As a former banker, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of money and technology. During my time at Citibank more than 20 years ago I was a part of an effort to develop an electronic wallet that would provide digital banking and financial services. Despite two decades of significant advances in technology, we are still struggling today to create a robust and sustainable ecosystem for an electronic wallet that can bring banking services within the reach of most of the world’s population.
As I prepare for the Forum this week, I am optimistic that the environment is now ripe to create an ecosystem that brings billions of people into the formal economy through the promise of digital financial inclusion. Mobile technology now reaches a vast majority of the more than 2 billion unbanked people in the world today. We can use this technology to eliminate the risks of carrying cash in dangerous parts of the world and for electronic vouchers that ease the provision of assistance.
This reality is now fundamentally changing the way we deploy humanitarian and development aid. Take for instance this study, published this month in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which documents the improved safety and speed in the delivery of aid that two NetHope member organizations Mercy Corps and World Vision International achieved by using mobile payments rather than cash distribution in the wake of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. The study found that using mobile money led to a 50 percent reduction in theft of cash, a risk that is too often associated with carrying physical cash, particularly in rural areas.
The challenge we now face is building the ecosystem and the sustainable demand for continued use of these systems. Initial deployments of new payment systems require an investment up-that may be more costly than relying on the old systems of paper and cash. We must remember, however, that these costs are typical of any new technology start-up that must invest in consumer education, distribution channel development, customer support and more. With increased demand and economies of scale, the cost curve shifts dramatically to reveal significant cost savings, allowing more money to reach the hands of those who need it most. We have seen this fundamental principle of economics repeated over and over again in the adoption of new technologies. After all, the technology industry crafted Moore’s law.
As someone who is invested for the long-haul and is committed to creating a brighter future for our world’s most vulnerable, I believe the private and public sectors must come together and commit to building the necessary ecosystem and demand that makes mobile money a sustainable reality. In 2012, along with NetHope, I stand ready and committed to help make my “banker’s dream” come true.
Dr. William A. Brindley is Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of NetHope, Inc.
Pictured: A “wallet phone” is swept over a scanning device in Tokyo November 5, 2008. These special phones can be used like money for purchases in stores equipped with the scanners. Japan has pioneered not just the technology but also the business models that will pave the way for wallet phones to become a standard payment method in the future. Picture taken November 5. REUTERS/Michael Caronna (JAPAN)