FINANCIAL inclusion or access to finance at an affordable cost has, since the early 2000s, been a focus of renewed concern for many governments and central banks.
The World Bank’s 2017 Global Findex Database discovered that about 1.7 billion people worldwide remain unbanked — without an account at a financial institution or a mobile money provider. The United Nations Development Programme’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), therefore, seeks to improve financial access into its main development agenda.
A plethora of academic evidence confirms that financial inclusion can support the achievement of broader sustainable development goals.
As a business established within the ambit of Syariah principles, values and goals, Islamic finance aims to promote economic wellbeing and creates socio-economic justice; and serve as a catalyst for development, in line with the spirit of the UN sustainable development agenda.
The International Monetary Fund, in its press release on May 9, also acknowledged that “the growth of Islamic finance presents important opportunities to strengthen financial inclusion, deepen financial markets, and mobilise funding for development by offering new modes of finance and attracting unbanked populations that have not participated in the financial system.”
Islamic finance could contribute to the financial inclusion agenda through two main mechanisms: profit and loss sharing (PLS) or risk-sharing instruments, like musharakah and mudharabah, as an alternative to conventional debt-based financing and risk transfer; and Islamic social finance instruments, such as zakat, waqf (endowment fund), shadaqah, and qard hasan (benevolent loan), which complement PLS instruments.
PLS promotes the financial inclusion agenda because the concept can offer access to finance to low-income segments at an affordable and fair rate: the imposition of cost and the distribution of profit are based on the actual performance of the business.
As a result, the optimum application of PLS will create an equitable distribution of income and wealth among partners or between wealth owners and entrepreneurs, presenting the concept of justice and fairness in financial dealings.
Risk transfer underlying the conventional financial system, on the other hand, implies asymmetric exposures to economic risk, and does not, therefore, promote economic justice and financial inclusion.
Furthermore, social finance, mandated or otherwise, is an integral part of the Islamic financial system to offer equal opportunity to financial access to the low-income segments, that is, the underserved and poor, “so that it may not (merely) make a circuit between the wealthy among you” (QS 59:7).
Islamic social finance instruments help improve financial access via various initiatives, such as microfinance empowerment and poverty alleviation programmes.
Financial technology (fintech) is a perfect device to reinforce the role of Islamic finance in promoting the financial inclusion agenda. The use of digital finance, such as blockchain and crowdfunding, can lower transactional costs and minimise asymmetric information.
Santander FinTech issued a report in 2015 estimating that blockchain could reduce transactional costs attributable to cross-border payment, securities trading and regulatory compliance between US$15 billion (RM62 billion) and US$20 billion per annum by 2022.
Furthermore, the ability of blockchain to transmit and to record the ownership of the digital assets and immutably store information — where all blockchain participants have access to the same information — might significantly reduce information asymmetries.
Fintech can also open financial access to unbanked individuals. According to World Bank estimate, there are approximately 240 million to 334 million people in developing economies that could participate in crowdfunding.
It is also a powerful tool to widen access and outreach of Islamic social finance instruments such as zakah, waqf and sadaqah.
Bank Negara Malaysia Assistant Governor, Datuk Ahmad Hizzad Baharuddin, at the Association of Shariah Advisers’ Shariah Fintech Forum 2017, affirmed that fintech promises to revolutionise finance and bring a broader range of benefits to financial institutions and the public.
The writer is a research fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia.