AFI Executive Director Dr Alfred Hannig delivering his remarks at the launch of Tunisia’s five-year national policy on digital payments

21 November 2022

Innovation and digital payments: Key levers for inclusive growth in Tunisia – Speech by AFI Executive Director Dr. Alfred Hannig

Honorable Governor, Dear Marouane Abassi
Dear Deputy Governors, Ms. Nadia Gamha
Representatives of the Tunisian Government
Dear Representatives of IFC,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

 

Good Morning!

I would like to express my sincere appreciation for being given the opportunity to participate in this important event which takes place here in this beautiful setting in Gammarth. I would like to express my gratitude to Honorable Governor Abassi and the International Finance Corporation for the invitation to this unique occasion: the official introduction of Tunisia’s five-year national policy on digital payments. This policy will support innovations that will promote greater inclusivity and sustainable growth.

Being here, with you, gives me a very welcome opportunity to learn more on the commitment and policy initiatives of the Central Bank of Tunisia, an active member of the AFI network since 2018. We have witnessed that BCT’s interest and progress in the digital financial services increased dramatically in recent years, particularly since the pandemic. This is evident with the establishment of a new regulatory framework to support digital payments, including the development of new FinTechs and a regulatory sandbox.

Thank you for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to share a few thoughts from a global perspective.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today’s event provides an opportunity to discuss an important topic for AFI which is financial inclusion and digital innovations for sustainable and inclusive growth. This topic is of great interest to our members, a network composed of 82 central banks and other financial regulators from 75 countries.

Global trends in policy development

By way of introducing the topic, let me share with you a few significant policy developments that we have observed over the past three years. The developments do not only provide highly insightful lessons to all of us, but the trends we are seeing also set the context for the theme of this event today.

First, in the past three years we have seen extraordinary responses by policymakers and regulators globally and across the AFI network to the pandemic, including of course unprecedented levels of fiscal stimulus. However, more importantly in our context today, is the utilization of digital channels to provide first-time access to formal financial services for millions of individuals and businesses previously excluded. This has been particularly important for women and other disadvantaged groups in order to be able to receive government payments and cash transfers through digital means. As a matter of fact, as most observers fully agree, the pandemic was a driver of digital financial services and digital payments in particular.

Second, the experience of the pandemic has demonstrated that digital financial inclusion is an “all weather” policy solution.  In good times, it can provide opportunities to transact efficiently, save safely, plan for the future, and create economic opportunities for micro enterprises. In tough times, digital financial inclusion becomes an essential lifeline for vulnerable individuals and communities to receive social transfers and remittances.

As a result, and this is my third point, many countries took a leap forward in penetration of digital financial services (DFS), which play a role beyond the immediate crisis context. Digital payments have indeed become the gateway to broader digital finance ecosystems, enabling access to savings, credit, insurance and other products. The business case for prioritizing digital financial inclusion policies and infrastructure has become very clear. Policy solutions around Digital Identity and e-KYC, as well as adjustments of transaction fees, can drive onboarding of unbanked customers and usage of digital payments services. It is  therefore  transformative for financial inclusion, as they enhance operational cost efficiency, especially with the last mile or in hard-to-reach communities.

Forth, regulators from developing and emerging economies demonstrated commitment to include the most disadvantaged groups –women, youth, Forcibly Displaced Persons (FDPs), persons with disabilities and older people – in their financial inclusion strategies – using targeted policies and measures where necessary and making sure to leave no one behind. Let me share with you in this context some data from recent member needs assessment from the AFI network: Gender Inclusive Finance remains a growing priority for our members. In fact, 74% of members indicated that this is a high priority for them, compared to 58% in 2021. Youth Financial Inclusion has increased dramatically as a priority for AFI members (71%).

Arab Region

The Arab region, traditionally known for low levels of access to financial services, is indeed worth highlighting for its persistent efforts in adapting their regulatory environment, whereby policy makers in the Arab region have achieved advanced innovations and are targeting digital payments as a key enabler of their national financial inclusion strategies. Egypt, for example, developed an innovative fintech strategy, a new regulation in the last two years on cashless economy, and a regulation for instant payments. Palestine is developing an open finance regulatory framework, Jordan is also focusing on digital payments in their new National Financial Inclusion Strategy, and Morocco has achieved huge progress in reducing the cash economy through a conducive regulatory framework for the development of FinTechs.

Let’s have a look at a few data points in the Arab region. GSMA reports a very fast growth of the mobile money ecosystem in MENA, with adoption rising faster than in any other region in the World. According to GSMA, in 2021, there were 28 live mobile money services in the region, accounting for 59 million registered accounts (+7% year-on-year) and 5 million active accounts (+68% year-on-year). There was also strong growth in transaction volume and value, with 242 million mobile money transactions occurring in 2021, at a value of $13.7 billion (+49% year-on-year).

