Why Bitcoin Will Not Solve the Caribbean’s Financial Inclusion Woes

What is Bitcoin? Is it electronic money?

There’s a deluge of hype around Bitcoin and blockchain technologies right now, and policymakers and regulators in the Caribbean are doing their best to wrap their heads around the advantages and disadvantages of this virtual currency. Similar questions are being contemplated in the ICTs for development (ICT4D) community, taking into account that electronic money (e-money) platforms such as Safaricom’s M-PESA have essentially solved the financial inclusion quandary for millions of people in Kenya. The service has now even expanded to Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and India.

Besides sharing the characteristic of being digital, how do Bitcoin and e-money compare, especially with regards to reaching individuals who have previously been unable to access traditional financial services? Presently, there appear to be more differences than similarities between the two, and it’s critical not to confuse virtual currency with e-money.

Blockchain, in brief, is a record of digital events, distributed across multiple participants. It can only be updated by consensus between participants in the system, and when new data is entered, it can never be erased. The blockchain contains a true and verifiable record of each and every transaction ever made in the system. Launched in 2009, Bitcoin is a virtual, private currency that uses blockchain as an underlying, immutable public ledger. Bitcoins are ‘mined’ using distributed processing power across a global network of volunteer software enthusiasts. The supply mechanism is designed to grow slowly and has an upper limit of 21 million units as determined by a built-in algorithm. There is no central authority that controls blockchain or Bitcoin. There are no central banks that can be politically manipulated; and no way to inflate the value of a national currency by simply printing more money. Economic libertarians are ecstatic at the very thought of this. However, competing virtual currencies can be created that could have the net effect of devaluing the original.

Contrastingly, e-money is not a separate currency and is overseen by the same national regulatory authority that governs the printing of fiat money – as is the case with M-PESA and the Central Bank of Kenya. It’s an extension of a national currency like Jamaican dollars or Netherland Antilles guilders for use over digital networks to reduce the costs associated with handling physical cash. More specifically, it’s a one-to-one electronic store of value pegged to the cash receipt of the equivalent amount. To mitigate against risks like money laundering, terrorist financing, consumer protection, etc., the cash against which e-money is issued most often has to be deposited with fully regulated financial institutions.

The issue of financial exclusion

The issue of financial exclusion can be summarized into 2 categories: unbanked and underbanked. Unbanked individuals do not have an account at a regulated financial institution, while underbanked individuals have accounts, but frequently use alternative or unregulated financial services.

Before elaborating on the key factors behind financial exclusion, it is important to detail the effects of being unbanked to illustrate the severity of the problem. Unbanked individuals are faced with a heavy economic burden […]

The full article can be found on the CircleID website at: https://goo.gl/zn7Yg9