Former World Bank executive on how to close the global gender finance gap

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Civilians board a train as they flee Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Odessa, Ukraine, March 9, 2022.
Alexandros Avramidis | Reuters

Within hours of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2022, the country’s financial system began to show signs of strain. As banks swiftly shut down, the Ukrainian economy quickly spiraled into wartime mode and civilians fled en masse.

Against this backdrop, Mary Ellen Iskenderian of Women’s World Banking decided to jump in to help.

“We’ve gotten to know quite a bit about financial services, financial usage, financial literacy, as it pertains to refugees and immigrant populations,” said Iskenderian, president and CEO of the global nonprofit which has partnered with more than 70 organizations around the world to reach over 185 million women.

Women’s World Banking has focused much of its research on Ukrainian refugees, in particular, since they have overwhelmingly been women and their dependents, given the country’s conscription requirements.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity with blockchain, finance, and digital ID,” Iskenderian said. “There’s some really interesting work that’s being done with refugees and the migrant community on the blockchain.”

The World Bank estimates that 850 million people globally don’t have proof of legal identity — that is, no birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, or national ID. Without the ability to prove who you are, many have been deprived of the right to access services, or open a bank account.

“People with an ID are more likely to own bank accounts and mobile phones, and financial and mobile services are among the most frequently reported uses of one’s ID,” it reported.

Iskenderian tells CNBC that the vast majority of the world’s disenfranchised are women and that there are still seven countries where a woman is not permitted to have her own identification document in her own name.

World Bank survey data has found that in low-income countries, 44% of women do not have an ID, versus 28% of men.

One solution is to issue these individuals digital identities on a blockchain, that is, a decentralized digital ledger that does not rely on a centralized authority, such as a government, to maintain the identification system. The World Food Program, for example, has provided refugee assistance through the blockchain to those displaced from their homes.

“Digital identity is going to be absolutely crucial,” she said. “I’m most excited frankly about building more use cases on blockchain.”

Companies like Jack Dorsey’s Block have been working to realize the vision of decentralized identities that would facilitate open payment networks online.

In recent years, women have gained greater access to mobile phones and the internet — key tools for on-boarding the unbanked into the digital economy. The GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report found that women are online more than ever before — now 15% less likely than men to use mobile internet, an improvement upon the previous year’s figures, but there is still a significant fixed gap in mobile phone ownership, at 8%.

Cultural barriers pose an issue in some markets.

In Pakistan, for example, respondents to the GSMA survey noted that “family disapproval” was a significant obstacle to smartphone ownership. Just 7% of women in Pakistan have access to an account at a formal financial institution, according to Women’s World Banking, and the gender gap in account ownership has increased to 28 percentage points, leaving over 50 million unbanked women.

Iskenderian, who previously spent 17 years with the World Bank’s private sector arm, has tackled the stigma head on though a partnership with Jazz, one of Pakistan’s largest mobile phone operators, which has expanded into the business of providing customers with digital financial services including a mobile money offering.

Aniqa Sandhu, who at the time was the chief digital officer for Jazz, was concerned that only 12% of users were women. Sandhu and Iskenderian both saw potential in onboarding Pakistan’s unbanked women into the financial sector via a digital bank account through the JazzCash mobile wallet.

“I haven’t come all this way just to have women left behind by this innovation,” Iskenderian recounted of Sandhu’s words at the time.

Iskenderian recalled that the CEO of Jazz expressed concerns that it might be a product problem and speculated that one solution could be to re-brand with pink packaging.

“We looked at the data and said, ‘We think your products are just fine.'”

The pair identified that the company’s female customers, though proportionally a much smaller subset of total users, were using the products at roughly the same volume and frequency as men, resulting in similar degrees of profitability.

The chief issue: 99.9% of JazzCash’s nearly 70,000 sales agents were men.

“If the woman was intrepid enough to walk into that small space with the man, she then had to hand him her cell phone number,” Iskenderian said. “That just wasn’t going to happen in that culture.”

To solve the problem, Women’s World Banking partnered Jazz with Unilever, which had launched a women entrepreneur training program. The program was called Guddi Baji, or good sister, and the goal was to tap into an already established nationwide network of female owned and operated shops. Capitalizing on this rural distribution chain ultimately proved transformative to the business.

“Within six months, there was so much pent up demand, we went from 12% to 44% of the client base,” she said. “And that was not just the onboarding that we changed, but it was about messaging. We found that the language women responded to had to refer to other women and the men.”

By the end of the first year of the partnership, JazzCash had nearly one million new female customers engaging in more than one million transactions per month, accounting for over $35 million, while the Guddi Baji program members saw increased commission-based revenue.

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