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Blockchain and crypto are more than just tech – they can also raise people’s wellbeing

The past decade or so has been a landmark time
for financial inclusion. With the advent of affordable mobile phones,
programmes that focus on microfinancing, and a slew of user-friendly and
mobile-first financial services such as M-Pesa, more people than ever have been
able to pay, be paid, and save.

This said, as of 2017, according to the World Bank and First Data an estimated 1.7 billion people across the globe remain without access to formal financial accounts. On top of this, up to 1.8 billion more rely on semi-formal or informal systems, rather than banks, for their financial services. 3.5 billion people without access to modern credit and other types of financial services is a lot of people.

This lack of participation in the modern, global and digital economy prevents full economic growth and also to an extent personal wellbeing. However, there may be an answer, and it could lie with distributed ledger technologies – more specifically cryptocurrencies.

An
accelerator

Deloitte reckons that blockchain can be “an
accelerator for financial inclusion”. We’re inclined to agree; it reduces the
time and expense of financial transactions, it can support other identification
solutions such as biometrics, and it can completely eliminate the need to
depend on a single third-party authority for trust in any system’s validity.

This speaks for blockchain, but what about
cryptocurrencies? Digital tokens are widespread and mainly used for investment.
So how can they help the world’s under and unbanked?

Jan Ohnesorge wrote in 2018 that “a good
replacement for access to a transaction account could be access to a
universally accepted and secure cryptocurrency.” Ohnesorge goes further:
stating that it could enable payments, and offer the possibility to store
money, along with providing a gateway to other and more varied financial
services. Crucially, this would not necessarily have to be powered by
blockchain to work. This said, cryptocurrency still leaves a lot to be desired
when it comes to user-friendliness.

Uptake
needs to go up

It’s this user friendliness that will drive
better uptake, and therefore demonstrate the varied benefits that
cryptocurrencies can bring, such as not having any access restrictions.
Ohnesorge believes that this will increase the uptake of distributed ledger
technologies as, in his mind, their biggest hindrance currently is ease of use.
This also addresses a potential lack of trust in traditional financial systems
that is currently hindering the uptake of use in markets that use M-Pesa for
example.

One way of doing this is using mobile-first
apps, such as the digital wallet Abra, that enables the trading of
cryptocurrency on the blockchain, in an easy and simple way. All users may need
is a smartphone with the app installed – which then enables them to send and
receive funds from across the world. The users do not need to understand what
cryptocurrencies are, or even know that they app is based on cryptocurrencies.
It just works, and means anyone with a mobile phone and the app can now be
connected to the global digital economy. You don’t even need a bank account,
and for those in an an unbanked situation, this is ideal, and means that there
is a credible record of spending and receiving, which could pave the way to the
creation of a credit record, instead of remaining a “thin-file”.

Bringing
blockchain into the real world

What remains to be seen, is the effectiveness
of this technology. Is making it easier to use really going to have an effect
on the world’s unbanked? Well, the answer may surprise you.

In the Philippines, as many as 70% of
residents are unbanked. Unionbank partnered with ConsenSys and a number of
other banks and tech companies to create an Ethereum-based payment platform for
rural banks. It was designed initially to support domestic remittances, and
aims to overcome the challenges of connectivity and lack of technological
resources in rural areas. Project i2i also aims to build the infrastructure
needed to bring rural banks into the pre-existing and internationally connected
financial system, along with those customers that rely on the rural banks.

There are numerous other projects that look to
use blockchain to bring about financial inclusion through low-cost financial
services, such as Stellar, which IBM has used to launch its own Blockchain
World Wire, that enables real-time global payments, which currently supports
payments in 72 countries.

Whilst the hype surrounding blockchain has
undoubtedly been driven by the startup machine, the real-world applications of
this technology towards financial inclusion are just getting started. The
potential to bring everyone in the world together in one blockchain-driven
financial system is a very real possibility. What’s more, it’s a possibility
that would put everyone involved on an even keel, bringing up those who haven’t
been included in the formal financial system.

Blockchain’s potential goes beyond traceable transactions, and goes straight to the enablement of commerce and building communities, helping to take them out of poverty and onto the global stage. It will just take a little faith from all involved.

Interested in hearing more in person? Find out more at the Blockchain Expo World Series, Global, Europe and North America.

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