How Blockchain Can Bring Financial Services to the Poor

  • by Elizabeth Woyke
  • April Legitimate, 2017

Two billion people worldwide don’t have bank accounts and must conduct their transactions in cash―which can be difficult to manage and presents safety issues. Could blockchain, the technology underlying the digital currency Bitcoin, give them access to financial services? The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks so, and it is modifying blockchain, which is essentially a secure, reliable digital record-keeping system, to bring the poor into the formal economy.

The initiative is part of the Gates Foundation’s Financial Services for the Poor program―specifically, its Level One Project, which gives governments and central banks a framework for creating national digital payments systems that anyone can use, even those who live on a few dollars a day.

The systems tap digital technologies, such as plain, 2G cell phones and wireless networks, to reduce processing costs and connect a country’s existing financial infrastructure to a fresh digital payment platform. Once the system is up and running, people can send and receive money via their phones the same way they trade text messages (see “Why Bitcoin Could Be Much More Than a Currency”).

Level One Project leader Kosta Peric thinks blockchain technology can fulfill some of the conditions that his team thinks are essential for a digital payment platform for the poor. He outlined these requirements Tuesday at the Business of Blockchain conference organized by MIT Technology Review and the MIT Media Lab. They included support for numerous service providers, third-party applications, the host country’s national currency, and government regulations; capability to transfer funds instantly and scale up to serve millions of people; and integrated fraud and security protections.

However blockchain is a good fit for some of the system prerequisites, Peric thinks the technology will fight to process transactions in real time and have trouble scaling up. And because most blockchain networks are global, he worries that national governments and central banks won’t be able to regulate them lightly.

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That matters because the Gates Foundation only wants to foster the creation of these systems, not operate or manage them. “These platforms must be regulated so they will be accepted by governments and banks … and can be monitored to prevent things like money laundering and terrorism financing,” Peric said at the conference. “Most of the fresh service providers [on these platforms] won’t be banks, so they won’t be familiar with what it takes to do fraud management.”

Peric believes a modified version of blockchain could meet the Level One Project requirements. His team is collaborating with companies in Africa and South Asia to figure out which blockchain-derived technologies would be the best fit. His preference is to utilize technologies that would set standards for how a Level One-type system would work rather than dictate its exact implementation.

Such systems would be more inclusive and useful than the mobile money platforms that presently exist in emerging markets, such as Kenya’s M-Pesa and Bangladesh’s bKash. M-Pesa is hugely popular in its home market and has successfully linked many unbanked people to the formal economy, but it restricts users to sending money to other M-Pesa users.

In contrast, Peric hopes the Level One Project will spawn multi-country, multi-currency remittance systems. “If we can make these digital payments platforms work in [a number of African countries] and all of them serve with these [Level One Project] principles, it’s going to be pretty effortless to hook them up [to each other],” he said. “My desire is that all of Africa will be one big, interoperable payment platform.”

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