Mays Abdel Aziz of Al Bawaba attended Women’s World Banking conference Building Women-Focused Finance: The Global Experience in Amman, prompting the question: why are Middle East and North Africa (MENA) youth so uninterested in banks?

It’s time to give the MENA’s youth enough credit

Excerpt:

Social inequality and an unequal playing field can translate into a generation’s worth of lost dreams, and sometimes a lack of finances is the only thing standing between the youth and their dreams. Social inequality and an unequal playing field can translate into a generation’s worth of lost dreams, and sometimes a lack of finances is the only thing standing between the youth and their dreams.

Every now and then, a cultural or intellectual event pops up in Amman that reminds you that the endearingly chaotic city is not just about the food, the people, or even that breath-taking history surrounding it. It’s probably one of those few cities left in the Middle East where you can witness, or take part, in a discussion on (well, almost) anything you want from religion to politics to fashion and, as the past two days have shown––on women and banking.

For the past two days, Amman has been host to a Women’s World Banking conference entitled “Building Women-Focused Finance: The Global-Local Experience”, which brought together more than 250 microfinance practitioners, commercial banks, investors, donors, and regulators from more than 40 countries. The conference was held under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Rania Al-Abdullah who even made the effort to be part of the audience at some point!

And as you can probably tell from the title, women’s financial inclusion was the main headline on the agenda and everyone’s minds. But perhaps one of the most valuable lessons to be taken from the conference on feminist aspirations in the banking sector, especially in the context of our region, is that there are no neat lines to be drawn between “women’s issues” and all the issues surrounding them. Maha Bahou from the Jordanian Central Bank cheerfully captured this lesson when she proclaimed, “Who needs a women bank when we have the planet? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a feminist and I love women, but I also love men”. What is to be taken from this light-hearted statement, and the conference in general, is that we can’t really have a genuine conversation about women’s prospects in the region without talking about the region’s economic challenges as a whole, ones that females, along with their male counterparts, face on a regular basis.

And, ironically, amidst all the talk on the disadvantages women face in the world and the Middle East in particular, a breakout session on youth financial inclusion brought an un-gendered challenge to the floor. The session, purposely or not, went on an important tangent that addresses the Middle East’s biggest threat and potential­­­­­–– it’s youth bulge. The numbers as quoted by Ryan Newton, a Women’s World Banking specialist, are as follows: only 12% of the MENA’s youth (aged 18-24) have accounts at formal financial institution, and only a dismal 2% actually have savings.

So why are the youth so uninterested in banks? One might say it’s because they have very little funds to deposit, let alone save. But, I would argue, that it’s because banks are not interested in them. Student loans have emerged as the norm to finance one’s education in Europe and the US, but Middle East’s banks have not developed financial products that bank on the region’s future exemplified in its youth.

Read the full article at Al Bawaba

Newslink: “It’s time to give the MENA’s youth enough credit