Peer learning encourages a sharing of rich experiences among AFI network members, particularly as countries look to one another for guidance on how to build a sustainable and resilient post-COVID-19 recovery. The value of such exchanges is greatest when knowledge is reciprocated, that is, both given and received, underscoring the mutually beneficial understanding that we, as a global network, are stronger together.
Few have been left unaffected by COVID-19, a pandemic that has disrupted our daily lives down the even most basic ways that we greet and interact with one another. But in these times of uncertainty, AFI members are reminded of the stability, support and continuity offered by its peer learning model that is enabling economies to emerge more resilient from this crisis through effective policy and regulatory solutions.
Reflected during last year’s annual general meeting, Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) Deputy Governor Norbert Toe addressed his fellow regulators via virtual platform to remark on how AFI’s peer learning model is so central to its identity and built on the premise of mutual respect and a bottom-up approach that both defines and advances member needs and priorities.
“We have to be innovative and, at the same time, preserve the DNA of AFI. This is very important and very dear to me,” he said, referring to the network’s importance as a member-driven, self-governing, policy-driving and knowledge-sharing initiative.
The strength and uniqueness of AFI’s genetic code became increasingly apparent following the onset of COVID-19.
Amid unprecedented national lockdowns and tough travel restrictions, digital peer learning platforms offered a safe and cost-effective way for members to share and enrich their expertise in a rapidly changing environment. This enabled financial regulators to develop quick, effective and immediate policy measures and responses that would shield most vulnerable groups – those also typically financially excluded, such as women and youth – against pandemic-related shocks.
For an active member of the network, like Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), peer learning has played a key role in offering fresh insight and critical learning for impactful policy considerations.
After taking part in several peer learning initiatives organized by AFI, including a Mastercard Foundation-supported webinar on agent networks for digital financial services, CBN’s Amina Umar noted several similarities between the central bank’s policy responses and key lessons from other countries. This, she said, reaffirmed the AFI platform’s ability to “enable dialogue and debate on critical policy ideas even before they are birthed … to help adapt these actions to realities on the ground.”
Recognizing that peer learning not only offers opportunities to benefit from the lessons of others but also to share its own institutional knowhow, CBN leveraged AFI’s platforms to highlight its unique perspectives and achievements. It has drawn attention to key interventions such as NGN500 billion (USD1.2 billion) targeted credit facility that provides cashflow relief and short-term safety nets to groups worst hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of May 2021, the scheme has benefited more than 107,000 small and medium enterprises.
AFI’s well-tested capacity building, technical and other knowledge sharing offerings, as well as newer platforms, such as the COVID-19 Policy Response Dashboard and gender-sensitive policy response tracker, are enabling members to absorb vital knowledge from their peers in nearly 90 countries as they continue to respond to economic challenges created by COVID-19. By matching policy actions in similar jurisdictions and adapting them to their own realities, members surveyed reported developing and implementing 137 policy and regulatory changes to enhance financial inclusion in their countries during 2020, 68% of which were COVID-19 related.
While crucial learning can be gained on network-wide forums, targeted engagements among regulators on specific financial inclusion programs can also yield fruitful results.
“For nearly a decade, but especially during the past two years since the pandemic began, the African Financial Inclusion Policy Initiative (AfPI) has provided a solid foundation for stronger regional collaboration, peer learning and knowledge exchange between regulators, market actors and other stakeholders in Africa,” AFI Executive Director Dr. Alfred Hannig told the network’s African leaders earlier this year. High-level officials came together at the AfPI annual meeting to share their views on important policy issues and address regional financial inclusion challenges.
A shared digital future
Sharing expertise and best practices offers reassurance to members that have enacted similar approaches to digital financial services during COVID-19 or guidance to others that are deliberating a course of action.
This was the case for Bank of Ghana, which followed in the footsteps of many other regulators in Africa and beyond looking to digital technologies for ways of buffering financial shocks on low-income groups by incentivizing the use of mobile money transfers. This included reducing fees on transfers of up to GHS100 (USD17), bolstering onboarding with minimum Know Your Customer and raising transaction and mobile wallet limits.
These and other measures contributed to an annual rise of 19 percent in the number of active mobile money accounts to over 17 million in 2020 and an 82 percent jump in the value of mobile money transactions to GHS564 billion, potentially helping small businesses to survive pandemic-related disruptions in economic activity.
Greater use and access to financial services through digital platforms among AFI members in Africa compliments peer learning objectives by contributing towards commitments made as part of the Maya Declaration and a range of Sustainable Development Goals including on poverty (goal 1), gender equality (goal 5), equal opportunities (goal 6), strong institutions (goal 10) and partnerships (goal 17).
Taking note was Senegal-based BCEAO Gisèle Keny Ndoye, who said that “sharing has enabled BCEAO to develop response measures to the pandemic, particularly in terms of promoting electronic payments and financial inclusion.”
As with Ghana and Nigeria, BCEAO recorded sharp increases in the use of electronic money, as both regulators and consumers in its eight member countries – Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo – saw opportunities to extend economic activity online and away from in-person interactions. Reflecting this, the number of accounts rose to 94 million at the end of June 2020 versus 77 million at the end of 2019.
Tackling existing exclusions
While each success brings the AFI network one step closer to achieving its vision of making financial services more accessible to the world’s unbanked, so too can learning from the challenges and observations of others. BCEAO’s Ndoye, for example, noted that the worst of the pandemic saw existing exclusions reinforced – often exacerbated by low levels of financial services interoperability, digital identification among users and level of financial education. In contrast, peer learning with other AFI members offered a reminder that only by working together can we accelerate an inclusive and sustainable economic recovery.
For Bank of Uganda’s Joyce Okello, it was the central bank’s participation in AFI’s digital financial literacy subgroup that yielded greatest insight with its emphasis on the need to focus near-term efforts on digital financial literacy so that people can maximize the benefits of digital financial services. At home, these learnings were reflected in public awareness programs that combined financial literacy, electronic payments and COVID-19, and targeted the central bank’s priority groups, such as women, persons with disabilities and youth.
AFI’s central role
As a key part of its vision and mission, AFI facilitates various peer learning opportunities including knowledge exchanges visits, working group activities, the AFI Data Portal and regional leader roundtables, most recently for AfPI.
Generating substantial knowledge in financial inclusion policymaking allows members to tap into the network’s wealth of diverse expertise, according to AFI’s Dr. Hannig, who highlighted how AFI member institutions have implemented over 800 policy changes since the organization was established in 2009.
“These policy changes led to the financial inclusion of over 630 million people globally,” Dr. Hannig told African leaders.
In 2020 alone, 137 policies and regulations were reported by members, including 44 in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many related to macro and microeconomic policies.
In collaboration with the Mastercard Foundation and other AFI partners, AFI aims to enable financial sector regulators in Africa to deliver quick and appropriately gender-sensitive policy responses that mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on businesses and individuals, especially for MSMEs, women and youth.
By switching to digital platforms for continued peer learning during COVID-19 driven lockdowns, knowledge sharing can keep guiding members through turbulent times and long into their recovery. However, the speed at which technology evolves means that there is always room for growth. Here, AFI members’ feedback has been critical with expressions of interest in offline resources to accommodate those with limited or unstable internet connectivity, the creation of an alert system and sessions that target specific best practices.
Such improvements will serve to further strengthen the value of an already successful model. We encourage policymakers to continue sharing, deliberating and deepening their knowledge and expertise of key financial inclusion issues as we strive to leave no one behind.