Forum Institutional

The benefits of a cashless society

More people around the world are paying with mobile wallet instead of cash.

We're shifting toward a cashless society, with potential for enormous socio-economic benefits for both developed and developing countries. Image: Jonas Leupe/Unsplash

Mehul Desai
Group Chief Technology Officer, Finablr
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The Digital Economy

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

The first recognisable coins were produced in China more than 3,000 years ago.

If you visit China today, however, there’s a strong chance you’ll see people paying for things using facial recognition on their phones.

This is a radical shift, but it’s just the beginning of the cash revolution.

Have you read?

The new global payments ecosystem, including both physical cash as well as mobile wallets, is the result of the convergence of three large and powerful industries: telecommunications, banking and retail.

And if the private and public sector can work together to harness the latest technology and realise the full potential of a cashless society, there will be enormous benefits.

Eliminate the middleman, close the financial inclusion gap

It’s important to first reflect upon where we are on the journey toward a cashless society.

Thus far, the shift is basically a move from physical cash to cash-replacements. With private companies involved in processing those transactions, there is inevitably a cost. And that means there is a loss of value when the transfer occurs.

This is my vision of a true cashless society. There is an exchange of value in its entirety – just like cash. And it requires a national government – rather than banks or the like – to act as the payment provider, effectively becoming a state-backed utility.

The savings from avoiding the processing costs could then be used to benefit those in need, such as by being transferred to a fund to rejuvenate economically depressed areas, as one example.

This might sound counterintuitive, but I would argue just about everyone has access to capital. However, for the poorer members of society, there’s often a prohibitively high cost to accessing it. If you have a great business idea but can’t afford start-up capital, then your venture is unlikely to get off the ground.

A cashless society – along with the transformation of the last mile of money transfers, payments and banking services – will help to close the financial inclusion gap.

China leads the way in adopting mobile payment options. Image: Statista
A tool to fight corruption

Cashless technologies could be some of our greatest assets in the fight against corruption and organised crime, too.

And, once again, the people who stand to benefit most are those who are most in need.

There are 1.4 billion people in the world who have to make do with less than $1.25 a day. At the same time, around $1.26 trillion is effectively stolen from developing countries, due to corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion. If we could reclaim that money for those countries, we could lift those 1.4 billion people above the poverty threshold and keep them there for at least six years.

If everyone were connected to an end-to-end e-payment infrastructure – a cashless environment – there would be transparency in money flows. Whether it’s international aid or private investment, if everyone in the chain were connected digitally, you could see where the money went and how it was spent.

Any sums appearing outside of that framework could immediately be flagged and investigated. This would narrow the focus for law enforcement and forensic accountants, making it easier to target and recoup hidden money.

The enabling factors

There are, of course, many challenges to overcome as we embrace this level of disruption. And governments will need to take preemptive and proactive action in areas such as identity management and the protection of security and privacy.

However, the underlying support structures to make it all possible – the building blocks, or e-plumbing – are already in place. We already have secure, enabled ecosystems and the next generation of infrastructure.

At Finablr, we have four decades of experience in regulatory alignment and cross-border compliance, with a network spanning 170 countries. We also have proprietary technology, which enabled 150 million transactions at a total value of $115 billion in 2018 alone.

There’s no going back – which means we need to face the risks and deal with some of the difficulties of going cashless in order to unlock the benefits.

In developed countries, a cashless society will deliver transactions that are seamless, frictionless and low-cost. And in developing nations, it could deliver life-changing socio-economic benefits.

This easily accessible exchange of value will create a more equal world, and strengthen the bond between people, regardless of where they live.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalFourth Industrial RevolutionEmerging Technologies
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