As UN secretary general special advocate for inclusive finance for development, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands helped broker a plan for Unilever and Mastercard to work together on increasing inclusion in emerging markets. She spoke to Silvia Pavoni about getting the technology right and gender disparity among the underbanked.

Queen Maxima

Queen Máxima of the Netherlands

Staring at the address in my notebook after my initial attempts at pronouncing Huis ten Bosch, in the Hague, the taxi driver remained unconvinced. “That’s where the king lives,” he informed me. Yes, I did have the right address – but I was visiting the other main resident of the palace: the queen.

Anyone considering Her Majesty Queen Máxima of the Netherlands as merely a royal consort would soon stand corrected, and few in the development finance world make this mistake in the first place. Queen Máxima has been the UN secretary general’s special advocate for inclusive finance for development (UNSGSA) for the past decade, over which time she has provided one of the highest profile voices to the financial inclusion cause.

In 2019, she made four official country visits, delivered 14 speeches and held 151 bilateral meetings. Someone close to her describes a series of photographs some time ago that captured the body language of a central bank governor talking to the queen; in the space of one meeting it transformed from disinterested to leaning forward and fully engaged.

Broking power

An international career in banking, after economics studies in her native Argentina, before marrying the then Prince Willem-Alexander, are string credentials. But her biggest strength is her convening power, say her UNSGSA staff – something confirmed by others who have seen her at work. In 2017, she helped broker a groundbreaking agreement between Unilever and Mastercard to jointly work on financial inclusion projects in emerging markets. Soon after, she began talking to other business leaders to expand cross-industry collaborations. A year later the CEO Partnership for Financial Inclusion was born, officially launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, counting on 10 chief executives from a diverse group of businesses that includes Rabobank, Santander Group and Ant Financial.

But Queen Máxima is quick to redirect the spotlight on the business leaders’ part of the alliance, and their teams. The benefits of the early joint initiative quickly became obvious and helped to attract further attention. “That has inspired others, so it’s not only me,” she says.

The project, called Jaza Duka, which means ‘fill your kiosk’ in Swahili, helps Kenyan micro-stores to access credit and ensures they can purchase supplies on time. Because store owners buy stock mostly in cash, they are often forced to limit their business to smaller purchases or postpone them until they have saved up enough funds. Accessing a micro-loan without a credit history or a suitable collateral is difficult.

After Unilever began to share inventory data, Mastercard was able to provide credit recommendations to Kenya Commercial Bank (KBC), the local partner, which could then provide micro-loans with more confidence. A store that shows regular weekly purchases from Unilever of $50 could qualify for an interest-free credit line of $120 to stock its inventory, says Mastercard, which also provides the digital network used to channel the funds. The project led to greater sales for Unilever, new users for Mastercard, and new, well-performing business for KBC.

A repeatable idea

Queen Máxima says this idea is being scaled up and replicated elsewhere. Unilever is working with Norway-based telecom multinational Telenor in Pakistan to help micro-shops digitise inventory purchase payments; and PepsiCo is looking into something similar in the same country. In total, more than a dozen initiatives are either up and running or being designed, according to the UNSGSA office.

“Mastercard and Unilever in Kenya, or more recently Telenor and Unilever but also PepsiCo: these projects are about digitising the whole value chain. Companies all share the cost of doing that, but they all get the benefits of it [too],” she says. “The whole point of the CEO Partnership is to inspire, help each other [figure out] what works, what doesn’t work, which are the biggest challenges, which are the biggest innovations.” 

Queen Máxima acknowledges technology has benefits as well as challenges. Only networks that run on reliable connections offer real solutions, but reliable connectivity is not always available, she points out. Cyber threats and data privacy are obvious problems. And there are regulatory difficulties in balancing innovation with prudence. “It is a very delicate balance that a lot of central banks have found difficult to get right, and understandably so,” she says. 

Regulation needs to allow for the creation of the right products, adds Queen Máxima, and the private sector needs to do more to design those products so that they respond to the very specific and diverse needs of financially excluded citizens. A lot of products available are “[what] you and I would use but not necessarily what a poor woman in a rural part of, say, Bangladesh would actually need”, she says.

After the boom of micro-loans, it was also encouraging to see micro-insurance products, for example, being created, she adds. But more needs to be done, particularly in areas such as agriculture, to support small farmers, as well as with women. These areas form part of UNSGSA’s longer term goals.

Gender gap

For women, access to financial products is harder or even impossible. The aggregate data on the gender finance gap may hide the extent and the diversity of this issue in different parts of the world. While globally there is a 7% finance gap between men and women, Queen Máxima notes that on a country-by-country basis the picture looks very different. In the Philippines, for example, it is skewed in favour of women. But in Pakistan, the situation is dramatically different: 35% of men have access to a bank account compared with only 7% of women. It is important to look closely at every country and gain first-hand knowledge of their population’s very specific needs, says Queen Máxima.

Often financial exclusion goes hand in hand with technological exclusion when it comes to women. “Today, women are much less likely to own a mobile phone and use internet services,” says Queen Máxima. “So we have to pair... financial inclusion and digital inclusion.” Reaching women and better serving them seems a particularly stubborn challenge when gender bias persists in developed markets. Customer allegations of gender bias in determining credit limits for the Apple card come to mind, though Goldman Sachs, which powers the card, denies such accusations. While technology can help, it can also perpetuate and amplify erroneous assumptions. 

Queen Máxima criticises algorithms that use punctuation and grammatical mistakes in mobile texts, for example, to help determine the typer’s credit worthiness, a practice that does not necessarily offer any insight into a person’s ability or commitment to honour their financial obligations. “Nobody does it on purpose, [there is bias] that’s been historically there, or data that is being based [on that],” she says about such flawed assumptions. “[But] those are issues that need to be looked at.” 

Close to home

The importance of tackling financial exclusion, according to Queen Máxima, comes from the universality of the problem; it is an issue that exists not far from Huis ten Bosch too. “If you define financial inclusion as financial education, consumer protection, access to different types of financial services [such as] savings insurance, personal credit, [small business] credit, this is an issue that is also present in the Netherlands. We have 1.4 million households that have problems getting to the end of the month and 500,000 families that are heavily in debt,” she says. 

Tackling financial exclusion and creating products and tools that help people make ends meet is in everyone’s interest, says Queen Máxima. Despite progress, there are still 1.7 billion adults in the world that remain unbanked. But she is hopeful, “there’s [greater] effort to get to know the subject better and I think [this is] extremely important”. 

Continuing to rely on a highly visible advocate to reach that goal can only help. Few would turn down a meeting with a royal; and fewer can count on the powerful business connections that Queen Máxima has. But if the crown offers an initial irresistible pull, her commitment, work ethics and unusually hands-on approach are likely to keep the conversation going, and get things done. 


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