Introduction The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was instrumental in spurring fintech (software, applications, and technology that improve and automate traditional finance) across Asia and the Pacific. With much of the region locked down or observing social distancing, face-to-face banking and payments services were suspended or severely reduced during much of 2020. Necessity drove an unprecedented digital transformation. By leveraging technology and cloud-based data, financial institutions moved throughout much of the region to offer products better tailored to consumers’ needs at a lower cost. Fintech has increased financial access and delivers new products and services—especially to the unbanked and underserved in rural areas. However, there is still a need to close digital gaps, such as those that impede the adoption of fintech services by women in the region. New Data New data from the Asian Development Bank’s Basic Statistics 2023 illustrate how rapid and how comprehensive this fintech revolution has been. In almost every country in developing Asia, there has been a significant leap in the number of adults with a bank account or access to a mobile money provider. In the Philippines, a country particularly badly hit by COVID-19, adults using digital financial services had shot up to 51.4% by 2021 from only 34.5% in 2017. Impressive digital rollout rates characterize the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s a similar story across much of the region. In Kazakhstan, the figure rose to 81.1% from 58.7%. The data suggest that a country with an extensive pre-existing digital infrastructure before COVID-19, like Kazakhstan, was in a strong position to rapidly make the transition to online financial services. From early in the pandemic, the Kazakh government encouraged its extensive liquidity support to individuals, firms, and the banking sector to be accessed online, further boosting the move to digital banking and payments. Conversely, in countries with immature digital infrastructure, low internet use, and a less enabling environment, like Pakistan and Tajikistan, the use of online financial services during COVID-19 actually shrunk. This underlines the need to prioritize investment in the sector and extend broadband as widely as possible, so that its social and economic benefits can be exploited during crises. Figure 1: Adults with an Account at a Financial Institution or Mobile Money Service Provider (% of adults aged 15 years and older) Lao PDR = Lao People's Democratic Republic; PRC = People's Republic of China. Note: The figure shows only select Asian Development Bank member economies with data available for 2017 and 2021. Source: Basic Statistics 2023 using data from the World Bank's Global Financial Inclusion database (accessed 6 January 2023). Fintech Everywhere All the Time In 2021, more than 80 million adults in India and over 100 million adults in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) made their digital merchant payment, either online or in-store, for the first time after the start of the pandemic, according to the World Bank’s Global Findex Database 2021. In 2020, the mobile wallet GCash in the Philippines saw 254% year-on-year growth in transactions, driven by the surge in usage in money transfers, cash-in services, and bills payments, all of which have become necessities during the pandemic. Bank Indonesia reported 38.6% growth in electronic money transactions, driven by retail, transportation, food order, e-commerce, and bill payments, according to The Asian Banker. Digital Financial Services and Growth The expansion in fintech services created new economic opportunities, may have narrowed the gender gap in account ownership, and strengthened resilience at the household level to better manage financial shocks. Mobile financial services also help businesses reduce costs, access credit to invest, and connect with formerly excluded consumers. Research from Vodafone, Vodacom, Safaricom, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) indicates that adoption of mobile financial services is associated with GDP growth in developing markets. The 2022 study examined 49 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It found that countries with successful mobile money services had an annual GDP per capita growth rate up to 1 percentage point higher than countries without mobile money platforms. Bridging the Digital Divide With digital financial and other services now much more commonplace in Asia and the Pacific as a result of the pandemic, now is the time to maximize the impact of fintech on financial inclusion. Despite a plethora of anecdotal evidence that the broadening and deepening of fintech contributes positively to financial inclusion, there have been few contemporary empirical studies that explore the causal link. This is often attributed to challenges in measuring fintech, as products differ greatly in scope and scale and in quantifying the digital aspect of financial inclusion. An International Monetary Fund study published in May 2022 addresses this question using Global Findex data and emerging fintech indicators. The research found that fintech has a higher positive correlation with digital financial inclusion than traditional measures of financial inclusion, so that’s good news. Focusing on how effective fintech has been in narrowing the three “digital divides” (gender, class, and rural), the study indicates that greater use of fintech significantly narrows the rich–poor divide and the urban–rural divide. Closing digital gaps includes raising financial and digital literacy, as well as infrastructure deficiencies that limit broadband coverage. Many countries have devised innovative ways to incentivize digital adoption. In Singapore the SMEs Go Digital campaign provides funding for businesses to digitalize. Hawkers Go Digital provides cash incentives for street traders to adopt digital payments, and Seniors Go Digital educates older persons in how to use mobile phones for banking and e-payments. Reaching More Women But of concern is the fact that the IMF study found that the explosion of fintech was having little discernible impact on the gender divide. More work needs to be done to close the gender gap in fintech. The IMF recommends policy initiatives targeted at women, perhaps like those in Singapore that are helping SMEs and the elderly to go digital. These could include improving women’s access to the internet and female-only fintech education that demonstrates how digital financial services can increase incomes and help entrepreneurs. On a wider societal level, addressing attitudes and social norms that prevent women from accessing fintech is also key. The rapid speed of fintech development however carries substantial risks. This means regulators and policy makers need to balance the promotion of innovation and invention with financial stability, privacy concerns, and customer protection. ADB’s Fintech Policy Tool Kit helps regulators and policy makers in Asia and the Pacific get the most out of the emerging technologies to ensure nobody gets left behind. Resources Asian Development Bank (ADB). Basic Statistics Series. ADB. 2022. Fintech Policy Tool Kit. Manila. UNDP. 2022. Fintech and Growth. News release. 27 October. World Bank. Global Findex Database 2021. Ask the Experts Sean Crowley Freelance Writer Sean is a freelance writer. He worked for Asian Development Bank’s Department of Communications in media relations, multimedia, and web for many years. Before joining ADB, he worked in communications for the UN and UNU-WIDER and as a journalist for the BBC and the South African Broadcasting Corporation. He has a master’s degree in Communications from the University of Tampere in Finland and a first degree from the University of Warwick in the UK. Stefan Schipper Senior Statistician, Economic Research and Development Impact Department, Asian Development Bank Stefan’s work includes building statistical capacity in ADB’s developing member economies and using new digital technologies to improve databases. He also creates knowledge products, including statistical flagship publications. Prior to joining ADB, he was a statistical officer at the EU’s Eurostat in Luxembourg. He was a senior economist and statistician at the German Central Bank (Deutsche Bundesbank). He holds a doctorate and a master’s degree in Business Administration from the European University Viadrina, Germany. Karen Firshan Consultant, Asian Development Bank Karen is a consultant at the ADB’s Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department. Prior to joining ADB, she worked as statistician involved in production of official economic statistics at the Philippine Statistics Authority. She holds a degree in Statistics from the Visayas State University and a master’s degree in Economics from the Tokyo International University. Asian Development Bank (ADB) The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance. Follow Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Leave your question or comment in the section below: View the discussion thread.