The power of digital payments to drive financial inclusion and social justice emerged as a key theme on the first day of the Payments Canada Summit in Toronto.
Despite the mobile revolution and the rise of blockchain technology and associated crypto-currencies, there are still around two billion unbanked people around the world who are almost wholly reliant on cash.
This reliance means that "it's expensive to be poor," Kosta Peric told his audience in Toronto. As deputy director for 'financial services for the poor' at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Peric is devoted to the use of digital payments to tackle this problem.
However, he argues that there is a fundamental problem with the way in which new mobile services are being developed. The former Swift staffer compares the current digital payments landscape to the internet of the early 1990s, when firms created silos and there was no interoperability. Now, even a hugely successful service such as M-Pesa suffers from the same problem - it requires both the sender and recipient to be onboard.
The Gates Foundation is working to improve interoperability through its Level One Project, bringing together various players in the payments ecosystem through country-level platforms.
Peric, who recently talked to Finextra, says that to be successful in boosting financial inclusion, mobile money systems must be open-loop so that everyone can transact with each other regardless of provider, as well as real-time, push payment-based and central bank regulated.
Mexico, Jordan and Peru have all moved towards systems that embrace at least some of the Gates Foundation's vision, says Peric, who encouraged conference attendees to offer up their expertise to help other developing nations follow suit.
Peric is not convinced by the usefulness of Bitcoin to boost financial inclusion, arguing that a centrally-driven, universally-accepted fiat currency is necessary. However, other speakers at the summit talked up the potential of cryptocurrencies' underlying distributed ledger technology to tackle poverty.
Henry Chan from ConsenSys noted that the UN World Food Programme has begun trialling the use of a blockchain to help it deliver cash more quickly to places like food banks in Uganda because the technology helps tackle fraud and track spending.
Meanwhile, during another session, Robert Opp, who leads innovation at the Food Programme talked about how it is using technology at the other end of its process - raising money. Opp's team has built a crowdfunding app, called ShareTheMeal, where people can make microdonations. In its first year, the app has had more than 800,000 downloads and raised more than $6 million.
Opp says that while this is a small percentage of the Programme's donations, it demonstrates potential as a way to attract younger, digital donors. This is done in part through gamification, a tactic also being used by CauseSquare founder Maher Arar.
Arar, who talked to Finextra at last year's summit, is behind CauseSquare, an app that acts as a one-stop shop for charitable activities, where people can scroll through participating charities, which are grouped based on their area of interest.
While convinced of the potential of gamified mobile-based platforms to usher in a new era of giving, Arar expressed his frustration with Apple and its refusal to push ahead with in-app payments.
Joining Arar and Opp on stage was Michael Faye, co-founder of GiveDirectly, which puts money directly into the hands (via mobile phones) of poor people. For all the complicated technological, regulatory and social challenges involved, Faye says that the issue is simple: if you get money to poor people, you can end poverty.