WSBI-ESBG Managing Director Peter Simon’s Interview with “Corresponsables”

Peter Simon
WSBI-ESBG Managing Director

WSBI-ESBG Managing Director Peter Simon gave an interview to the leading Spanish media outlet “Corresponsables” to contribute to their special “Financial Education Dossier” prepared in collaboration CECA banking association, Funcas and WSBI.

Access to financial services in de-populated areas is one of the biggest challenges of our society. The World Savings Banks and Retail Banking Institute (WSBI) is no stranger to this situation and is working on solutions. What can you tell us about this?

The WSBI values are the three ‘R’s – Regional, Retail and Responsible. The first ‘R’, regional, is because WSBI members have a wide network of branches or other solutions which try to bring banking services to as many people as possible in the areas where they live; we call this ‘proximity banking’ and it is very important for us.

Some members have mobile bank branches which drive around their region so that customers do not need to travel far into the local town/city. These mobile branches are staffed and can offer the same service as a static bank branch.

The development of mobile phone apps for banks has also vastly improved in the past decade. These apps allow customers to make changes to their accounts, submit requests for additional services, and message a bank adviser from wherever they are, rather than entering a bank branch. These services were vital during the early days of Covid, when banks were forced to shut their doors but still required to provide lifelines to their customers. In Belgium, banks provided updates on the lockdown rules in place. I know that in Spain, 95 % of the branches of CECA associated members remained open. But still, these apps were very important to avoid contact and limit the spread of the virus.

In many countries, the mobile banking services were developed in lieu of branches or to complement agent banking services, as the local population were able to access mobile phones more readily than visit distant bank branches.

Just last month we had the opportunity to visit the agent banking operations of our Indonesian member, bank BTN. Agent bankers are usually found in convenience stores or petrol stations where locals can go and carry out all the usual banking operations which are provided in traditional bank branches (withdrawals, deposits, paying utility bills, etc.) This visit explained to other WSBI members and representatives from the Joint Office the crucial role that these agents play in developing countries by increasing financial inclusion and offering critical services in areas where opening branches is not economically viable.

So despite that some branches have closed, WSBI members strive to offer the same level of service through different mediums.

Our country (Spain), where we refer to this situation as ‘Emptied Spain’, has many similarities to other countries with regards to this same issue. What good practices are being carried out in the European Union and in Africa?

Losing bank branches is not a new problem, and unfortunately it is one to stay. Bank branches have a lot of overhead costs, and this can make bank products more expensive to cover them. But banks must find alternative solutions to meet customer needs. This is why mobile phone apps, mobile branches, telephone banking and alternative services, such as banking services by post, ATMs or banking buses are vitally important. In addition, it is vital that banks provide a medium to respond to customers swiftly, to respond to their concerns and to meet their needs. WSBI members pride themselves in providing financial education services to their customers and citizens in their regions, to ensure that financial service users understand the products and can use them safely.

But it is not just financial education – it’s also digital skills. It is important that people know how to use a smartphone to access their banking apps. It is also important that people are taught how to recognise risks and threats – scam emails or text messages, pop-ups asking for personal bank details, or urgent calls from someone pretending to be a bank and that, ‘to keep your money safe, please transfer your money to a different account that we will give the details’. If not recognised as a scam, these kinds of calls can be terrifying, and it is very difficult to recover the money.

It seems to me that Spain is very concerned about this issue due to its having an aging population and low population density in the territory. However, if we compare the access to financial services, we can see that it is in very good position. Spain is the third country in the EU-27 with the highest number of banking branches per inhabitant (average in Spain is 1,52 and 1,08 in the EU-27).

In any case, we acknowledge that there will always be vulnerable groups of people who might not cope with the pace of digital transformation in banking. This is why the banking sector is looking for alternative solutions to meet these specific needs. One example is the commitment of the Spanish banking sector that created an observatory of financial inclusion in order to identify the gaps and the needs of the population. The first analysis has shown that 98,6% of the Spanish population has a point of contact with banking services in their place of residence. The problem is that the 1.4% remaining are usually older people, or people in remote areas. In order to improve this data, the whole Spanish banking sector is committed to a route map that will provide a physical point of contact with financial services all of the villages with a population of more than 500.

From an international perspective, we are observing an increase in aging populations, in particular in the global north. The overall literacy rate of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 66 percent in 2020 with a gender gap of 13% and with some countries ranging as low as 30%-35% literacy rate. In that region of the world many people cannot afford a smart phone and have to rely on more basic digital financial services. In addition, we see a decline in literacy rates, in zones of conflict and (climate) crisis where school education is being interrupted. WSBI members therefore strive to be customer centric and offer services that meet the various financial and non-financial needs of all segments of the population, including the specific needs of the elderly, low-income, women, or young people. Financial and digital education are therefore in many cases complemented by life skills training, crisis management or entrepreneurial skills building.

