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Doing Well and Doing Good: How the Private Sector Can Expand Access to Finance for the Poor

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Nearly 2.5 billion people--half the world's adult population--lack one of the most basic amenities of modern life: a bank account. They are among the world's poorest, struggling to obtain the money they need to feed their families or start a business and create jobs.

Their exclusion from the modern financial system represents a significant obstacle in the global effort to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. That's why World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim has called for universal access to finance by 2020--an urgent reminder that this challenge can be overcome in this generation. Governments play a critical role but they can't do it alone. It will take a concentrated effort by the private sector, which now accounts for less than a third of global spending on financial inclusion.

Recently, the World Economic Forum asked us to lead an important initiative on financial inclusion, one that includes some of the world's largest financial institutions, as well as a diverse group of companies and organizations doing cutting-edge work in this area, with McKinsey & Company as our strategic advisor. We met with our partners this past week at the Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, to coordinate action. Our energy is focused on unlocking the ingenuity of the private sector to ensure that families and businesses outside the financial mainstream gain access to the full range of financial services.

We must match our ambition to the scale of the challenge. Electronic payment systems are an important part of the solution. Without them, people can't pay their bills over the phone or the Internet. It's harder to save for a rainy day or protect against the unforeseen. Modern conveniences like e-money accounts, debit and prepaid cards, and low-cost accounts can go a long way to increasing financial access, reducing poverty, and empowering the poor. For example, people who rely on government benefits can use reloadable payment cards to buy necessities, withdraw cash from an ATM, or engage in a variety of other financial transactions.

Electronic payments also have the potential to make businesses more efficient. Unlike cash, they provide essential data to those along the supply chain about what's selling and what isn't or the amount of inventory in stock. This data can also be used to build risk models that enable lenders to make sound loans to people with limited or no credit histories.

Distributors in emerging markets spend up to two hours a day just handling and processing cash. Moving to digital payments could save valuable time and money. With innovations like that in mind, we're exploring ways to boost financial inclusion through initiatives in countries where financial inclusion will achieve the biggest impact -- India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, and Vietnam.

More than 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece, Archimedes, the father of mathematics, said: "Give me a long enough lever and a place to stand, and I will move the earth." We believe financial inclusion is one of the levers with the greatest potential for economic and social progress in the 21st century.

We hope the private sector seizes the opportunity--not as philanthropy, but as part of a new model to succeed commercially while benefiting society at large. It's possible to do well and do good. Let's all strive for that.

Jin-Yong Cai is Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group. Ajay Banga is the President and Chief Executive Officer of MasterCard.

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