Advancing financial inclusion in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East

Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of a series on the 2015 Financial and Digital Inclusion Project (FDIP) Report and Scorecard, which were launched at a Brookings public event on August 26. Previous posts have highlighted five key findings from the 2015 FDIP Report and explored groundbreaking financial inclusion developments in India. Today’s post will compare financial inclusion outcomes and opportunities for growth across several Asian countries included in the 2015 Report and Scorecard.


Of the 21 countries ranked in the 2015 Financial and Digital Inclusion Project (FDIP) Report and Scorecard, no countries in Asia placed in the top 5 in the overall ranking. However, all of the FDIP Asian countries have demonstrated progress within at least one of the four dimensions of the 2015 Scorecard: country commitment, mobile capacity, regulatory environment, and adoption of traditional and digital financial services.

This blog post will dive into a few of the obstacles and opportunities facing FDIP countries in central Asia, the Middle East, and southeast Asia as they move toward greater access to and usage of financial services among marginalized groups. We explore these countries in order of their overall score: Turkey (74 percent), Indonesia (70 percent), the Philippines (68 percent), Bangladesh (67 percent), Pakistan (65 percent), and Afghanistan (58 percent). You can also read our separate post on financial inclusion in India, available here.

Turkey: Clear economic advantages, but opportunities for enabling regulation and greater equity remain

Turkey is one of the few upper-middle income countries in the FDIP sample, ranking in the top 5 in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) measured in US dollars. Turkey’s fairly robust banking infrastructure contributed to its relatively strong adoption rates: As of 2013, the International Monetary Fund’s Financial Access Survey found that Turkey had about 20 bank branches per 100,000 adults (the 4th highest density rate among the 21 FDIP countries) and about 73 ATMs per 100,000 adults (the 2nd highest density rate among the FDIP countries).

According to the World Bank’s Global Financial Inclusion (Global Findex) database, about 57 percent of adults in Turkey had an account with a mobile money provider or formal financial institution as of 2014. Turkey’s performance on the adoption dimension of the 2015 Scorecard contributed to its tie with Colombia and Chile for 6th place on the overall scorecard.

With that said, Turkey received lower mobile capacity and regulatory environment scores, ranking 16th and 17th respectively. Although Turkey’s smartphone and mobile penetration levels are quite robust, a limited mobile money provider landscape, combined with a lack of regulatory clarity surrounding branchless banking regulations (particularly agent banking), constrained Turkey’s scores in those categories.

Nonetheless, there is promising news for Turkey’s financial inclusion environment. In 2015, Turkey assumed the G20 presidency and has renewed its focus on financial inclusion in association with this transition. Turkey’s 2014 financial inclusion strategy is one example of the country’s commitment to advancing inclusion.

To date, financial inclusion growth in Turkey has been limited, as evidenced by the results of the 2011 and 2014 Global Findex. However, if the country’s stated commitment translates into concrete initiatives moving forward, we can expect to see accelerated financial inclusion growth. This will be critical for facilitating access to and usage of quality financial services among the nearly 60 percent of women in Turkey without formal financial accounts. Reducing the approximately 25 percentage point gap in account ownership between men and women — one of the highest gender gaps among the 21 FDIP countries — should be a key priority for the country moving forward.

Indonesia: High mobile money potential, but enhanced awareness needed to drive adoption

Recent changes to Indonesia’s regulatory environment have facilitated a more enabling digital financial services ecosystem, although there is still room for improvement in terms of reducing supply-side barriers. Increasing mobile money awareness could help leverage Indonesia’s strong mobile capacity rates to increase access to and usage of formal financial services. However, moving from a heavily cash-based environment to greater use of digital financial services will take time: A 2014 InterMedia survey in Indonesia found that although 93 percent of bank account holders could access their accounts digitally, 73 percent preferred to access their accounts via an agent at a bank branch.

The differing mandates of Indonesia’s new financial services authority, Otoritas Jasa Keuangan (OJK), which focuses on branchless banking (specifically agent banking) and Bank Indonesia, which focuses on electronic money regulation, may have created some confusion regarding the regulatory environment. Solidifying the country’s financial inclusion strategy and clarifying the roles of the various financial inclusion stakeholders could provide opportunities for greater coherence in terms of financial inclusion objectives.

