Digital Payments Forging a Defined Role in Modern World

Digital payments can help play a key role in times of turmoil, with the recent Ebola crisis providing a glimpse

For many individuals the Ebola crisis that broke out in Western Africa is already forgotten, however the recent outbreak and social upheaval has presented an interesting case study for the role of digital wallets and mobile payments in the modern world.

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Digital payments for some represent an alternative form of payment or commerce, and yet for others it occupies a paramount form of transactions. This differential in perspective has cast light on not just the social utility of digital payments or digital ‘wallets’ but its role moving forward as crises around the world erupt.

There is no doubt that digital payments have a large role to play throughout the developing world. While eCommerce or digital wallets are also instrumental in Western Europe and the United States, traditional payment mechanisms such as credit or debit cards or fiat currency still remain the most essential medium for transactions. The example of the Ebola crisis in Western Africa however presents us with an interesting snapshot into not just the future of mobile payments technology but also its viability in tandem with other stresses.

Weighing the Benefits

According to a new study from the United Nations-based Better Than Cash Alliance, digital payments played a key role in rescuing Sierra Leone from a virtual abyss, as the Ebola outbreak gripped the nation for several months of 2015. While the outbreak has since abated, research has shown that this form of payments led to tangible cost savings not just for the government and taxpayers, but also for response workers and businesses.

Isolating the example of Ebola or any infectious virus is perhaps a limited example to use for a case study, however in its most dire form represents a viable situation in which digital payments transcend traditional means to help mitigate a litany of logistical difficulties in the midst of a crisis.

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As such, the example cited above could extend towards any given population or group facing internal strife or cataclysm, which could help alleviate potential issues moving forward – that digital payments effectively led to large amounts of savings and benefits for an entire country is a hugely promising find, which was amongst several findings outlined in the UN study.

In terms of the study done in Sierra Leone, arguably the hardest hit by Ebola outbreak, digital payments were shown to yield cost savings of over $10.7 million for the government, development partners, and response workers. In addition, the time of processing was mitigated from over one month to one week, owing to the versatility and effectiveness of modern payments engines. This in turn helped facilitate aid workers salaries and travel costs, preventing the need to rely on cash payment centers.

Rewriting the Playing Field

At the time of the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone boasted fewer than 50 ATMs in the country that were operational, which in even the best of circumstances could present extraordinary challenges for foreign personnel or aid workers. This was offset however by an extensive mobile network coverage in the country in which nearly 95% of Sierra Leone and 90% of response workers had access to a mobile phone, and by extension access to digital payments.

Momodu Lamin Kargbo, Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone Source: Bank of Sierra Leone
Momodu Lamin Kargbo, Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone
Source: Bank of Sierra Leone

According to H.E. Momodu L. Kargbo, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Finance and Economic Development, in a recent statement on the study’s findings: “Sierra Leone’s firsthand experience with digital payments and its impact on Ebola response and control taught us that, Governments like ours must take this growing payment system seriously as it can significantly contribute to inclusive growth and transparency.”

“In developing the partnership with private sector, development organizations, the Central Bank, financial institutions, network providers; and building the foundation for an inclusive digital payment system, Government must take the lead,” he added.

With the outbreak now firmly in the rear view mirror, other countries would be wise to adopt the lessons learned from the crisis in Sierra Leone by embracing digital payments. Given the obvious logistical difficulties in transporting hard currency in even the Western World, a reliance on a digital wallet could allay these challenges, even providing an effective substitute to traditional payments means, rather than existing as a complementary service at the present.

While this turnover will not happen overnight, recent studies such as the recent one published by the UN can serve as a model for propagating the use of digital payments technology across any country or border, especially in times of turmoil. It will be interesting to see if such lessons can also continue to kindle and drive the development of payments engines and technology, which has already served as a disruptive means in the fintech and financial services space.

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