NOMPU SISIBA: The task force on digital financing of the sustainable development goals, also known as the SDGs, has issued a report entitled People’s Money: Harnessing Digitalization to Finance a Sustainable Future. It’s a final report in a series that they’ve published to aid in the United Nations’ work around how to finance the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
There are 17 sustainable development goals, ranging from eliminating poverty and ensuring that everyone has access to a good-quality education, access to clean water and sanitation, is able to get decent work and enjoy the benefits of economic growth – through to responsible consumption and production in economies, mitigating climate change and working in global partnership to achieve these goals, among others.
Well, to discuss finances and the digitalisation thereof, I’m joined on the line by Maria Ramos. She’s a co-chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Finance. Thanks very much, Maria, for joining us. So why did the UN secretary-general set up the task force on digital finance? What’s its purpose?
MARIA RAMOS: The secretary-general set up the task force with a particular mandate. He saw this as part of the roadmap for financing the 2030 agenda for the sustainable development goals. And he, I think, wanted to find a way of accelerating the delivery and financing of the sustainable development goals, the recognition that the world is not short of funding and finance. We needed to find a way of channelling that towards the sustainable development goals, and actually that we do this in a world where there is this unbelievable opportunity with digitalisation. So that’s what this was about.
It was a very specific mandate to look at it, to harness the potential of digitalisation in accelerating the financing of the SDGs, and to capitalise ways to harness digitalisation so we can deliver on the SDGs.
NOMPU SIZIBA: So, coming to the report that you guys have issued around this very topic – harnessing digitalisation to finance a sustainable future – it talks about the catalytic opportunities to make this a possibility. Perhaps you can go through those items.
MARIA RAMOS: Well, in the report we look at broad-cap but very important catalytic opportunities that, having worked with 17 task-force members from across the world and drawing from both the private and the public sectors, we distilled into these catalytic opportunities. And they can be applied in different countries, different regions within different countries, and also just globally.
Effectively these opportunities revolve around the harnessing of domestic savings to local investment.
So we know that in the world, if you look at the volume of net savings globally, that is some something in the order of $23 trillion. And even, if you look at what’s happening in less-developed countries, that’s a significant amount of resource there. We know, for example, in the last two decades the less-developed countries have increased their savings 15-fold.That’s a significant amount of savings.
So that’s one catalytic opportunity and that digitalisation allows us to better use that savings. While we talk about people’s money, this is our money as people. So how do we use that? We look at opportunities to digitally enable smaller and medium-sized enterprise finance, and in the report we did a number of very interesting and innovative examples of that.
We also talk about the financial and capital markets and how those have been transformed and are in the process of transforming, so that there are more resources going into the financing of green bonds, into the financing of being environmentally friendly, for example, but also more opportunities for that. So that’s another capital opportunity.
We also talk about transparency and accountability in public finance. Many countries have moved down the track quite fast. They’ve developed an ability to track the allocation of budgets.
They’ve gone down the road of digital IDs; they know how money is spent, they know many is allocated, all the way down to local-level companies doing interesting work in gathering data and making it available on big infrastructure and small infrastructure projects. And, actually, given what we are going through as a country, this is not a bad thing to do.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Not at all.
MARIA RAMOS: And then we are looking at the reporting of the enabling of sustainable consumption choices, because we’re all consumers and we are spending a huge amount of money. So those are the catalytic opportunities.
And then, of course, we asked ourselves how we make all of this happen – and what needs to be true for this to happen.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Coming to that issue of how you make this happen, sadly in the emerging world you have a situation where many people don’t have access to the tools that would enable them to access the digitalisation of finances. So what does your report say around these issues?
MARIA RAMOS: I think what we found – and this is why this was so important – a lot of countries are both in the developed, obviously, but also more and more in the developing world. A significant amount of countries are making very interesting choices around where they’re spending money, and what they’re investing in. A lot of countries are in big things. You obviously have to invest in those core digital foundations. You have to make investments in affordable and accessible connectivity. We know that, so people have access to networks.
