| April 11, 2016 12:00pm
About 2 billion people around the world lack access to formal financial services, making it difficult for them to build a nest egg, obtain loans, start businesses, and climb out of poverty. The United States and many other governments have long recognized that improving financial inclusion is a critical aspect of addressing poverty, and recent years have seen significant global progress in the number of people engaging with the formal financial ecosystem.
While progress in improving financial inclusion has been remarkable, it is also fragile. In particular, remittance services, which are a key part of the financial ecosystem, are under increasing threat. Currently, the annual total of remittance payments sent from the United States exceeds $50 billion. There are millions of families in the developing world whose ability to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads depends on remittances sent by immigrants in the United States and elsewhere.
Yet several developments are imperiling those payments. First, in recent years the United States and other governments have been levying large fines on banks for alleged violations of international sanctions and anti-money laundering rules. Banks are responding with widespread closures of accounts held by remittance companies and other financial service providers that they perceive as exposing them to too much risk. The result of this so-called “de-risking” process is that many responsible, law-abiding users of remittance services become collateral damage.
Reducing access to formal financial services such as remittances is deeply problematic from a development and social stability standpoint, particularly for marginalized communities. Our analysis of nearly two-dozen economically, politically, and geographically diverse countries shows that increasing—as opposed to impeding—access to and usage of formal financial services is a key factor in helping people at the bottom of the economic pyramid become more prosperous and self-reliant.
Moreover, curtailing access to formal financial services inhibits consumer protection safeguards and threatens financial integrity. When people are blocked from access to formal financial services, they often turn to less traceable channels, exposing them to exploitative fees and leaving them without adequate consumer protection when transactions go awry. Shifting financial flows to informal mechanisms weakens the overall integrity of the financial system by reducing financial transparency and oversight.
A recent development in the American political sphere demonstrates yet another way in which remittance services—and the people who depend on them—risk being collateral damage for forces well beyond their control. In an effort to compel the Mexican government to finance the wall he wants to build along the U.S. border with Mexico, Donald Trump is threatening that, if elected president, he would cut off remittances that many Mexicans in the United States send to family members in their home country.
According to a memo Trump sent to the Washington Post, Trump wants to propose changing the federal regulation governing how banks address customer identification to require that “no alien may wire money outside of the United States unless the alien first provides a document establishing his lawful presence in the United States.” Trump’s aim is to threaten to significantly impede the flow of remittances via money transfer companies or wire transfer firms unless Mexico agrees to pay for the wall.
Given that more than 95 percent of the reported $24.8 billion sent by Mexicans living abroad back to individuals in Mexico in 2015 came from Mexicans living in the United States, the negative economic and social consequences of curtailing remittances would be enormous—even if “only” those remittances sent by undocumented workers would be disrupted. And, Mexico wouldn’t be the only country impacted. Blocking remittances also would undermine economic development across much of Latin America and in many other places around the world that receive money sent by immigrants in the United States.
Most people don’t view global anti-money laundering standards and the American presidential race as particularly closely intertwined. But with respect to remittances, those topics have recently converged. The debate surrounding immigration reform in the United States is important. So is ensuring the integrity of the global financial system. But the solutions to the challenges those issues raise shouldn’t involve choking off financial flows to the people in the world who can least afford it.
Vice President and Director, Governance Studies
Founding Director, Center for Technology Innovation
Darrell M. West is vice president and director of Governance Studies and holds the Douglas Dillon Chair. He is founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings and Editor-in-Chief of TechTank. His current research focuses on educational technology, health information technology, and mobile technology.
John Villasenor is a nonresident senior fellow in Governance Studies and the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. He is also professor of electrical engineering, public policy, and management, and a visiting professor of law, at the University of California, Los Angeles. His current research focuses on the technology and policy challenges associated with how information is acquired, processed, and delivered in an efficient and secure manner.