ASEAN Survey: Digitalization Advances Financial Inclusion for Women, Micro Business Owners

The World Economic Forum has launched the ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2022, the sixth edition of the report since 2017.

This year’s report “examines digital financial services, gaps in access and where businesses, governments, and civil society organizations need to improve financial inclusion.”

The report builds on insights from a survey of “more than 90,000 respondents from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam.” Some 70% of respondents “were aged between 16 and 35, 52% were women, and a third (27,000) were micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs).”

Produced in collaboration with Sea Limited, a global consumer internet company founded in Singapore, the report indicates “that usage of digital financial services is increasing across the region.”

Digital payment apps “were most widely used after social media, with 84% of survey respondents having used digital payments.” Respondents stressed, “the importance of better access to financial services for daily personal and business needs, from cash flows and savings to a safety net for business expansion.”

Digitalization offers “the potential to improve access to finance, promoting inclusivity for underserved groups such as women, rural dwellers, and micro business entrepreneurs. Accessing digital financial services has become a common practice among the majority of surveyed rural dwellers.”

MSMEs, particularly micro-businesses, “are getting more loans from fintech, as well as complementing loans from banks.” In addition, one woman in five respondents “who needed loans borrowed through fintech and online services, making them an important source of formal borrowing.”

Access to finance is “not uniform among ASEAN’s digital generation.” Among those who sought credit support, “nearly half could not access formal sources of lending.” Some 28% of those who needed loans “did not get any, and almost a fifth had to rely on family and friends, cooperatives and other informal lenders.”

Women also “had less access to financial services compared to men. For instance, only 22% of women who needed loans actually received credit from commercial banks, compared to 28% of men.”

There were also “fewer women (19%) using advanced financial products – namely credit, investment and insurance – compared to men (24%).” However, the survey indicated “that women were adopting digital finance apps (65%) more than men (59%).”

The report found “that possession of financial management skills is correlated with access to financial products, particularly more advanced ones such as insurance, loans, and investment.”

Complex financial language “used in financial services contracts constitutes a serious barrier for ASEAN’s digital generation.”

Respondents “cited cumbersome processes or unfriendly interfaces (particularly for digital payments and lending services), fear of hidden costs and ambiguous contract terms (particularly for saving/investment and lending services).”

The survey also “looked into concerns that cut across various financial services and found security and fraud to be common themes.” This underscores safety “as a basic requirement for any form of financial service.”

As ASEAN has been promoting ASEAN intra and international trade, the report examines the relationship “between access to financial services and cross-border trade opportunities.”

The data indicates “there is a gap in cross-border payments where only 33% of the respondents have used international payments.”

Some 42% of MSME entrepreneurs reported: “that inability to receive and/or send payment internationally has hampered their ability to buy or sell products from and to overseas.”

The identified obstacles “were consistent in all six countries surveyed.”

As such, multistakeholder and regional joint actions “are needed to enhance digital financial inclusion in the region.”

Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist at Sea, a Singapore-based global consumer internet company, said:

“Digital literacy and financial literacy are both critical not only to raise financial inclusion but also to enabling ASEAN’s digital generation to navigate financial services safely and seamlessly.”

Santitarn added:

“We have seen from the survey how digitalization can promote more inclusivity in finance for underserved groups such as rural dwellers and micro businesses. Raising digital and financial literacy can help to further increase access to financial services. And we also found that different groups have different learning needs. These call for multistakeholder actions to design targeted approaches in financial literacy education.”

Joo-Ok Lee, Head of the Regional Agenda, Asia-Pacific, World Economic Forum, remarked:

“The future of ASEAN’s digital economy can be even brighter with collaboration from all relevant stakeholders to address identified challenges in a timely and coordinated manner. We sincerely hope that insights revealed in this report will inform impactful actions towards an inclusive future for ASEAN’s economy and people,”

For more details, check here.

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