However, this macro-level view also exposed some of the holes in current thinking, holes that need to be filled in order to achieve a truly strong ecosystem for women’s financial inclusion.
Getting beyond credit
One of my biggest takeaways from the conference was that there is still an overwhelming focus on access to credit as the principle pathway to financial inclusion. However, savings, not credit, is the best foundation for a strong ecosystem.
The fact that women globally face a global credit gap of $260-350 billion is inexcusable. However, the corollary of credit is debt, an uncertain proposition for the majority of the financially excluded at the base of the pyramid.
Savings works better. For instance, village savings and loans associations (VSLAs) are a community-based savings model which has reached over 6 million people. CARE International has pioneered best practice in linking these informal savings groups to formal banking products which, if scaled up, could add $145 billion to the world economy each year, risk free.
Facing legal restraints
Another point that PowerShift touched upon but did not explore in depth was legal restrictions on women’s financial inclusion. The World Bank has found that legal frameworks often represent the missing factor in explaining gaps between men’s and women’s access to finance. Limitations range from permissions to open bank accounts without male signatories to legislation governing land ownership (which reduces women’s assets, and thus credit). Maybe next year’s conference should invite as many lawyers as bankers.
As a development practitioner I am an unapologetic technocrat. Calls to ‘change social norms’, in comparison to more quantifiable advances like improved income, have to me always seemed a bit fluffy. Yet, in regards to women’s economic empowerment it’s impossible to deny how often intangible norms represent very solid barriers to progress. For instance, working with CARE I’ve repeatedly documented the business case for women’s empowerment and have been able to identify very real returns on investments for companies promoting inclusive business.
That being said, time after time potential economic returns are outweighed by norms, by the sense that this ‘isn’t how things are done’. Further, research shows that without changing these norms, increasing women’s access to finance can lead to severe backlash, ultimately harming women more than helping them. To date, there is widespread recognition that restrictive norms are a problem, but relatively little agreement on how to best address them. PowerShift would be a great forum to take this on.
Momentum is clearly building behind women’s financial inclusion. PowerShift closed with the launch of a petition to the United Nations to include access to finance for women as a key indicator in the post-2015 development goals. But financial inclusion is more than an indicator: it requires an enabling ecosystem which includes a full portfolio of products and services, a positive legal environment, and a society that accepts women’s financial inclusion as a right and as a norm.
Sign the petition to the UN on women’s financial inclusion here.