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Financial literacy: What for?

15 October 2014
by Guest author
Good morning. How can I confuse you?

Good morning. How can I cheat you?

In preparation for the 2015 Global Forum on Development, which will focus on how access to financing can contribute to inclusive social and economic development, the OECD Development Centre and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) have developed a series of articles exploring the key issues and dimensions of financial inclusion. Today’s post from Sarah Bel of the UNCDF Better Than Cash Alliance and James Eberlein of the OECD Development Centre highlights some of the overarching themes related to financial literacy.

Most of our problems are based on finances. Money is always an issue. I have to still provide for both my parents who are not working and make sure they are fed; I must pay their insurance policies because they no longer have the ability to pay them. I don’t earn enough money to afford all of that. A 35-year-old man from Lesotho, interviewed as part of the UNCDF Making Access Possible initiative

Have you ever tested your financial literacy? Read what follows and you’ll get a better sense of why this matters more than you may have thought.

Low-income consumers must make complex financial decisions even more frequently than middle or high-income consumers, given their smaller operating margins and their limited and irregular incomes. A forthcoming report by UNCDF on Lesotho and Swaziland shows that many workers forfeit up to 40% of their income because of burdensome loan repayments. Indebtedness in the informal consumer market is often an indicator not only of poverty, but also limited financial literacy.

Yet these problems are not limited to poor consumers or low-income countries. While households in advanced and emerging economies have gained increased access to a wide range of financial products, they seldom have the capacity to fully understand and master them. In response to the growing concerns about over-indebtedness, policymakers across the world are focusing on “predatory” lending, which takes advantage of financial illiteracy to push inappropriate loans to consumers who cannot repay them. Some common-sense reforms, like those implemented in France, now require lenders to include a disclaimer (“You are responsible for paying back a loan. Verify your ability to repay the loan before borrowing.”) Additionally, all marketing material must include plain-language explanations of the long-term cost of loans (interest rate, total amount due and the final cost of the credit). South Africa’s Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) legislation has specific regulations around financial education and consumer empowerment as stipulated under the Financial Sector Codes. The purpose of these types of regulations is to improve financial capability and increase financial inclusion. But while such reforms have helped improve the protection of financial consumers, they only address part of the problem.

Many people, in developed and developing countries alike, know little about basic financial concepts and do not engage in savvy financial behaviours. An OECD paper shows that in almost all of the 14 countries across 4 continents taking part in the study, at least half of the adult population failed to identify the impact of interest compounding on their savings, and revealed that fewer than one in five people would shop around when buying financial products.

Unfortunately, the picture isn’t any brighter when it comes to young consumers. The recently published OECD PISA financial literacy assessment revealed that around one in seven students in the 13 OECD countries and economies taking part in the assessment are unable to make simple decisions about everyday spending, and only one in ten can solve complex financial tasks. This result is astonishing and requires prompt action to ensure that tomorrow’s adults understand bank statements, the long-term costs of consumer credit and how insurance works, among other basic financial services and products. Indeed, improving the financial literacy of young people will help ensure that they can benefit from savings, retirement and healthcare coverage — much-needed safety nets in the absence of parents and/or social systems. And in case you wonder if you’re any better off than a 15-year-old when it comes to financial literacy, have a look at these sample questions.

To help governments design and implement policies to increase financial skills, including among young people, the OECD and its International Network on Financial Education (INFE) developed High-level Principles on National Strategies for Financial Education, which were endorsed by G20 leaders in 2012. They encourage countries to develop nationally co-ordinated frameworks for financial education policies and provide general guidance on the main elements of an efficient national financial education strategy, such as an effective mechanism to co-ordinate with civil society and the private sector.

Governments may involve financial service providers and other key stakeholders to build the financial capabilities of young people and adults through a variety of delivery channels. Rwanda’s national strategy, for instance, underlines the importance of using not only schools to deliver financial education, but also other innovative channels to reach vulnerable, out-of-school youth. Umutanguha Finance, one of the ten institutions supported by the UNCDF initiative YouthStart, empowers teenagers to deliver financial education on issues like savings to younger children. This peer-to-peer approach is particularly useful because young people tend to listen to their peers more than adults, and the participative approach helps foster youth as agents of change in their own communities.

Financial literacy programmes can play an important role in reducing economic inequalities as well as empowering citizens and decreasing information asymmetries between financial intermediaries and their customers. Public authorities have a responsibility to develop financial education policies and set up robust financial consumer protection frameworks to ensure that consumers are informed and understand the financial products available to them. Innovations such as electronic payments are tipping the economic scales in favour of those who have, for too long, been excluded from the system. But unless consumers are equipped to make sound decisions about use of financial services, no amount of innovation will bridge the gap.

Useful links

OECD work on inequality, inclusive growth, financial education and consumer policy

UNCDF Making Access Possible, YouthStart and Better than Cash Alliance initiatives and Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme

FinMark Trust Financial Education Toolkit

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Michael permalink
    October 16, 2014

    Financial literacy is more important than ever, but the reason financial illiteracy is such a problem is because most people think learning about money is boring and hard to understand. That’s why I like Pirates of Financial Freedom and other books like that because they are engaging and memorable. They should just give those books to everyone and that would solve a lot of problems.

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