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Government Engagement: The Next Chapter in PNG’s Financial Inclusion Story

On April 25, 2023, the Centre for Excellence in Financial Inclusion (CEFI) and the Bank of Papua New Guinea (BPNG) launched the National Financial Inclusion Strategy 2023-2027 (NFIS). The strategy is the third installment after the National Financial Inclusion and Financial Literacy Strategy 2014-2015 and the National Financial Inclusion Strategy 2016-2020. The two earlier strategies primarily focused on reducing the huge financial exclusion level in Papua New Guinea (PNG), that was at one stage considered to be one of the highest in the South Pacific region and the world. Fortunately, this level has seen a sizeable reduction to somewhere between 75 to 80% thanks to the ongoing efforts and leadership of BPNG and CEFI. Since the introduction of the first strategy in 2014 until the fourth quarter of 2023, 4 million bank deposit accounts have been opened. Within this same period 16,094 access points (ATMs, EFTPOS, bank branches and bank agents) have been established. Transactions using mobile phone banking and other digital platforms have also seen a substantial increase, as depicted by the total number of mobile financial services accounts in the table below showing the Financial Inclusion Data for 2023.

These are impressive numbers no doubt. However, the battle is far from over as a good chunk of PNG’s population is still financially excluded.

The new strategy aims to use these earlier successes as a stepping stone to make further strides to expand financial inclusion in the country. Similar to its predecessors, the new strategy recognizes the important role of financial institutions. The signing of the Institutional Commitment of Measurable Inclusion Targets (I-COMMIT) agreement by the heads of the various commercial banks, microbanks, and savings and loans societies with the BPNG Governor, signifies this. Besides the financial institutions, the successes of the two previous strategies also demonstrated the important role of the government in driving the financial inclusion agenda. For instance, BPNG-led initiatives such as the Financial Inclusion Exposition and the Young Minds Savings Campaign, including research and reform, paved the way for the financial inclusion agenda to have wider recognition. Events such as the Financial Inclusion Exposition and Young Minds Savings Campaign brought the public, school kids, and the banks together to exchange information and ideas. Some of these initiatives were groundbreaking in their own right despite very little to no government support. Nonetheless, for these initiatives to deepen financial inclusion and widen its impact, focus should now turn to provinces and districts where the bulk of the people are said to be “financially excluded.” To reach these people, it is impossible for financial institutions, BPNG, and CEFI to do it alone. They need the government to come on board and provide the enabling infrastructure and socio-economic environment. This is the challenge facing the current strategy.

Source: 2023 Access & Usage Points (CEFI, 2024), https://www.thecefi.org/fi-data-quarterly-reports-2/.

Once the government is on board, initiatives such as the financial inclusion expos and the young minds savings campaigns can be spearheaded by the government, preferably at the sub-national level. Thus, these activities can be featured on the government workplan and budget. The message here is that financial inclusion should not be an agenda exclusively left to BPNG, CEFI, or banks for that matter, to address. Rather, it needs to be embraced by the entire government machinery given that it is a cross-cutting issue that underpins the modern economy that PNG aspires to become.

As the lead implementing agency of the NFIS in PNG, CEFI has already embarked on forging partnerships with provincial governments via its Provincial Government Engagement program. The program will be implemented through a three-phased approach. The first phase will be mainly focused on advocacy and awareness raising where the main outcome will be the signing of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between CEFI and the provincial government. The second phase will be primarily focused on implementing key programs and activities to promote financial inclusion. Key activities include the rollout of financial literacy trainings, financial inclusion expositions, young minds savings campaigns, carrying out relevant surveys, account opening, onboarding of bank agents, set-up of ATMs and EFTPOS, and the digitization of the payment system to assist with the effective delivery of services. The last phase is where evaluation and impact assessment will be carried out to assess the impact of these interventions.

The program is still in its infancy stage, but some good progress has already been made. CEFI has signed MOUs with West New Britain Province (WNB), East New Britain Province (ENB), Milne Bay Province, Western Highlands Province, New Ireland Province, and Kerema, which has become the first district in the country. Of the five provinces, WNB and Milne Bay are leading the way. They are followed closely by ENB. For these provinces, progress has been made in setting up a provincial steering committee to guide and provide oversight on the rollout of financial inclusion initiatives in their provinces. The committees in these three provinces are chaired by deputy provincial administrators. At the technical level, the respective commerce division has appointed an officer to act as a focal point to coordinate financial inclusion activities in the province. With these mechanisms in place, several financial literacy trainings have already been conducted for both trainers and the community at large. In the case of ENB, almost all the districts in the provinces have had financial literacy trainings conducted. The next step will be to undertake regular monitoring and impact assessments to measure the impact of these trainings in the communities. Seeing the importance of this program, WNB Provincial Government has already extended its partnership by another three years while Milne Bay Provincial Government is working towards renewing its partnership. To recognize provincial governments who have been championing financial inclusion initiatives in their province, CEFI and BPNG plans to award the best performing province under its Financial Inclusion Excellence Awards. These awards are expected to be unveiled this year during the inaugural Annual Dialogue Forum to be hosted by CEFI.

Looking ahead, CEFI plans to sign on more provinces until the whole of Papua New Guinea is covered. While this is a must and a commendable goal, achieving it will require not just the banks and development partners, but essentially national and sub-national government to work with CEFI and the Bank of Papua New Guinea. After all, expanding financial inclusion to all the provinces and districts is fulfilling the nation’s Vision 2050.

Article by Busa Jeremiah Wenogo

Mr. Wenogo is a development economist whose interest covers informal economy, SME, and financial inclusion. He is employed by the Centre for Excellence in Financial Inclusion (CEFI) as the manager in charge of its Special Projects Unit. The Unit is taking the lead in advancing partnership between CEFI and the provincial government and district authorities. Prior to this, for almost a decade, he was at the forefront of policy and legislative work around the informal economy in PNG while working with the PNG Consultative Implementation & Monitoring Council.

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