What We Do

Financial Services for the Poor

Strategy Overview

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A mobile phone user outside a mobile payment facility in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

our goal:

to alleviate poverty by expanding access to digitally-based financial tools and services.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Increasing poor people’s access to financial services can help them weather personal financial crises and increase their chances of climbing out of poverty.

About 80 percent of the world’s poor adults do not have a bank account or use other formal financial services—not only because of poverty but also due to costs, travel distance, and other barriers.

Our strategy aims to capitalize on rapid advances in mobile communications and digital payment systems to connect poor households to affordable and reliable financial tools.

Our Financial Services for the Poor strategy, updated in 2012, is led by Rodger Voorhies, director, and is part of the foundation’s Global Development Division.

Poor people do not live in a static state of poverty. Every year, many millions of people transition out of poverty by successfully adopting new farming technologies, investing in new business opportunities, or finding new jobs. At the same time, large numbers of people fall back into poverty due to health problems, financial setbacks, and other shocks. If available at critical moments, effective tools for savings, payment, credit, and insurance can help households capture an opportunity to climb out of poverty or weather a crisis or emergency without falling deeper into poverty.

Worldwide, approximately 2.5 billion people do not have a formal account at a financial institution, according to the World Bank’s Global Financial Inclusion Database. As a result, most poor households operate almost entirely in the cash economy, particularly in the developing world. This means they use cash, physical assets (such as jewelry and livestock), or informal providers (such as money lenders and payment couriers) to meet their financial needs—from receiving wages to saving money for fertilizer. However, these informal mechanisms tend to be insecure, expensive, and complicated to use. And they offer limited recourse when major problems arise, such as a serious illness in the family.

The Opportunity

A growing body of evidence suggests that increasing poor people’s access to better financial tools can help accelerate the rate at which they move out of poverty and help them hold on to economic gains. However, it is costly to serve poor people with financial services, in part because most of their transactions are conducted in cash. Storing, transporting, and processing cash is expensive for banks, insurance companies, utility companies, and other institutions, and they pass on those costs to customers.

A foundation-supported initiative allows Rwandan farmers to access markets for their beans and maize using mobile phones.

In wealthier countries, people conduct most of their financial activities in digital form, and value is stored virtually and transferred instantaneously. The global revolution in mobile communications, along with rapid advances in digital payment systems, is creating opportunities to connect poor households to affordable and reliable financial tools through mobile phones and other digital interfaces.

In fact, research has shown that the most effective way to significantly expand poor people’s access to formal financial services is through digital means. In addition to cost savings, digital financial services offer a wide array of benefits:

  • They connect poor people to the formal financial sector and enable them to become customers and suppliers within the wider economy.
  • Financial flows can be accurately tracked, resulting in safer and speedier transactions and less corruption and theft.
  • Providers can use financial histories to develop products that are better suited to customers’ needs, cash flow, and risk profiles, including fee-for-service offerings and smaller-unit transactions.
  • Direct deposits (including wages and government assistance) allow money to “bypass” the home, helping users save rather than spend and often giving women more financial authority within the family.
  • Automatic reminders, positive default options, and other choices offered via mobile phone menus offer convenience and save time.

Our Strategy

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Financial Services for the Poor program aims to play a catalytic role in broadening the reach of digital payment systems, particularly in poor and rural areas, and expanding the range of services available on these platforms. Until the infrastructure and customer base are well established, this might involve a combination of mobile banking services that are accessible via cell phones and brick-and-mortar stores where subscribers can convert cash they earn into digital money (and vice-versa).

Our approach has three mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • Reducing the amount of time and money that poor people must spend to conduct financial transactions
  • Increasing poor people’s capacity to weather financial shocks and capture income-generating opportunities
  • Generating economy-wide efficiencies by digitally connecting large numbers of poor people to one another, financial services providers, government services, and businesses

A tea vendor in Uttar Pradesh, India, checks her bank balance on her mobile phone.

We are not focused on a particular product or distribution channel, but rather on innovative ways to expand access and encourage markets. At the same time, we are aware that interventions in this and other areas too often involve technologies that are made available to the intended users but are not adopted. To address this demand-side challenge, we are supporting research and product design experiments to identify design features, price incentives, and marketing messages that will encourage poor people to adopt and actively use digital financial services. We are also supporting policymakers as they work to develop policies and regulations that facilitate these developments.

We believe that the combined effect of these interventions will accelerate the rate at which poor people transition out of poverty and decrease the rate at which they fall back into poverty. Our strategy also recognizes that countries are at different stages in developing an inclusive digital financial system and that we must tailor our interventions accordingly.

Areas of Focus

Our work falls into four areas:

Digital payment systems

In countries with a minimum level of connectivity in poor and rural areas, we work with in-country providers to extend the reach of digital payment systems into those communities and encourage poor people to adopt these systems through a mobile phone or other digital interface. Payment systems are crucial because they enable people to collect payments from customers, buy goods, pay for water and electricity, and send money to friends, family, and business partners. They also enable governments to collect taxes and disburse social payments. When these transactions are costly and inconvenient, economic activity is impeded.

Digital financial services

In countries where digital payment systems have taken hold in poor and rural communities, we work with banks, insurance companies, and other providers to increase the range of financial services that people can access in digital form. Many of these services are designed to meet the specific household management needs of low-income people, particularly smallholder farmers and women.

Global partnerships

We work at the global level with governments, donors, financial standards-setting bodies, and the private sector to maximize our collective impact on poor people’s access to financial services.

Research and innovation

We collect data to measure the impact of our grants and interventions and to help key stakeholders make better decisions. We also conduct research and nurture innovations that could lead to longer-term improvements in delivering digital financial services on a broad scale.

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