What Brazil and Malaysia Can Teach the U.S. About Financial Inclusion

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When people think about financial inclusion, their minds tend to go first to highly-publicized unbanked regions in Africa and parts of Asia. But many people right here in the United States lack access to traditional financial services.

Of the 2.5 billion people in the world that don’t have a bank account, 10 million households are in the U.S, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In addition, 20% of households in the U.S. (24.8 million) are in the underbanked bracket, whereby they have bank accounts but also use alternative financial services outside the banking system, according to the FDIC's 2013 study.

Despite differences in the economic development of various countries, the primary reasons that lead people to lack access to financial services appear to be universal. The most predominant reasons unbanked consumers cited in a 2012 Nigerian survey were distrust in the formal financial system, concerns over the fees and costs associated with having a bank account and a lack of financial literacy. This list also reflects the experiences of many U.S. consumers.

Today, numerous financial inclusion schemes are achieving success across the globe. Here are a few lessons the U.S. can take from these initiatives.

Malaysia is the self-proclaimed center of financial inclusion. Its capital, Kuala Lumpur, has recently been announced the permanent host for the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, a global network of policymakers.

Malaysia is determined to lead by example. The country is developing a microfinance framework and establishing outreach programs at bank branches that offer both customers and non-customers easily accessible financial planning advice. Banks in the U.S. could take a page out of Malaysia's book by spreading financial planning awareness across the country rather than limiting their outreach to specific customers.

Brazil is a well-documented advocate of agent banking, using post offices, lottery outlets and retail vendors to reach poor clients in rural areas. With lower operating costs, these trusted outlets can process everything from money transfers to bill payments, deposits and withdrawals and even account applications, usually using point of sale terminals or personal computers that link to banks' servers.Seventy percent of households in the country pay at least one bill using agent banking, according to a 2013 survey by the Bankable Frontier Associates and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Brazil is also one of the fastest-growing payments markets in the world, with extensive mobile device penetration and a relatively large unbanked population. With new regulations encouraging more competition in mobile payments and the rollout of successful near-field communication projects in the region, Brazil is keen to use mobile payments to reach the underserved at banking agent locations.

The agent banking model could prove useful in the U.S., where many bank branches are expected to close in the coming months and years. Banking agents could help banks lower their costs by partnering with trusted establishments. U.S. financial institutions could also simplify the hardware requirements necessary for agent banking by using mobile phones to conduct a wide range of transactions.

Meanwhile, in 2012 the Nigerian government conducted a survey to establish the key reasons why people were actively choosing not to bank. It then launched a national financial inclusion strategy with the aim of increasing citizens' access to financial services from 36% to 70% penetration by 2020.

As part of this initiative, the country arranged knowledge exchange visits in order to explore the successes and hurdles that Brazil, Colombia, Kenya, South Africa, Philippines and Cambodia had experienced in similar ventures.Nigeria also rolled out an electronic national identity card that doubles as a prepaid card, opening up access to secure financial inclusion for millions of its citizens.By offering electronic identity coupled with prepaid capabilities, Nigeria can use this card to instill habit-forming financial behaviours and actively boost trust in mainstream financial services.

India is also hoping to persuade consumers to adopt banking as a habitual behaviour. The Prime Minister's People's Wealth Program kicked off in 2014 by offering every account-holder minimal fees and free life and accident insurance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's People's Wealth Program hopes to help all Indians open bank accounts. The program's first goal is to ensure that 75 million Indian households have bank accounts by August 2015.

Whilst many of these examples may not seem applicable to the U.S. in their entirety, they do show that there are viable ways to find alternatives to branches, use mobile to increase the reach of financial services and roll out government-supported financial inclusion projects. These are all options the U.S. can consider in forming its own financial inclusion strategy.

The lessons from this global overview are clear. First, if properly designed and implemented, and with the involvement of both the private and public sectors, financial inclusion efforts can help individuals improve their positions but foster economic stability across the nation.

Second, it is important that policymakers understand the financial behaviours and needs of people both within and outside the banking system. Initiatives based on assumptions can only result in alienation.

Lastly, incentives may work to encourage consumers to change their behaviour. But it is financial literacy that will enable consumers to make well-informed decisions in the long term.

Bethan Cowper is head of international marketing for Compass Plus. Follow her online @Bethan_Cowper.

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