Digital-finance technology and the Sustainable Development Goals

The Covid-19 crisis invites us to reflect how to go from a period of rising inequality and unsustainable investment to inclusive, sustainable development. A forthcoming report by the United Nations will explain how accessible and affordable financing is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and how digital-finance technology opens the way to the citizen to go from a passive to an active participant in the financial system.

The Covid-19 crisis has been the trigger for a plethora of ideas how to go from a period of rising inequality and unsustainable investment to inclusive, sustainable development. As digital services such as online learning or telemedicine have already been vital for many in coping during lockdowns, digital-finance technology is expected to play a crucial role in the future.

Digital-finance technology has been closely studied in recent years by the UNSG’s Task Force on Digital Financing of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Adequate, accessible and affordable financing is key to achieving the SDGs and digitalization will change how we can finance efforts to achieve them. The objective of the task force is to create a “digital path to citizen-centric finance” because “global finance has become detached from people’s needs and preferences”. By harnessing the disruptive potential of digital technologies, the world can create a fairer, more inclusive financial system that propels sustainable development. Digitalization can, for example, disrupt those financial intermediaries that have become entrenched and largely unproductive rent-seekers.

Patrick Njoroge, a member of the task force, notes that one form of such disruption is to bring the previously unbanked into the financial system so that economic growth is directly supported. Successful examples in Africa include mobile money – a mobile phone-based money-transfer, payments and micro-financing service; and mobile-only governments bonds, which allow citizens to invest as little as $30 and make capital markets accessible to the general population. Other disruptive factors that enable disintermediation of some existing enterprises and financial system functions include crowd-sourcing, peer-to-peer lending, direct investing and of course blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

After meeting for the first time in January 2019, the task force will present its findings this week and the expectations are high. Indeed, the framework document setting out the purpose of the task force in early 2019 envisioned a radical shift of the way we think about the financial system: “Modern finance has always emphasized the importance of the citizen as customer, saver, investor and indeed as a political actor. Yet the citizen has been conceived of as being outside of the functions of the financial system, served by and subject to it rather than being an active participant. Digitalization opens the way to the citizen being a far more active participant in the financial system itself”.

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