Visa to provide new payment mechanisms to Egypt’s unbanked, but… now?

I recently read The Daily News Egypt’s article about Visa’s new program to provide digital payment capabilities via pre-paid card, computer, and mobile devices to the large unbanked population in Egypt.

It’s exciting to see major financial service corporations leveraging their names (essentially their reputations), capital, and international influence to create impact or, at the very least, substantial headway into expanding financial access to the global unbanked and underbanked populations. Frankly, though, coverage of these partnerships and programs can seem a bit boiler plate (speaking for myself, of course). The pattern seems to follow “so & so multinational corporation partnered with such & such telco to start helping bring unbanked citizens of nation ABC into the financial system.” Obviously this is a gross simplification but, point being, there does not seem to be enough depth offered as to why

I would love to know more about why Egypt and why now, for example. The country is emerging from the aftermath of huge political and national changes which have affected every aspect of citizens’ lives, most importantly perhaps being the economy.

Egypt’s growth from GDP has contracted to around 1% in the last year. And according to this week’s article in the Economist, Egyptians are worried about the financial system and are depositing less money than ever in their banks. Unemployment is soaring, not only in Egypt, but in the entire region post-Arab Spring. Linked are crippling blows to two major sources of capital flow: tourism and foreign direct investment. The article even goes on to deem Egypt “the worst off” in relation to the fiscal crises of the Arab Spring economies.

Egypt does have a large domestic consumer market which is an important factor in deciding to launch a mobile payment campaign. But to not mention these intricacies or realities at all in discussion is stunning. And I am not only speaking of Egypt’s situation and Visa’s plans there. For example, for all the talk out there about Nigeria’s mobile payment platform headlining news, I see so few (if any) articles, posts, or discussions about the recent strikes that halted the country and turned it upside down. Does that not have any effect on consumers and their trust in the financial system, official institutions, or each other?

These are just two examples. I, personally, would like to know more behind the decisions being made and the thought processes of leaders in these mobile payment and banking discussions. I know for a fact that the people at Visa are taking into consideration the condition of the country; I would like to hear more about what they are thinking in particular. For me, it all seems a bit… missing, as if some realities are being ignored, or simply not considered. Maybe I’m losing my mind. Or maybe I need to re-arrange my RSS feeds. But, for me, it would just be nice if there were more complex debates among ICT4D professionals as to the feasibility of individual technological and financial access endeavors at certain points in time. It’s ok to hold on the implementation of a new product or program if social or economic conditions are not “ripe.” It seems as though many investors like to ignore this logic when possible.

It’s a little difficult to see how such a financial and infrastructure investment could be considered categorically “great!” today when the Egyptian people’s main goal, for the most part, is getting food on the table tonight.

Egypt's Economy Is Near Paralysis - Khalil Hamra/Associated Press (via the New York Times)

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