According to the Global Findex, 40% of adults, or more than 100 million adults in the Arab region, performed at least one digital transaction in 2021, adding 24 million adults in 2021 compared to 2017. Furthermore, 88% of adults in the region own a mobile phone and approximately 63% reported having access to the Internet in 2021, proving the high potential that digital innovation has in the region.

There are still challenges to be addressed in the region. Although there is impressive measurable progress in some countries, for example in Jordan, where the gender gap in access to finance has been cut by over a half over the past years with digital payments being one of the key drivers. In the region, the overallgender gap in terms of male and female access and usage of financial services, has been reduced but is still persistent. From almost 15 percentage points of difference between men and women account ownership in 2011, this gap was reduced in the region to approximately 13 percentage points in 2021, with a similar gap in terms of digital transactions.

Hence, the digital divide needs to be further addressed to ensure that the acceleration of digitization provides opportunities for all and leaves no one behind. Further, the policies and innovations to be implemented in the region are recommended to persist on embracing gender sensitive considerations.

Role of Central Banks

Our members conceive financial inclusion as one of the key pillars of financial stability, which in turn is a prerequisite for sustainable and inclusive growth. Financial services will continue to be shaped by technology, probably even more than in the past, and faster. While there are obvious benefits, risks of technology, are emerging.

It is important to note that with all things digital, there is an imminent need to work towards frameworks that prevent, manage and mitigate cyber threats.

Allow me to reiterate my call for action to the regulators, market actors and other stakeholders in the eco-system, to leverage digital technologies in a responsible and safe manner, as we reach out to vulnerable segments of the society such as the poor, women and forcibly displaced persons. The need for better market conduct and enhanced financial capability is never out of fashion especially in the advent of the glory of financial technology.

Just on a side note, the recent collapse of FTX that has been sending shockwaves across the crypto industry reminds us of the absolute necessity to keep the risks of technology in check.

But let us go back to our discussion here, and let me touch upon the obvious fact that the entire financial world has been changing. Central Banks must be able to cope with this changing environment, characterized by the entry of new players into the financial sector and the influx of FinTech innovations. AFI’s members are of the view that technological innovations raise new risk considerations, but also opportunities for greater efficiency and inclusion, in other words, there is a role of Central Banks and financial policymakers in contributing to socioeconomic and development challenges, such as poverty reduction and inequality. Some of the risks of technology we are addressing here are indeed outside the conventional prudential responsibilities of financial regulators. This undoubtedly has implications for the mandate and priorities of Central Banks and financial policymakers themselves, as they take proactive policy stance towards trends in digital innovation, as well as climate and other potential new sources of systemic risk.

Collaboration and mutual convergence

I am sure you will agree that collaboration, peer-learning, and capacity building are important building blocks on this journey of advancing digital financial inclusion, globally and in this region. This is an integral part of AFI’s global agenda. Over the years, we have initiated strategic platforms to advance peer learning between members (member trainings and Joint Learning Programs), between the private and public sectors (Private Public Dialogue), as well as between developing and developed economies.

We have made significant progress in our inclusive FinTech journey through the establishment of the Developing-Developed Dialogue (3D) platform under the Sochi Accord on Inclusive Fintech, which is the AFI network’s global commitment to drive impact through digital innovations. The 3D Platform acts as a neutral peer learning forum on topics of mutual convergence and interest among AFI member institutions and developed country partners such as digital financial services and inclusive fintech.

In 2021, BCT virtually hosted an AFI Member Training on Strengthening Agent Network for Digital Financial Services. We greatly appreciate Banque Centrale de Tunisie sharing progress with its peers of the AFI network. This shows once more how strongly committed BCT is to sharing knowledge, experiences, and best practices within the network.

To further emphasize the significance of the young generation at both the national and regional levels, for which digital financial services are intended, BCT also co-hosted a first of its kind, in-person, AFI event on capacity development of Youth Financial Inclusion for the Arab region.

Indeed, there is a wealth of knowledge and experiences that can be shared across these platforms. As the saying goes, if you want to go far, you go with others. I encourage you to explore the opportunities for collaboration and peer learning in this regard.

Appreciation

On this note, I would like to express once again my sincere thanks to Governor Abassi and the organizers for hosting this event. This new strategy for digital payments builds on a solid foundation and marks the next steps for further innovation and development in Tunisia and beyond. AFI will continue to support BCT in making advances in digital finance services space, developing and implementing these new digital payments strategy and sharing experiences and lessons learned with the network.

Thank you for your attention and best wishes for the success of this conference, and the implementation of the policy you are launching today.


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