Beyond Financial “Inclusion”: Why Language Matters in the Drive toward Social Justice

Friday, March 31, 2017

By Elizabeth Vivirito, Financial Health Network

For years, the global and United States financial inclusion communities have worked in parallel, employing slightly different strategies and metrics of success in their aim to build markets that include all people — especially the most vulnerable. More recently the global financial inclusion sector has been focusing on both education about and use of financial services — alongside access — as a means of poverty alleviation and economic development across dozens of markets.

Foundations, banks, credit card companies, technology providers, and more are becoming more aware of their responsibility– and the opportunity — to invest in bringing more people into traditional financial systems. Yet as this awareness and attention grows, some forward-thinking organizations are asking: Are we going far enough to improve people’s lives? Is “financial inclusion” truly the end goal? Or is there something better?

I’ve worked in markets all across the world, spending over five years in developing economies, working with banks and microfinance organizations devoted to bringing more entrepreneurs and individuals into financial systems and then spending another four years working within the US to improve access to high-quality financial services products at the Financial Health Network.

What I’ve found holds true regardless of geography is this: individuals all around the world strive to improve their financial lives. They’re not usually thinking about being “included” in a particular financial system. They simply spend, save, borrow, and plan, working to grow their assets and protect their resources, in the pursuit of improved financial health.

What is “financial health”? As Financial Health Network defines it, financial health is achieved when an individual’s daily systems help build the financial resilience to weather shocks and pursue financial goals. In its simplest terms, financial health is achieved when access to great financial services meets action by people and providers in ways that make people better off today and tomorrow.

Does using the “financial health” instead of the “financial inclusion” language matter? Yes. Language is important because as humans, we tend to build and measure against our end goal. If we’re building toward “inclusion,” we might very well have a world in which everyone has a cell phone and a mobile money account, but people still aren’t financially stable. If our goal is “financial health,” we’re building a world in which people are truly able to thrive.

Language matters so much that last year Financial Health Network and Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion (CFI) to determine whether “financial health” resonates in select developing markets. The researchers found that there’s a “profound parallel between the financial lives of consumers in the US and abroad.” Researchers found that conceptually, indicators of financial health for the developing world mirror those Financial Health Network has developed for the U.S.

Applied globally, a financial health framework has the potential to create a fundamental shift in the financial inclusion conversation, which could in turn influence the priorities of researchers, financial services providers, and policymakers. Applied locally, a financial health framework has the potential to move your bank, credit union, credit card company, technology firm, foundation, or nonprofit to a new level — toward an outcomes-based view financial wellness that could make your customers, your members, your clients, better off.

What’s most important is that we all need to take a big, collective step forward as we talk about strategies of “inclusion.” Focus on the outcomes. Align your goals to the financial goals of the people you serve. Focus on “financial health.”

Financial Health Network is the US authority on financial health, and a thought leader on the topic of consumer well-being. It works within the financial services sector to improve access to high-quality financial products and raises awareness about important consumer financial challenges. Contact us to learn more about our approach to next generation financial inclusion — and financial health — strategies, and what your company, foundation, or nonprofit can do to improve the financial health of the customers, members, or employees that you serve. 

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