OJK’s recent branchless banking regulations have led to several positive changes within the regulatory environment. For example, these regulations enabled financial service providers to appoint individuals and business entities as agents and to provide simplified customer due diligence requirements. The 2015 FDIP Report highlights in greater detail some possible improvements to the branchless banking and e-money regulations.

On the mobile capacity side, Indonesia tied for the second-highest score on the 2015 Scorecard. Indonesia is one of the few countries where mobile money platform interoperability has been implemented, allowing different mobile money services to “talk” to one another in real time. Indonesia also boasted the third-highest 3G network coverage by population among all the FDIP Asian countries, as well as the third-highest unique subscribership rate among these countries. However, only about 3 percent of adults were aware of mobile money as of fall 2014, according to the InterMedia survey.

In terms of adoption, the 2014 Global Findex found that women in Indonesia actually had slightly higher rates of account ownership than adults in general, although there is still significant room for growth across all adoption indicators. Given Indonesia’s strong mobile capacity ranking, increasing awareness of mobile money services could drive growth in the digital finance sector. Clarifying existing regulatory frameworks and removing some remaining restrictions regarding agent exclusivity and other agent criteria could further boost financial inclusion.

Philippines: Strong commitment, but geographic barriers have inhibited scale

The Philippines tied with Bangladesh to garner 15th place for adoption, which contributed to the country’s overall ranking (also 15th place). In both Bangladesh and the Philippines, about 31 percent of adults had an account with a mobile money provider or formal financial institution as of 2014. According to the 2014 Global Findex, the percentage of women with formal financial accounts was about 7 percentage points higher than the overall percentage of adults with accounts — a rarity among the 21 FDIP countries, which generally exhibit a “gender gap” in which women are less likely to have formal financial accounts than men.

The Philippines’ efforts to foster financial inclusion earned it the second-highest country commitment and regulatory environment rankings among the FDIP Asian countries. The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), the Philippines’ central bank, has issued a number of circulars providing guidance regarding electronic money and allowing non-bank institutions to become e-money issuers. The BSP also has the distinction of being the first central bank in the world to create an office dedicated to financial inclusion. Most recently, the BSP launched a national financial inclusion strategy in July 2015.

On the mobile side, according to the GSMA Intelligence database, as of the end of the first quarter of 2015 the Philippines had the highest unique mobile subscribership rate among the FDIP Asian countries, as well as the second-highest rate of 3G network coverage by population among these countries.

In terms of mobile money, the Philippines is home to two of the earliest mobile financial services products, Smart’s Smart Money and Globe’s GCash. It also boasts the second-highest rate of mobile money accounts among adults in all the FDIP Asian countries, according to the 2014 Global Findex.

There is still significant room for improvement in adoption of traditional and digital financial services in the Philippines. The country’s geography has posed a challenge with respect to advancing access to financial services among the dispersed population. While the extent of banking infrastructure has improved over time, as of 2013 610 out of 1,634 cities and municipalities did not have a banking office, and financial access points remained concentrated in larger cities. Expanding agent locations and facilitating interoperability could enhance mobile money adoption, mitigating the consequences of these geographic barriers.  

Bangladesh: Rapid growth, but high unregistered use and low adoption overall

While Bangladesh performed strongly on the country commitment and mobile capacity dimensions of the 2015 FDIP Scorecard, it received one of the lowest adoption rankings among the FDIP Asian countries. According to the Global Findex, about 31 percent of adults age 15 and older had an account with a formal financial institution or mobile money provider as of 2014. Indicators pertaining to the country’s rates of formal saving, credit card use, and debit card use all received the lowest score.

Bangladesh has a robust mobile landscape, with fairly strong unique mobile subscription rates — as of the first quarter of 2015, it was tied with Indonesia for the third-highest unique mobile subscribership rates among the FDIP Asian countries, after the Philippines and Turkey. This mobile coverage is combined with a multiplicity of mobile money providers (although a 2014 InterMedia survey noted that nearly 90 percent of active mobile money customers used the bKash mobile money service).

Awareness of mobile money as a service in Bangladesh is very high, although understanding of the concept is less prevalent — in 2014, about 91 percent of respondents in an InterMedia survey were aware of at least one mobile money provider, although only about 36 percent were aware of mobile money as a general concept.

