U.N. Secretary General’s Task Force on Digital Financing for the SDGs

Since the start of the global pandemic, the world has witnessed the benefits of being connected and the danger of being left out. For nearly 6 billion mobile subscribers, mobile technology has proven a lifeline that keeps loved ones connected, facilitates remote access to critical services such as healthcare and education, and provides an easy way to receive transfers from governments and relatives.

Mobile technology has been instrumental in tackling digital divides and financial exclusion. Over the past 5 years, mobile broadband coverage has more than doubled, bringing tangible benefits to businesses and people around the world.

For example, in the past two years alone, 230 million women have been able to access the internet. Nevertheless, the gender divide remains real as women in low- and middle-income countries are on average 8% less likely than men to own a mobile phone, 20% less likely to use mobile internet and 33% less likely to use mobile money.[1]

In addition, there are over a billion mobile money accounts collectively transacting almost US$2 billion daily, with many of their users previously unbanked. Mobile money is now helping hundreds of millions of clients safely transact, receive or store funds.

Such innovative financial services and business models, aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), often require catalytic financing from both private and public sources. This helps de-risk mobile network operators’ investments in serving clients who have traditionally been difficult to reach, while offering the potential to demonstrate commercial viability. As such, mobile innovation challenge funds have been instrumental in accelerating experimentation and delivery of crucial financial services for farmers, small business owners, rural residents, women, youth, refugees and displaced people.

Beyond financing, mobile financial service innovators need secure access to interoperable payments infrastructure for efficient transaction settlement as well as to key client and sector-specific data to better design and tailor their products. However, many countries are still developing payments legislation and lack clear data privacy regulations required to foster consumer trust.

Some mobile network operators are adopting good practice such as anonymising and aggregating data and following a privacy-by-design ethos. Where big data analytics are being performed, data sharing agreements should be pre-defined and limit access to such data to authorised users. Today’s international debate around artificial intelligence and its impact on access, quality, and equity of financial services, signals the importance of governing digitalised finance in ways that strengthen confidence and trust.

The Digital Declaration launched by the GSMA during the World Economic Forum in Davos, is an example of what it means for businesses to act ethically in the digital era. The Declaration principles call on businesses and public sector to extend consumer trust, to offer inclusive opportunities for all and to ensure an environment fit for innovation. Similarly, mobile operators working on Artificial Intelligence (AI) projects can harness trustworthy AI by following ethical AI principles and privacy guidelines. We have to make sure we walk the talk when it comes to what matters most to consumers, industry, and governments—building trust, accelerating sustainable development, and supporting innovation.

As part of walking the talk on sustainable development, the mobile sector has also been at the forefront of bold climate action. It was the first industry to voluntarily agree on an industry-wide climate action roadmap, which commits to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG emissions) in 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement. Furthermore, we are currently disclosing our climate impacts, as well as our energy and GHG emissions, via the internationally recognised CDP global disclosure system. It is clear a post-carbon world will be a digital world and we all have a role, and indeed a responsibility, to have a positive and lasting influence on climate action.

While the mobile sector has made tremendous advances to connect and better serve billions of customers, important gaps remain when it comes to both access and usage of services, especially among traditionally underserved populations. 600 million people are still out of reach and 45% of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some 3.4 billion people are covered by a mobile broadband network but do not use mobile internet services. Affordability of mobile services and devices, consumer readiness, lack of digital skills and availability of locally relevant content are key drivers of this usage gap.[2]

In late 2018, I joined 16 other leaders from the financial, technology, regulatory, and international development communities on the UN Secretary General’s Digital Finance Task Force. Over the past 20 months, we have identified major opportunities to leverage technology in channelling more funds to sustainable projects and enterprises and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of both public and private finance. We assessed how to evolve digital financing ecosystems at national and regional levels to provide enabling conditions for innovation aligned with sustainable development goals. Lastly, we highlighted the need for stronger, more inclusive, multi-stakeholder collaboration in governing digital finance, both through regulation and corporate governance innovations that integrate sustainability considerations into how companies are run.

Recent developments have shown that mobile connectivity has never been more important to people’s daily lives. As an industry, not only do we have the potential to be the backbone of the global economy in a post-COVID recovery, but we should strive to be at its very core.

The Task Force’s final report ‘People’s Money: Harnessing Digitalization to Finance a Sustainable Future’ was launched by the UN Secretary-General on 26 August at UN Headquarters in New York.

Read Report

Read more about the UN Secretary-General’s Digital Finance Taskforce here.

[1] Through the GSMA Connected Women Commitment Initiative launched in 2016, mobile operators collectively reached over 35 million additional women customers.

[2] The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report 2020 will be available from www.gsma.com/somic from mid-September 2020.