More bankers needed?

“Half the world is unbanked,” is the title of an early chapter of a new book, Banking the World, edited by Robert Cull and others. Counterintuitive as it seems, for those of us living in countries with too much banking, too little banking is a big problem. For a long time the best, indeed one of the only, books on the issue of financial services for the truly poor has been Portfolios of the Poor, edited by Daryl Collins and others (see also the terrific Portfolios of the Poor website for additional material).

Banking the World: Empirical Foundations of Financial Inclusion

Collins has a chapter in this new book, on measuring what financial services poor people use. It starts with an example about how important basic financial services can be in helping people earn more – a study of fertilizer use in western Kenya, where the biggest barrier to using fertilizer is timing savings in order to have enough money available to buy the fertilizer at the right time. I think access to secure means of savings is fundamental – far more important than microcredit, which has been so much the focus of research and policy debate so far.

Although I’ve not yet read all the chapters in this book, it collects together a number of empirical studies piecing together the evidence that will be needed to help develop inclusive financial services. It includes a number of intriguing ones – such as using biometrics for identification and security purposes. This is interesting because – although the chapter doesn’t address this issue – global anti-money laundering and ‘know your customer’ regulations – are wholly paper-based, which excludes people with no fixed address, no bills addressed to them, few formal documents at all, and no access to photocopiers. It is worth asking whether alternative approaches ID schemes could offer adequate security to serve the real purposes of such regulations. (I think the digital money guru Dave Birch has written about this although I can’t track down the link at present.)

I also like it that the book has a section called ‘Cautionary Tales’, included as a warning against ‘silver bullet’ thinking (“All we need to do is X and we will end poverty”). Not all financial services boost growth or encourage entrepreneurship, and some can be harmful. The examples here are the disappointing effect of remittance flows into Vietnam and the damage done by easy access to mortgages in some of the lower income Eastern European economies.

The final chapter, by the editors, lists ten unanswered questions, the first of which is the need for much more evidence on whether and how access to financial services has a beneficial impact for people on low incomes; which financial services are most valuable; why do ‘micro’ services struggle to scale up; and does growing access to financial services increase the risk of financial instability? As this list indicates, there is much that we don’t know, and the answers are relevant to financial inclusion within the rich economies as well as in low income countries. However, this book is a welcome addition to our present state of knowledge and will be of great interest to people working on this aspect of development.

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