Connecting unbanked women around the world with life-changing financial services is a challenge marked by big wins as well as sobering hurdles. Both were on display at the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI)’s Global Policy Forum (GPF) in Egypt in September, which Women’s World Banking attended along with officials and institutions representing more than 90 countries. In a promising sign, this year gender-related topics received more attention than in the past. The forum’s 2017 theme, “Promoting Inclusion, Exploring Diversity,” included strategies for working with populations displaced by conflicts and climate change (which can disproportionately affect women), as well as for directly expanding financial access to the millions of unbanked women worldwide.
The gender emphasis manifested itself in multiple ways throughout the Forum: from the plenary session on women’s financial inclusion to a breakout session focused on gender diversity. The focus on women showed a commitment to follow through on the Denarau Action Plan, announced at last year’s GPF, which listed the key steps policymakers must take to ensure that their financial regulations are inclusive of women. However, as much as these developments represent an encouraging step forward, this year’s conference also brought to light the work that still needs to be done in order to make significant strides in financial inclusion for women.
On the bright side
One noteworthy participant at the GPF was Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who appeared not just for the obligatory few minutes that heads of state typically spend at such conferences. President el-Sisi gave inspired remarks and stayed for the opening panel, visibly listening intently and taking notes, even directing a comment to the panelists. His active presence suggested that Egypt was not only acting as host country but that it is also committed to the goal of financial inclusion, an important signal from the Middle East’s largest country where the gender gap in financial inclusion, according to the Global Findex, is 10%. This is further evidenced by the recent move of the Central Bank of Egypt to prioritize women’s economic and social development among its initiatives.
Another step in the right direction is AFI members’ approval to make the Gender and Women’s Financial Inclusion Committee as a permanent committee of the Board of Directors. With gender now a regular item on the board’s agenda, women’s financial inclusion will have a higher profile at AFI conferences, and members can move closer toward achieving the goals of the Denarau Plan. (One recent project, piloted by Women’s World Banking and Nigeria’s Diamond Bank and showcased in a case study published by AFI, points the way to what’s possible when stakeholders work together to build inclusive solutions that target women.)
Another positive development this year related to AFI’s governance is that gender balance is now a criteria for selecting board members. Three women have now joined the AFI board – Ms. Elvira Nabiullina, Governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation, Ms. Davaansuren Sodnomdarjaa, Chief of the Financial Regulatory Commission of Mongolia, and Ms. Maiava Atalina Ainu’U-Enari, Governor of the Central Bank of Samoa. This is keeping with the Denarau Plan’s commitment to ensuring that AFI itself is promoting gender diversity.
On the other hand…
It remains clear that AFI and its members must do more to succeed in expanding financial inclusion for women worldwide. For instance, while the creation of an official gender subcommittee is a positive step, its members are currently all women. The members’ high ranking as deputy governors ensures that the subcommittee has clout—but in order for it to be effective and not seen as just a women’s domain, the group should reflect gender diversity. Recruiting male champions will strengthen the committee’s already strong reputation.
In further evidence that women’s financial inclusion is still not a top-of-mind subject for many AFI participants, the breakout session I moderated on the pillars of gender diversity drew a lower turnout than the other sessions at that time. Approximately 50 members attended the gender diversity session out of the 700 participants at the GPF. Participants at the session included roughly 70 percent women and 30 percent men, the reverse of the approximate gender ratio at the conference.
Despite the relatively low attendance, the gender diversity session generated a lively discussion among high-ranking officials and panelists, including Dr. Monique Nsanzabaganwa, Vice-Governor, National Bank of Rwanda, who is a member of Women’s World Banking’s Africa Advisory Council. Nathan Naidoo from GSMA talked about how the organization initiated gender diversity at the agent level. Jessica Schnabel from the IFC discussed the linkage between gender diversity and overall bank performance; and Ute Klamert from GIZ discussed impact from the bilateral perspective. We also discussed how donors can influence gender goals in all kinds of products. In breakout sessions, we debated whether donors should mandate action on the issue, or whether it’s more important to begin by identifying specific ways to address gender and cultural barriers effectively on a local level.
Participants exchanged some light-hearted banter too. In the elevator before the session, AFI attendees from the Swedish government—consistently a pioneer in gender diversity efforts—answered the question of whether they would attend the gender diversity panel by joking, “Isn’t that mandatory for Swedish government officials?”
With the presence at this GPF of 90 nations that, collectively, influence most of the unbanked population in the world, gender issues are now starting to get the audience they need. As with every effort to make change, however, inevitably some countries will lead and others will move at a slower pace. But the potential exists now to make real progress in financial inclusion for women from a policy perspective. That’s why it is of crucial importance that all the stakeholders keep working together to ensure that we can build on our achievements and realize our shared goals, without breaking our momentum.