What projects related to financial education are you aware of and would like to highlight in this interview?

As mentioned before, financial education is important. WSBI members have a long history of providing financial education programmes not only to their own customers but also to the communities in which they serve. I am certain that every single WSBI member is able to show a financial education course, platform or initiative and it is difficult to name just a couple. However, let’s try. Our French and German members have financial education programmes dating back over 70 years, covering everything from fixing a simple household budget, to investing safely in crypto, to understanding what is ‘sustainable’ and how to stay up-to-date with ‘digital’ skills.

Our Norwegian member is working with the Red Cross charity to provide financial education to female prisoners, our Moroccan member has developed a series of 24 TV shows aired on a national TV channel at primetime, to boost conversations about money among families. And in Spain – you have ProFuturo, an initiative launched in 2016 and financed by “la Caixa” Foundation and Telefónica Foundation which has digitized schools in 25 countries from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. To date, 27 million children have benefitted from the educational digital program. who works at national level but also in Latin America to provide financial education to children. Furthermore, at Spanish level, you have FUNCAS Educa, an initiative that was recognised by the CNMV and Bank of Spain by the Finanzas para todos award. Since its creation in 2018, it has provided financial education to more than 12 million people, in more than 4000 activities through an investment of more than 12 million euros.

For the past six years, WSBI has carried out a programme with funding from the Mastercard Foundation; the Scale2Save initiative has had the aim – and success – to promote the viability of low–balance savings accounts and to understand the extent to which savings allow vulnerable people to boost their financial resilience and wellbeing by bringing 1.3 million low-income women, farmers and young people into formal banking in six countries in Africa. WSBI is also embarking on a new regional Silver Finance initiative in partnerships with the IDB Lab to adaptive promote financial services tailored to the needs of the elderly population in Latin America.

How much do you engage to communicating and highlighting the socially responsible developments of the organisations that make up the WSBI?

As a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact since 2006, WSBI-ESBG follows the principles within it. These principles describe fully social and environmental responsibility commitments to follow. Based on this, WSBI-ESBG pays significant consideration to the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. In more recent years, financial services have become an enabler of these goals and are no longer seen as an end-goal in itself. WSBI-ESBG is supporting its network of members in achieving these goals and putting the right metrics in place for demonstrating how members deliver impact. For example, WSBI is a member of the action group for better metrics of savings at the European Microfinance Platform and a collaborator to the Impact Management Platform – an OECD/UNEP-FI initiative that drives collaboration between leading providers of public good standards and guidance for managing sustainability impacts. With our membership, we discuss progress in contributing to socially responsible developments in various working groups and committees, such as the Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development Committee, and the Sustainable Finance Committee.

Regarding sustainability, it is essential to mention that the African region is still at the onboarding stage. Indeed, most of the African members have yet to implement and adapt their process accordingly. However, sustainability is a topic which features high on their list of priorities in 2022-2023 and WSBI is exploring the best ways to support members in achieving sustainability goals and bring together the region’s experts to exchange best practices.

In addition, we have developed and kept up to date the WSBI-ESBG Charter for Responsible and Sustainable Business. This charter calls on WSBI members to build and maintain a long-term relationship of trust and confidence with those people they serve as customers, provide clear and accurate information on products and services, work against money laundering and terrorist financing, boost accessibility and financial inclusion by serving all segments of society. In the immediate aftermath of the Russian war on Ukraine, members worked hard to provide basic payments accounts to refuges settling in the EU Member States and ensured they had access to financial advice.

WSBI members also recognise that climate change is one of the main collective hazards ever experienced worldwide. As part of their strong commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development, WSBI members contribute to the mitigation of climate change by working towards lessening their business’ impact on the environment, providing loans to sustainable projects, and having a strong social commitment to driving local jobs and growth.

To this end, in September last year we organised the first edition of the ESG Financing Summit, a global event where policy-makers and executives in the banking industry discussed best practices and lessons learnt on ESG Financing. The event was co-organised with the Union of Arab Banks and the Asia Association for Financial Cooperation, and included leading figures from the European Commission, China’s Central Bank, and the Governor of the Zambia Central Bank. Over 300 participants attended the meeting, confirming even further how central this topic is for our members.

Read the Spanish Original on Corresponsables