For the first time in our lifetimes, and after decades of progress, poverty and hunger are on the rise. Families and small businesses are dealing with sharply rising costs, reduced income, and uncertainty, causing food insecurity to increase globally, affecting billions of people.

Meanwhile, the gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. The World Bank is calling this “The Inequality Pandemic.” Wealthy nations are building their resilience to the ups and downs of the pandemic while vulnerable communities continue to struggle. By 2023, all advanced economies are projected to return to pre-pandemic output levels, but emerging economies will remain four percent behind where they were.

The global recovery is failing, and low-income people, families, and small businesses are facing the most devastating economic consequences. If we want to build a truly effective and inclusive recovery that lasts and avoid a cruelly divided world with different realities for rich and poor, we must empower the hardest-hit groups with the tools of resilience.

The digital path to an inclusive recovery

The challenges of the pandemic have opened doors to powerful solutions. At the base of the economic pyramid, more people and small businesses than ever are using digital payments, often for the first time. This presents a once-in-a-lifetime moment to build on these rails and introduce a broader array of tools that are vital to deepen resilience and create opportunity. If we do that, we can ensure that accelerating digitization truly empowers vulnerable people—and that’s what we’re working to do at Accion.

We are driving the digital transformation of frontline financial service providers, who have already weathered storms caused by the pandemic to provide a lifeline of support to struggling small businesses and families.

With new digital tools, inclusive financial service providers can provide personalized support that people need to adopt and apply digital tools to improve their financial outlook. Then, these newly digitized providers can collect and analyze data to better understand their clients’ needs.

In India, Accion is working with our partner Dvara KGFS to leverage high rates of digital and mobile phone adoption to connect more people to digital financial services, which they can use to build their financial health. With our support, Dvara is taking a hybrid approach that blends both tech and touch components to meet clients where they are on their digital journey.

In Latin America, with support from MetLife Foundation, we partnered with fintechs and financial service providers to develop new digital financial products specifically geared to improve clients’ financial literacy and health. One client, Karolayn Opazo, used a new digital revolving credit line from RedCapital to successfully grow and strengthen her wholesale avocado distribution businesses in Chile.

Three priorities for a more equitable world

First, we need to remain focused on inclusion: As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the world is fatigued. Those in wealthy nations can easily become complacent or lose sight of how the pandemic is creating extreme hardships for people in other parts of the world.

Leaders whose work touches the lives of vulnerable people—including leaders in development finance, regulation, financial services, and impact investing—can’t lose sight of this challenge. These leaders should maintain policies that ease pressure on low-income people, including easy access to credit and capital for MSMEs and their lenders, flexible repayments, forbearance for those facing difficult circumstances, and extra support for those unfamiliar with digital platforms.

Second, we must expand digital access and equity: While the digital horizon is expanding, many still lack access. Financial service providers, ecommerce companies, and others on the front lines of the digital economy should focus on reaching and including groups with limited tools and skills, like cash-reliant businesses, women, and those in rural areas.

But access is only part of the solution. While more people are using digital tools, it’s not guaranteed they are using them effectively. Research by the Center for Financial Inclusion shows that many small businesses have been slow to go digital, or they are trying out digital tools only to stop using them. Companies can apply a tech-touch balance to support those who are using digital tools for the first time.

And third, we need to create financial tools that build financial health: We must also think beyond access when expanding the reach of financial services to underserved groups. Financial service providers should build products that are specifically geared to improve clients’ financial health, as well as their understanding and awareness of their own financial situation. This is a win-win for both providers and clients.

Together, we can build a recovery to open opportunity for everyone, but only if we focus on uplifting and empowering the people who are being left out today.

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