference point for ADC performance measurement and comparison.

What was found? You’ll have to read the report to get the full scope, but here are a few high-level takeaways.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Internet privacy rules have just been overturned in the U.S. by Congress and the Administration, and at the same time, struggles over banking privacy are taking place. There are striking similarities as well as crucial differences. As a consumer protection advocate, I am struck by how the narrative about these kinds of conflicts primarily centers on where competitive advantage lies, and which company or industry is made the winner or loser, rather than about the rights of consumers.

The internet case pits telecoms and cable companies, like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, against internet companies, like Google and Facebook. The Obama-era rules that were just overturned required broadband providers to ask customer permission before tracking, sharing and/or selling their data. These companies complain that the rules disadvantage them relative to internet-based companies, which can collect data without such rules.

The banking case, as reported in The New York Times, pits major banks against fintechs and data aggregators. The question is whether banks will transfer consumer data – at the consumer’s request – to companies that provide personal financial management tools, like Mint, Betterment, and Digit (or to data aggregators that facilitate the transfer – like Plaid and Yodlee). Without this data the financial management apps cannot build the complete portrait of a person’s financial life they need to provide analysis and advice. But banks are reluctant, even after specific consumer requests. You might think this reluctance is to protect their customers or because of data privacy rules for banking, but actually, according to The Times, it’s because the customer data reveals details about banks’ own business models – like pricing and products. The banks fear, probably correctly, that the personal financial management companies will use the information to undercut bank products with their own offerings.

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> Posted by Kim Wilson

Predictably, the long tentacles of financial inclusion have coiled themselves around the most vulnerable targets of humanitarian aid: low income refugees, migrants and displaced populations (hereon: “refugees”).

Just as predictably, the financial inclusion agenda is driven by suppliers (aid providers, donors, financial intermediaries and governments). Few refugees are demanding to be included in a digital/formal ecosystem. That does not mean they don’t appreciate the shelter, food and cash that humanitarian agencies have mustered on their behalf. They do. They also appreciate the efforts of those same agencies to make cash assistance easier. E-cash that can be transformed into physical cash at convenient times and places is an example. Use of debit cards at ATMs to withdraw cash from digital accounts can cut valuable time otherwise spent waiting in long cash distribution queues. Very appreciated, indeed.

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> Posted by Lara Storm and Nikhil Gehani, MIX

As financial services continue on the path to digitization, the amount of data available is expanding at a rapid pace. While gaps remain – most notably when it comes to quality and usage – the financial inclusion community has made significant progress in collecting timely, reliable and useful data. Yet no matter how much the flow of data improves, a key challenge persists: We are data rich and information poor. The late Hans Rosling left us with the simple truth that, “Having the data is not enough.”

The growing libraries of data make it difficult to separate the signal from the noise; actionable intelligence is sometimes obscured by the volume of available data points. The rapid uptake of digital financial services in low- and middle-income countries has contributed to the expansion of available data and shows no signs of slowing. The challenge presented to policy makers, financial service providers (FSPs) and funders is to derive insights that can inform decisions related to financial inclusion – without being buried in the avalanche of data.

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> Posted by Center Staff

john-owensAfter reviewing many high-quality proposals, we are excited to announce the second cohort of CFI Fellows. Like the inaugural cohort, the new fellows will explore and answer some of the most pressing questions in the financial inclusion industry. The six 2017 fellows will design and produce actionable research, focusing on the topics of responsible online credit, human touch in a digital age, and the business case for financial capability. Read more about the upcoming research below and join us for a webinar tomorrow, December 14 to hear from the fellows themselves.

John Owens, Independent Consultant

What does responsible online credit look like?

Online lending for consumers, and especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), is highly relevant and important to facilitating financial inclusion. However, trust, confidence, and responsible lending practices need to be in place to ensure that this industry is successful and that the customers are protected and empowered. CFI Fellow John Owens will examine the risks customers of online lending face and what best practices are, or should be considered, for setting consumer protection and risk mitigation standards for the emerging online financial services industry.

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> Posted by John Hartman, President, International, Equifax

This post is part of Financial Inclusion Week, a week of global conversation on advancing financial inclusion. This year’s theme is keeping clients first in a digital world. Throughout the week participants will share their thoughts in events and webinars, on social media, and through blog posts. Add your voice to the conversation using #FinclusionWeek.

Easy access to credit is something most of us take for granted. Getting the green light from the bank may depend on how you pay your day-to-day bills and your repayment history on any previous loans. A good credit history can create financial opportunity and is an important part of economic mobility.

Credit histories, however, are nowhere to be found or are extremely limited in a number of countries around the world, such as the rural regions of El Salvador, Paraguay, and even India. Farmers living in these regions have always operated outside the global financial system. It may not surprise the readers of this blog to learn that over 40 percent of the Indian population is unbanked, which means roughly 500 million people do not have access to financial services. In Latin America, the World Bank says this figure is even greater, with 61 percent of the population lacking access to formal financial services.

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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.