Digitalization can propel us towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, or deepen exclusion – the choice is ours. The Task Force’s call to action is to harness digitalization to advance citizen-centric finance to accelerate financing for the SDGs.
Digitalization will not automatically deliver SDG-aligned financing. Uncertainties, barriers and risks combine to make the future something to be shaped rather than predicted. Technological developments will clearly play an important role, notably in determining the cost, pace and quality of digital infrastructure, and in shaping the environmental footprint of digitalization. However, it is human agency and choice, and a balance of private capabilities and public interest that will ultimately determine the extent to which digitalization.
Commercial entrepreneurship will shape financial innovations and associated market dynamics and outcomes. Governments’ policies, fiscal regimes and procurement-based incentives will play a critical role in catalysing financial innovations, shaping markets and the quality of their own spending. Financial regulators and standard setters shape the rules of the game through compliance requirements and development of international norms.
Citizens, perhaps more than any of these other change agents, are the X-factor in shaping the future. Digitalization is already subjecting most people to an avalanche of information that is often hard to make sense of, let alone act on in informed, deliberate ways. Yet digitalization simultaneously provides citizens with new pathways to learn and act, in the world of finance as well as elsewhere.
The balance of these effects will be all-important in determining the success or failure of efforts to realize the transition to sustainable development. Likewise, it will be the critical variable in determining the effects of digitalization in accelerating financing for the SDGs. Failing to empower citizens could mean continued shortfalls in the effective use of, and accountability for public financing. Financial and capital markets, likewise, would likely continue to absorb an unreasonable share of the economic cake in delivering intermediation services, that fail to take adequate account of citizens’ broader priorities and needs
|Succeeding, on the other hand, in leveraging digitalization to empower citizens to recover effective control could make the critical difference in financing the SDGs. Citizens, individually and collectively, could more effectively ensure that public and private intermediaries who use their money deliver what counts. The SDGs are, after all, no more or less than an expression of citizens’ collective interests and needs||
Digitalization’s impact on financing for the SDGs is not a matter of technology adoption but of choice and agency.
The Task Force’s call to action is to harness digitalization to advance citizen-centric finance to accelerate financing for the SDGs. Implementing such a call to action is no small matter given the scale and dynamic complexity of today’s global finance. Governments, regulators, financial practitioners and experts are likely to argue that such a vision is impractical, that citizens are not capable of managing their own basic financial affairs, let alone the broader landscape of global finance. ‘Leave it to the professionals’ might be an expected, and well-intentioned response. But such responses miss the point. There is without doubt a need for deep expertise in effectively deploying the world’s financial resources. The shift needed is for such expertise to be in the service of citizens, the owners of the money being deployed.
Digitalization could enable evolution from financial inclusion to citizen-centric finance. Digitalization has already supported the first steps in enabling many individuals and small businesses to gain access to financial services. Citizen-centric finance, however, needs to empower people as buyers, savers, investors, borrowers and lenders, as well as tax-payers and the users of public services and infrastructure.
Systemic change can be triggered by advancing catalytic opportunities. The pursuit of ambitious opportunities is likely to catalyse the evolution of an SDG-aligned financing ecosystem. Systems are path dependent. Repeated consideration of the SDGs in financing decisions creates new norms of behaviour and drives the creation of new forms of enterprise and financial products which may be ultimately scaled through enabling rules. Kenya’s M-Pesa, for example, was launched into largely unprepared financial markets, governance arrangements and technological infrastructure. Its rapid success in itself catalysed the development of many new financial services and enabling rules and governance arrangements. Digital foundations, such as digital ID and even basic infrastructure, are not therefore always well developed in advance of such opportunities but are catalysed by their very presence. Developing countries, often unencumbered by legacy systems, can be agile at developing and encouraging innovation.
The Task Force makes three, interconnected sets of recommendations:
A series of pathfinder initiatives have been developed in association with the Task Force to exemplify how the recommendations might be implemented.
