Q&A With Thea Anderson, Director of Financial Inclusion at Mercy Corps

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Two women transacting payments over their phones in Kathmandu, Nepal Source: Mercy Corps

WAM UK hosted a dinner with Thea Anderson, Mercy Corps’ Director for Financial Inclusion, with our members to learn more about the global organisation’s engagement in advancing access to financial services for women. Mercy Corps operates in 42 countries and is a leader in integrating mobile technology in financial inclusion. On the night, Thea shared her experiences working directly in designing and implementing solutions on the ground for Mercy Crops, and for the benefit for those who couldn’t join us, we asked her some questions here:

Thank you Thea for sharing your experiences with WAM, but first things first, could you introduce us to Mercy Corps?

Mercy Corps is an international non-governmental, non-profit agency impacting over 30 million people each year in the world’s most difficult places and emerging markets. We focus on solutions to systemic global poverty through humanitarian relief and long-term development. We recognize that new technology, business models and creative partnerships provide transformational opportunities to overcome poverty. Managing and providing technical assistance to over 40 country offices, with US and European Headquarters (based in Scotland) and a representative office in London U.K. Mercy Corps complies with the U.K. International Aid and Transparency Initiative and is rated each year by the U.S. Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator – the premier American charity evaluator. Consistently, Mercy Corps receives the highest ratings. Mercy Corps ranked in the Top 10 in the 2013 Global Journal list of top 100 NGOs.

As Director of Financial Inclusion you’ve worked on expanding the reach of financial services in some of the world’s most fragile environments. Could you tell us more about Mercy’s Corp’s approach to financial inclusion?

Mercy Corps leads financial inclusion initiatives in over 30 countries partnering with commercial and public banks, MFIs, non-bank financial institutions, community-level financial institutions, and technology providers.  Even as a non-profit, we have launched commercial bank models in the Philippines, Mongolia and Indonesia, and most recently agent banking in Ethiopia which all use digital payments to serve millions of low-income clients without the need of a physical bank branches.

We recognize that traditional foreign aid hand-out programs will not lift and keep the billions of people at the bottom of the pyramid out of poverty. Mercy Corps therefore uses market-based approaches in partnership with commercial actors where feasible. We see technology as the key driver to lower transactions costs and payments as the entry point for other financial services allowing people to access money with the longer-term goal of establishing a place where they can safely save money, access capital and insurance products.

How does Mercy Corp use Technology to achieve financial inclusion, in particular with women?

Globally, Mercy Corps supports technology providers, financial institutions, and mobile network operators (MNOs) to identify and expand access to financial services at scale through the use of mobile and cashless technologies. This includes digital financial services and e-commerce platforms, agent networks, and bundled technology solutions such as the examples below:

  • In Nepal, Mercy Corps works with over 260 community-level financial institutions to access wholesale capital as well as introduce new savings, affordable credit, and remittances. This includes scaling several mobile payment platforms to rural Nepal in partnership with banks and Nepal’s largest branchless banking provider to reach thousands of new clients.

  • In Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda, Mercy Corps bundles financial services and farm- and crop-management tools for 170,000 small-holder farmers on affordable, unified mobile phone platforms. Farmers move along a four-step process using access to digital information and payments solutions as an entry point. Through these digital transactions, farmers build a transaction history to develop credit scores that enables them to engage with more formal financial services, including remittances, savings, credit, and insurance.

  • Mercy Corps hosted Tunisia’s first ‘Innovation Challenge for Financial Inclusion’ with financial institutions, crowd- sourcing platforms and angel investors for new mobile financial products for the growing Tunisian market. As a result, Mercy Corps is co-financing new crowdfunding platforms targeting youth entrepreneurs. In 2015, the Tunisian Post Office, which has over 1,000 branches and millions of clients, will launch a micro-savings product via mobile phones and electronic cards across the country with support from Mercy Corps.

Is Technology an effective enabler for financial services? If so, how can we ensure that women are not left out of the digital revolution?

Digital technology can change lives. It provides access to critical information for women. Female farmers can learn to weather costs of agricultural inputs, be linked to financial services such as payments, remittances, and savings, and connect to social media and e-commerce platforms. However, to benefit from technology you must have access to technology. Globally, over a billion women do not have full access to a mobile phone or access to digital financial services even in its most basic form.[1] This is especially acute in South Asia. Recent data shows than more that up to 50% of women in Niger, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia have never used a mobile phone, even for voice calls.[2]

As the world moves forward towards digital, huge numbers of the population are being left behind. Not only is this a missed opportunity for women on the customer-side this is a huge lost for the commercial sector – up to an estimated £111 billion for MNOs alone over the next five years.

Mercy Corps has a major role to play – to connect different segments of women to technology providers, financial institutions, and MNOs to expand their access to and usage of digital financial services. International agencies like Mercy Corps offer valuable insights about potential client demand to governments, multinational corporations and technology firms that don’t have first-hand knowledge of field realities and needs. Development actors like Mercy Corps play a critical partnership role by mitigating risks for other actors, especially in complex and fragile states.

Looking ahead, what are the key priorities for Mercy Corps’ in financial inclusion?

Mercy Corps will continue to prioritize countries in transition from war or natural disaster or in the midst of economic or social transformation. For us, ‘business as usual’ means partnerships with governments and the private sector to solve complex global challenges of both emerging and pre-emerging economies, including financial inclusion.

Please find more on Mercy Corps current work in financial inclusion here.

[1] http://www.gsma.com

[2] Ibid.

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