Financial Inclusion Has One Too Many Adjectives

By Jem Shaw, CEO, Ethical Payments Foundation

Last month I expressed my belief that inclusion – and I don’t just refer to financial inclusion – is a complex equation that doesn’t have a single solution. A few days ago, I chatted to Karen Wilson, who heads up Imifino with her husband Matt. Imifino is a relatively small non-profit that works to improve nutrition in targeted regions of Africa.

Karen explained her work, and her observations dropped an important jigsaw piece into place in my mind.

“It’s not just about hunger,” she told me. “Maize is the staple diet for many of the regions we operate in, and the women carefully remove the husks and chaff before preparing the food. That means they’re living on almost pure carbohydrates. No one goes hungry, but their bodies are seriously undernourished. That’s particularly noticeable in adolescents, whose brains fail to develop as a healthy teenager’s should.”

The organisation’s name comes from a leafy vegetable that grows wild all over southern Africa. It’s highly nutritious and, with the guidance of Karen, Matt and their team, can be made into tasty, easily cooked dishes. From providing education on nutrition and food preparation, Imifino has moved on, first to sustenance agriculture and then to small, sustainable commercial farming.

Financial inclusion is a myth unless we knock off the adjective

The lesson here is that financial inclusion is a myth unless we knock off the adjective. While fintechs strive to be the one-stop-shop of emerging economies, without joined-up thinking their solutions can ultimately bring about little more than the spend, spend, spend excesses of untutored lottery winners. Don’t make the mistake of interpreting my use of “simple” when I say that these are simple communities. Simple isn’t the same as stupid – people in uneducated communities (excepting those suffering the undernourishment mentioned above) are equal in essential intelligence to any Ivy League or Oxbridge graduate. How would Da Vinci, Newton or Galileo fare in today’s complex world? What would Aristotle make of quantitative easing, or Nikola Tesla of YouTube? Does this make them stupid?

ISO 20022 is yet another barrier to financial inclusion

That’s why the focus of the Ethical Payments Foundation is shifting from financial to inclusion as a much larger picture. In an algorithmic world where we instill ever more autocracy into the machinery intended to serve us, individual human needs become ever more subservient to commercial efficiency. ISO 20022 will, we’re told, provide a technology jump to financial communication, and – among those technologically equipped for it – I have no reason to doubt that it will. But to a local bank in Somalia that’s already been marginalised by global finance systems, it’s yet another barrier to inclusion.

Wealth tends to accumulate among an advantaged few. At the risk of harking back to my rant about clichés in last month’s article, the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. Or, as my grandmother put it, “Them as ‘as, gets. Them as asn’t guz without.*”

While most of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa, I fear that this growth will simply lead to a concentration of prosperity within the major cities and among those connected directly to financial, commercial and communication systems. More importantly, even extending those systems to isolated communities will bring about little improvement if basic educational needs are ignored.

Reckitt Benckiser, the company behind household products like Vanish, Dettol and Harpic, showed an ideal example of this when I worked with them in Amsterdam and Costa Rica a couple of years ago. India has an antiquated sewage system that dates from the British Raj. For many years, its frequent blockages were cleared by manual scavengers: people who entered the sewers without protection or equipment and restored flows, quite literally, with their bare hands. Their life expectancy was below fifty years, they lived in abject poverty and were excluded by society. Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, but the need remained to keep the crumbling sewers open, so a necessary “blind-eye” policy slid into place. The law was strengthened in 2013, but with little increased effect.

The World Toilet College

In 2016 Reckitt Benckiser set up its first World Toilet College in Rishikesh. As well as training predominantly female masons to build toilets, it began equipping manual scavengers with protective equipment and providing training in antisepsis and hygiene. Laudable actions, but there were significant, only partially related, obstacles that needed to be addressed, as RB’s Ravi Bhatnagar explained:

“Many of the workers didn’t even regard themselves as human”

“The majority of the students were already suffering from critical diseases like tuberculosis, so we needed to work with medical professionals to give them the necessary treatment. But, even worse than that, many of the workers didn’t even regard themselves as human; their self-worth was so poor that they didn’t believe they deserved what was being offered to them.”

By dealing with the whole problem, Reckitt Benckiser has played a leading role in changing the lives of many thousands of people – over 90% of its students are now working in sustainable jobs and earning a proper living wage. Had the company looked only within its own specialism, this wouldn’t have been possible. This is why small organisations like Imifino are so important, and why we need to form cross-discipline alliances to achieve true inclusion.

We’re working towards a platform to provide collaborative networks

Our focus from today is to encourage and facilitate connections between commercial and community interest organisations. We’re working towards a platform to provide collaborative networks that deliver lasting change by making prosperity available to everyone.

Is that possible, or just the dream of an aging hippie who believes that the world slipped into decline as soon as the seventies began? It’s certainly the latter, but the former – possible or not – is undeniably worth pursuing. Putting aside the moral benefit and focusing instead on the purely commercial, the untapped wealth locked in disadvantaged regions is so vast that any business that ignores it demonstrates insouciance that borders on idiocy. And that wealth is best unlocked by adopting a holistic approach that engenders economic as well as ecological and humanist sustainability.

This old hippie certainly believes it’s possible. And in a few months, the Ethiclude Alliance will start proving it.

Read more from Jem Shaw in 'time to change the cliche'


* Like me, she was a Brummie. For non-English people, a Brummie is a native of Birmingham. In the UK, a Newcastle accent makes you sound charming; an Irish accent makes you sound honest; a London accent makes you sound street-wise. A Brummie accent makes you sound like a three-toed sloth with sleep-deprivation.