Thursday, May 9, 2013

Can social transfers boost electronic payment adoption and financial inclusion? Lessons from Palawan, Philippines

IMTFI fellow and researcher Anatoly (Jing) Gusto’s project looks at dispensing cash grants in the Philippines. You can find out more about the project here.

The potential of social transfer schemes to boost electronic payment adoption and ultimately financial inclusion is starting to gain recognition (see, for instance, Zimmerman 2012).  Our findings are drawn from a study involving a group of beneficiaries of the “Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program” (4Ps), a conditional cash transfer (CCT) program based amongst an indigenous group in the Philippines. They point to three major issues that stakeholders need to think about when selecting channels to make it an effective gateway for financial inclusion. The following is a roundup of how continual changes in Technology, user and cultural contexts and the denomination of bank notes are major factors in promoting financial inclusion and particularly savings among the poorest of the poor.

ATM dispenses only 500 & 1,000 peso bills

1. Continual Changes in Technology
Regulators have made a concerted effort to help distribute cash grants to beneficiaries by thinking about how to apply new technology. But just as project proponents, channels, and direct beneficiaries are starting to get accustomed to one mode, new technologies and models begin to appear.

In the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), several disbursement modes were adopted by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP), a depository and disbursing bank of the Program. At the start, cash grants were disbursed through the LBP Cash Card (non-interest bearing debit card account) and could only be withdrawn from Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). Today, a portion of the grants are already released via the over-the-counter method in the LBP bank branches and through other conduits including rural banks, cooperative banks, cooperatives, non-government organizations, merchant partners of one electronic money issuer, and through the Philippine Postal System (PhilPost).

Each new technology brings not only new business models and processes, but also new information that needs to be learned and accepted by all concerned. The pace of change is daunting, especially for organizations that must work with millions of individuals nationwide, not to mention other social welfare functions they have to attend to.

Positive effects of technological changes

LBP has shown its openness to other disbursement channels, most recently one that involves point-of-sale (POS) terminals. Post fieldwork meetings with DSWD and LBP revealed that there is an effort to explore how other channels, including biometrics and POS terminals, can be used in partnership with conduits and merchants. In a recent payout in Palawan in 2013, CCT beneficiaries reportedly got the chance to purchase and pay for goods in the merchant’s store without using cash by swiping their ATM cards on a POS terminal and entering their Personal Identification Number (PIN) which is the same PIN used in the ATM.

A payment transaction which results in an electronic deduction of the purchase amount from the beneficiary’s cash card and corresponding credit to the merchant’s deposit account is believed to be convenient as it eliminates or reduces the need for beneficiaries to take the extra step of going to the ATM to withdraw money.

2.  User and Cultural Contexts

Regulators and providers must understand that the CCT beneficiaries are a new and unique client segment that enjoys regular, steady flows of capital (sometimes into a deposit or debit account). While technological advancement offers new options in the distribution of cash grants, the context with which the “target clientele” operates is still the same.  CCT beneficiaries are economically vulnerable, with relatively low levels of education, they may also be more comfortable operating in the informal sector. In the case of Indigenous groups, their traditional cultural practices and rudimentary experience in using/storing physical cash causes problems. Regulators may be ill-equipped at the moment to serve and monitor this market if their focus is limited to formally regulated institutions.

In the Philippines, indigenous people, particularly from the uplands, had initial doubts with the program and at first could not believe that the government would give them money for the betterment of their children’s education and health. Fortunately, with the help of locals known by the indigenous group (municipal links and parent leaders), DSWD was eventually able to allay fears and gain their trust. Municipal links and parent leaders were able to help by carrying out the transactions for the indigenous groups.

At least in the areas visited, cash is perceived with little value beyond its function as a means of exchange. In fact, storing cash in physical wallets or purses among indigenous groups is not a common practice. When asked where they store their money, they said they just put them in plastic bags or in an envelope containing their other CCT documents.  There are a few who set aside some amount of cash for covering future school related expenses of children, in particular school projects and food and transportation allowances, and for emergencies. What is more common are baskets that indigenous groups carry in their backs which they use for transporting goods they barter, sell, or purchase.

Making things work for financial inclusion

There is evidence that regulators can be flexible and creative which is what is needed to develop digital strategies that work in a specific context. For example part of the recent enhancements carried out by LBP and DSWD involves partnering with non-bank financial institutions as well as civil society organizations (CSOs) in the implementation of the program. Furthermore, there are signs that they are interested in knowing whether cash is really a prerequisite to be able to promote access to investment goods for the education and health of children. Is there a way for poor households to have better access to these funds or equivalent goods for education and health without using cash?

Merchant paying in candies due to
lack of coins and smaller bills

3. Denomination of Bank Notes
vs. Amount of User Transactions

A conditional cash transfer, paid in high-denomination banknotes can result in “value leakage” as problems of access to the entire amount of the grant arise. For example, take a payment of ₱2800. If the ATM only dispenses ₱500 or ₱1000 notes, this is disbursed as two ₱1000 and one ₱500 bills, forcing a “leftover” of ₱300. Some merchants who sell goods during payouts have difficulty in giving the exact change as most transactions involve high-denomination banknotes for small purchases (e.g. less than ₱100).  One merchant resorted to using candies in lieu of coins when he runs out of smaller bills for change.

We have seen that while technology can be considered a limitation in terms of providing recipients the immediate access they need to the exact amount of the grant, we have uncovered practices and a growing mindset among beneficiaries associated with the denomination of banknotes and coins that provide opportunities for mobile and electronic money development. In particular, ATMs that dispense only high-denomination banknotes force people into “saving” amounts of their cash transfer between those denominations—and some report satisfaction with this outcome, saying that it helps them to cover unexpected expenses in schools and buffer financial crises. In one instance, a recipient even inquired if it is possible to credit those funds to a deposit account. Banks that serve as conduit partners for CCT must grab the opportunity to help with account opening in order to ensure that recipients get a CCT payment.

Key Takeaways and Challenges

Not just to withdraw money but to shop “cash-lite” if not “cashless” 

The objective of conditional cash transfers is for poor households to be able to invest (spend) in the education and health needs of their children. Our research has shown that CCT proponents must not only ask about “how to improve the delivery of grants,” but also “how to ensure an affordable and convenient way to purchase/deliver the needed goods/investment in the poor households.” The relevance for CCT beneficiaries of any form of value is not just related to its ability to be transferred and cashed out (liquidity), but also the ease of dividing it into smaller units of value (divisibility) conducive for small purchases.

Need not for “new” but “better” technology

Aligning technology with the actual delivery capability in the field is a challenge that CCT proponents will need to face in considering any other distribution channel. In the case of the Philippines, cash grants are often still disbursed through a non-interest bearing debit account. Banks that serve as conduit partners might be able to take advantage if beneficiaries are offered the opportunity to open a savings account where payments can be made via SMA. This way beneficiaries can be given incentives to save and maintain a higher balance. The accounts can be made more appropriate if they also include features such as bank transfer/remittance, bill payments, airtime top-up, insurance availment, etc.

Need for end-user education

The example of indigenous groups using the ATM machines indicates that while there might be a relatively simple technology already available, the CCT segment is still typically characterized by lower education levels and lower exposure to technology. These will require that any new technology introduced will need to include a significant training component that emphasizes the benefits of using the service as well as the mechanics of accessing the service.

Link to their final report: "Delivering Cash Grants to Indigenous Peoples through Cash Cards versus Over-the-Counter Modalities:  The Case of the 4Ps Conditional Cash Transfer Program in Palawan, Philippines"

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