Robust, accessible, affordable and secure digital foundations are a prerequisite to citizen-centric, SDG-aligned finance. This includes the core digital connectivity and payments infrastructure, digital IDs, and data markets that enable financial innovation and low-cost service delivery.
Emerging digital financing ecosystems need steering to align with local, national and regional sustainable development priorities. Governments, market facilitators, established financial institutions and newcomers, and civil society groups have largely pursued digitalization of finance as a means modernize, boost efficiency, and expand the reach of financial services separately from sustainable development objectives. Digitalization’s potential is much greater. If steered appropriately, it can help integrate local, national and regional SDG priorities into the heart of private and public decision-making about financial flows.
Empowering citizens in financing decisions requires investment in individual and collective capabilities, rights and protection. Citizens need to have adequate options and be informed, able and willing to act on timely, relevant information, in choosing what to buy, and as borrowers, savers, investors, and tax-payers. Supporting informed choice is one of the greatest challenges in establishing citizen-centric finance. Achieving even basic financial literacy has proven a challenge in most countries. All the more so when citizens are faced with an information blizzard from the market as well as from opinion-setters about the causes and consequences of environmental and social challenges and solutions.
International financial governance needs to support citizen-centric finance. International standards and norms shape global finance, and so also the basis on which citizens act, as well as how the SDGs may be directly factored into financing and monetary decisions. Such standards and norms already seek to secure financial and monetary stability, market integrity, and consumer protection. Moreover, financial inclusion, preventing financial crime, taxing multinational businesses, and more recently green finance and climate change have become legitimate topics for international cooperation by central banks, governments and financial regulators. The Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System has encouraged its members to integrate sustainability factors into their portfolios, including their own funds, pension funds and reserves, without prejudice to their primary mandates. Under Argentina’s Presidency, the G20 for the first time considered the nexus of digital finance and sustainability.
Deeper advances are urgently needed for broader consideration of the SDGs in international financial rule-making. Digitalization offers powerful opportunities through increasing returns to scale. Emerging digital finance platforms achieve global reach and carry cross-border implications for citizen’s choices and countries’ development. A principles-based approach is needed to govern such platforms in ways that align with citizen’s needs and the SDGs.
Action is needed by diverse actors, often working in unfamiliar configurations, to harness digitalization to advance citizen-centric finance, aligned with the SDGs. Gone are the days when finance could be governed independently of the consideration of longer-term sustainability. Yet information, capabilities, interests and authorities are widely dispersed, at best only suited for addressing yesterday’s financing challenges. Augmenting and connecting the dots between such capabilities is critical to financing the SDGs.
The basis of financing decisions is evolving from top-down analysis to bottom-up data analytics and human-centred approaches reflecting citizen’s concerns, as savers, policy-holders and tax-payers. Financial innovation is rising to the challenge of integrating science and citizen’s feedback into new products, services and enterprises. Likewise, advancing the Task Force’s call to action into practice requires the reframing of many governance norms that have too often sought to strictly delineate regulation from policy, market from policy innovation, and both from citizen action. Central banks cannot leave inequality and climate change, for example, to their social development and environmental policy counterparts. Regulating digital currencies, similarly, should not be too narrowly focused on financial stability and money laundering only.
The UN has a critical role to play. The Task Force’s recommendations can be embedded into the UN’s support to Member States. Support will be most helpful in building SDG-aligned digital financing ecosystems, linked to existing SDG-related planning frameworks and initiatives, public financial management and action on combating illicit financial flows. It will also be key in ensuring that no country or group is left behind and that the digital dividend benefits all.
The UN makes a key contribution to international norm-setting, through its specialist entities that work at the nexus of digital and finance, and through its engagement with the G20, OECD and the Bretton Woods institutions. Finally, the UN can exemplify a citizen-centric approach to financing the SDGs in its management of international development finance, including its own financial management.