A Guest Review of Banking the World: Empirical Foundations of Financial Inclusion
By Dave Birch, Consult Hyperion
Singapore has 600 bank branches per 1000 km² of land area whereas Ethiopia has less than one. So does Singapore have lots of banks because it is rich, or is it rich because it has lots of banks? You would think that the former clause explains everything, but it doesn’t and this book deals with that latter clause. Why? Because the availability of private credit leads to economic growth and with no access to private credit and the other financial tools necessary for entrepreneurship, the poor will remain so. To a technologist like me, there is no doubt about what to do. Having a mobile phone increases the chances of being banked, across-the-board, by around 12%. Therein lies optimism. So I know how to connect the excluded. But connect them to what?
Well, there are quite a few ideas in this terrifically interesting and useful collection of chapters – Banking the World, eds Cull, Demirgüç-kunt, Morduch - written by a variety of experts that will be of interest to anyone working in the field. Do not make the mistake of imagining that this is only for those working in the developing world: I think there are a great many lessons we can draw from the examples here to help us deal with the difficult problem of excluded groups in the developed world right now.
If I were to be pedantic, I might spoilt the neat title by arguing that access to formal financial services is not the same things as being “banked”, which may be why I found the chapter on the role of social capital particularly interesting. I am very curious about the relationship between formal, informal and social institutions as providers of financial services into otherwise excluded groups because the new technology allows a great many possibilities beyond the “standard” bank account. The detailed statistical examination in this chapter distinguishes between the social capital of individuals and the generalised trust in a society and shows how the ability to build up social capital delivers access to both informal and semiformal capital. By contrast, access to formal capital depends more on generalised trust.
In fact the book contains a great many very detailed data tables and statistical analyses (e.g., on mortgage finances in Central and Eastern Europe) as well as high level commentary and these are a great strength. Having the data is vital. To take one example: Detailed longitudinal studies from sub-Saharan Africa dispel a number of myths about the link between financial and social inclusion as well as showing that access to financial services measurably increases income. One myth that I was surprised to see dispelled in this study was that there is a correlation with gender. This turns out not to be the case. We need to reach both men and women.
I have to say that the book made me even more convinced that electronic transaction networks, whether through mobile phones or agent networks or whatever, have a direct impact on the lives of the least well-off. I read, to give one example, that fertiliser use depends on the farmer having savings at the right time. Therefore the financial tools to overcome this problem contribute directly to alleviating hunger. This isn’t theoretical or esoteric work, it’s practical and vital work.
My favourite quote from the book was that “remittances may promote idleness on the part of recipients”. As the father of teenage son, I can attest to this, a phenomenon I have observed in my own home. Now that I have sound empirical foundations for doing so, I will be instituting my own economic revolution, starting this weekend.