If you really want to have digital finance, you need to have open and interoperable payment systems and you also need to make sure that data is protected. So those – I’m going to call them “infrastructure investments” – have to be in place.
We often talk about infrastructure. I think you’ve heard me say this before. We often talk about infrastructure as roads and ports, pipelines. Well, we are moving into a world very fast where that infrastructure is actually the kind of infrastructure that allows for a digital network to happen. So I think that’s important.
Countries in the developing world actually are moving quite fast in doing things like giving each citizen a digital ID, and spending resources on that. Once you have a digital ID, you can do a lot of things. You can pay somebody a pension, you can pay somebody a grant, you can give somebody an identity document, and get a bank account without going through huge costs. And countries of doing that – big countries and small countries.
NOMPU SISIBA: What about South Africa? How far are we in this regard?
MARIA RAMOS: We have some way to go, but we do need to move down the path quite fast. And when I say countries, I mean big countries like India. In the report you’ll see some very interesting stuff in countries like Bangladesh, where they are experimenting and doing successfully with microfinance, with micro savings in communities. So people are saving very small amounts of money, but you can gather them in the community. It’s good, some of those micro savings using the payments platform and putting some local government money, some regional government money, some national government money into building environmentally-friendly infrastructure: roads, or a bridge, or a school. But the community has some of their own savings invested in this, and they get a return on their savings. But they’re also getting community infrastructure that they feel they need, that they own, and that brings stability.
NOMPU SISIBA: Maria, like with anything else, the digital space also has risks – data security and things like that. But, importantly, what is the task force’s view on things around cryptocurrency, because you’re also talking about where people can invest and where people can save. Some people do get lured in by get-rich-quick schemes. I know the cryptocurrency area can attract people like that.
MARIA RAMOS: We’ve looked at the risks, and there are lots of risks. Of course there are risks, there are always risks around your data. And, in fact, one of the things that the report talks about is governance. They really are around data privacy, they’re around the fact that we have to think about cyber security, we have to think about reducing the risk of fraud, for example. We have to think about things like the potential for bias in algorithms, because it has actually begun to be an issue in the algorithms which can take away bias, but equally algorithms can result in bias.
You know, cryptocurrencies are like everything else.
If anything looks like it’s too good to be true, it is too good to be true. If anybody tells you they are going to make money quickly, you should exercise your mind – be careful.
If you don’t know enough about it, don’t invest your hard-earned savings in that.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Steer clear.
MARIA RAMOS: Just stay clear. So we don’t go into the detail of cryptocurrencies, for example. But what we do, what we talk about, is the risk that we have to be careful, that there isn’t sufficient, particularly for developing countries, in creating the principles and the governance around things like cryptocurrencies because of the implications they may have over time for policy. We also know that central banks are particularly focused on those kinds of things.
NOMPU SISIBA: Being Women’s Month, it makes sense to focus on how important digital technology can be for empowering women economically, because often – in emerging economies at least – they’re the ones who are out of work and need to be industrious to survive.
MARIA RAMOS: Yes. And so one of the task force members who was the director of UN Women, whom South Africans know exceedingly well, was our former deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. We’ve benefited very much from her input and from the input of UN Women. She’s actually the under secretary-general and executive director of UN Women. Absolutely. We did actually highlight both the issues that continue to continue to create barriers for women, even in tis world of digitalisation, whether that’s access to education, whether it’s the opportunity. And it’s making sure that we can create, ensuring that, as we roll out innovation as digitalisation happens, it doesn’t create additional barriers, but actually creates access, that it breaks down barriers rather than building up new barriers for women.
I think it’s advancing digital and creating the ecosystems that digital needs in order to create opportunities rather than barriers. We need to be particularly mindful that it doesn’t actually entrench gender bias, but actually breaks down those biases.
NOMPU SISIBA: That was Maria Ramos. She’s a co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s Task Force on Digital Finance.