Financial Inclusion for the Roma: Perspectives on access to digital finance

By Camilla ida ravnbøl

Postdoc

University of Copenhagen

Department of Anthropology

Photo by: Camilla Ida Ravnbøl
“If I have a credit card? Ha! Have you ever seen an ATM inside a Roma community? No, we are just thankful that at least we have a sewage system…”
Dumitru, Romanian Roma man, 2019

Swiping credit cards at the cashier in the grocery store, or purchasing new clothes through phone payments: these are mundane economic activities for millions of people worldwide. However, for the world’s unbanked populations digital financial services are largely inaccessible. Studies show, that marginalised Roma communities constitute the majority of Europe’s unbanked populations. The Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe but they are also amongst the poorest and most discriminated populations, with 80% of them living below their country’s at-risk-of poverty threshold.[1] Such conditions prevent many Roma families from accessing national banking systems, as they do not have the income or the savings to open a bank account and get credit cards. Lack of access to bank accounts, and even less access to credit options, hinder the start-up of small entrepreneurs or prevent many Roma families from saving money for rainy days. Their financial resort is to incur expensive loans with private money-lending companies or local usurers, which then entrap families in circles of debt. Therefore, institutions such as the World Bank and the Open Society Foundation argue that financial inclusion is just as essential for achieving wider social inclusion, as is accessing education, housing and employment.[2]

During my fieldwork with Romanian Roma who live in homelessness in Copenhagen and when visiting their families living within poor communities in Romania, I witnessed the impact of multiple forms of financial exclusion. The families live in poverty and depend on loans with local usurers for basic subsistence costs. Family members in Denmark send home whatever meagre income they make from recycling materials, in order to cover some household expenditures and repay debt. The debt frequently absorbs all of their income due to high interest rates, keeping the Roma families in cycles of precarious migration.[3] This is evident in this conversation with a Romanian Roma couple called Sorin and Mioara:

Mioara: “We took new loans this year. We did not get to keep any of the money we made last year. We borrowed to buy food, supporting our family, buying wood: since the winter is very difficult”

Sorin: “They will make you repay the debt. Provident [a private money lending company] can take money from my pension and they add taxes to my debt. The cămătari [local usurers], if you don’t pay them, then you can have fights with them.”

In 2012, the EU Commission issued a recommendation on the right to access a basic payments account.[4] Rights of access included that financial services are accessible and affordable. We can expand this definition with a broader conceptual approach to ‘access’ that is also used in other social fields (such as health studies), arguing that true access to basic services enfolds the 5As: Affordable, Adequate, Available, Accessible and Acceptable.[5] The Romanian Roma I met are precisely critical towards not having “access” in this ‘5A definition’ of the term. Whereas financial services are (in theory) available, they are not realistically so for many of the families, since they cannot access credit/loans for small entrepreneurial start-ups, nor can they end their dependency on expensive private or informal money lending.  Whereas the existence of financial services might appear adequate, it is common that banks reject poor Roma clients, when they ask for credit. The banks and ATMS are accessible in some parts of the city, but in practice, it requires that the Roma who live in marginalised areas have to walk across town to reach these services. As Dumitru in the opening quote notes, there are no ATMs inside or close to the Roma communities. Dumitru later explains that the women in his household are afraid to walk across the city after dark and would never do so in order to locate an ATM machine. Furthermore, who would care for the young children at home while their mother went on an excursion to an ATM? Dumitru’s comment thereby underlines how accessibility and acceptability of financial services hinges on their physical proximity, practicality and safety.

Banking cards can be affordable with low fees, but since many of these families depend on remittances from family members abroad, the fees are usually much higher: often with double fees for currency conversions. Given that the families constantly repay debt, they do not have savings to deposit in bank accounts regardless that the banking card fee is only 5 lei per annum (app. 1 euro). In their situation, affordability needs to be measured against both formal and informal debt and expenditures.

In sum, it all boils down to evaluating whether the unbanked and marginalised communities have a de-facto access to (digital) financial services in the light of whether such services are practical and respond to their everyday exigencies. Once their conditions are taken more into consideration by States and financial communities, we can talk about obtaining social inclusion through financial inclusion.

 

 

[1]  European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. 2016. Second European Union minorities and discrimination survey: Roma – selected findings.

[2] de Laat, Joost for the World. 2012. Bank Reducing vulnerability and promoting the self-employment of Roma in Eastern Europe through financial inclusion and Open Society Foundations.2011. Financial Inclusion for the Roma: Banking as a Key to Social Progress.

[3] Silvey, Rachel & Parreñas, Rhacel. 2019. “Precarity chains: cycles of domestic worker migration

from Southeast Asia to the Middle East” in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 1-15

[4] European Commission Recommendation of 18 July 2011 on Access to Basic Payment Accounts (2011/422/EU)

[5] For discussions on “access” terminology see: Penchansky, R., and J. W. Thomas. 1981. ‘‘The Concept of Access: Definition and Relationship to Consumer Satisfaction.’’ in Medical Care 19 (2): 127–40. And: Thiede, M., Akweongo, P., & McIntyre, D. (2007). Exploring the dimensions of access. In D. McIntyre & G. Mooney (Eds.), The Economics of Health Equity (pp. 103-123). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.