Unregistered use of mobile money accounts is high. While about 37 percent of adults had a mobile money account or bank account or both as of 2014, according to the InterMedia survey, only about 5 percent had registered mobile money accounts, while 4 percent had active, registered mobile money accounts (meaning an account that is registered and has been used in the previous 90 days).Transitioning to registered accounts will help enable individuals to connect with more extensive financial services, such as receipt of government payments.

Overall, adoption of mobile money and the expansion of agent locations have been increasingly rapid in Bangladesh — as of 2014 Bangladesh was one of the fastest growing markets in terms of total accounts globally. Over 60 percent of respondents in a 2013 InterMedia survey stated that they “fully” or “rather” trusted mobile money. Moving forward, increasing financial capability might help individuals feel more at ease registering their accounts and using them independently of an agent.

Pakistan: Public and private sector initiatives advance inclusion

Pakistan ranked 7th in terms of the percentage of adults with mobile money accounts among the 21 countries, achieving the highest percentage of all of the Asian FDIP countries. Yet there is significant room for growth — as of 2014, only about 6 percent of adults had a mobile money account.

The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has clearly expressed its commitment to advancing financial inclusion, which earned the country a commitment score of 100 percent. The SBP developed Branchless Banking regulations in 2008, with revisions in 2011. These regulations were explicitly intended to promote financial inclusion. More recently, the country’s National Financial Inclusion Strategy was launched in May 2015. In terms of quantitative assessments of financial inclusion, the SBP tracks supply-side information on branchless banking in its quarterly newsletters.

Recent public and private sector initiatives may help advance mobile money adoption. For example, a re-verification initiative for SIM cards was mandated by the government and initiated earlier in 2015. Mobile network operators have been promoting registration of mobile money accounts since the biometric re-verification process is more intensive than the identification requirements needed to register a mobile money account.

Earlier, in September 2014, the EasyPaisa mobile money service decided to eliminate fees related to money transfers between Easypaisa account customers and cash-out transactions for a set period. As of April 2015, the number of person-to-person money transfers had increased by about 2500 percent.

Still, barriers to financial inclusion remain. A 2014 InterMedia survey noted that while distance was less of a barrier to registration than previously, distance did affect the frequency with which users engaged with mobile money services. Therefore, expanding access points could further facilitate use of mobile money. Increasing the number of registered accounts could also provide individuals with more opportunities to engage with financial services beyond basic transfers — the InterMedia survey found that as of 2014, about 8 percent of adults were over-the-counter mobile money users, while 0.3 percent were registered users.

Afghanistan: Commitment to improving infrastructure and adoption

Instability and systemic corruption in Afghanistan over the past several decades have damaged trust in formal financial services and limited the development of traditional banking infrastructure. In addition to having one of the lowest levels of GDP among the 21 FDIP countries, as of 2013 the Financial Access Survey found Afghanistan had the lowest reported density of commercial banks per 100,000 adults. Even among individuals who can access banks, adoption of formal accounts is constrained by a lack of trust in formal financial services.

On the mobile side, Afghanistan has fairly widespread 3G network coverage (over 80 percent of the population, according to the GSMA Intelligence database), which helped boost its mobile capacity ranking to 2nd place. However, Afghanistan received the lowest score possible for each of the 15 adoption indicators. According to the 2014 Global Findex, financial account ownership as of 2014 was at about 10 percent of adults, and financial account ownership among women was at only 4 percent. Tracking gender-disaggregated data at the national level could help the government better identify underserved populations and target financial solutions toward their needs.

The government has made an effort to promote financial inclusion and digital financial services. For example, Da Afghanistan Bank committed to the Alliance for Financial Inclusion in 2009, and the Republic of Afghanistan is a member of the Better Than Cash Alliance. In 2008, the Money Service Providers Regulation was issued, with amendments instituted a few years later pertaining to e-money. The Afghanistan Payments Systems, which is still being fully operationalized, aims to allow payment service providers such as mobile network operators to connect their mobile money systems.

While several mobile money options are available, adoption of these services is low. According to the 2014 Global Findex, about 0.3 percent of adults had a mobile money account. Implementing interoperability across platforms might help increase the utility of mobile money services for consumers, and as in Turkey, developing specific agent banking regulations could provide clarity to the sector and drive innovation.

By expanding financial access points, educating consumers about traditional and digital financial services, and monitoring providers to ensure consumer protection, Afghanistan’s regulatory entities and financial service providers may be able to better reach underserved populations and inculcate trust in formal financial services.