Serving the dispossessed: Financial products and services for displaced populations and refugees

  • Emma LALA BOUALI, Amarante Consulting
  • Yves MOURY, Fundación Capital
  • Ilan COHN, HIAS Europe
  • Anne Marie VAN SWINDEREN, PHB Development


Ilan COHN started the session by defining that a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his/her country because of war, natural disaster or out of fear of persecution. He mentioned that in 2019, there are nearly 71 million forcibly displaced. In 2018 alone, around 13.6 million people were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution; over 2.8 million are refugees and asylum seekers, and about 10.8 million are internally displaced. Cohn highlighted the many obstacles that refugees face when it comes to economic inclusion. More specifically, he stated that host countries often impede inclusion as they fear that this might increase the chance of refugees wanting to stay. Also, the lack of official papers and identification is a serious challenge. 

Cohn explained how HIAS aims to improve economic inclusion, by the employment of the Graduation Approach. After defining who the most vulnerable people are, the project addresses the vulnerabilities faced by them through individual monitoring. HIAS then provides cash assistance for basic consumption, savings and financial education. The economically active members of refugee families may also receive additional skills training and business start-up or employment support. Cohn concluded that to offer financial products and services for displaced populations and refugees, you need to build models and work together with governments. Ideally, refugees are included in poverty alleviation programs, next to beneficiaries of the host community. 

Anne Marie VAN SWINDEREN then explained how PHB Development promotes the development of financially included refugees. Their main aim is to develop and offer adequate financial products and services. This development stage is participatory and based on diaries data on income and expenditure patterns of refugees. These data are gathered by, for and with refugees themselves. In the process, Van Swinderen assured, they always keep in mind what FSPs can deliver.

Van Swinderen stressed that it is always important to recognise that refugees are heterogeneous, of different backgrounds, professions, education levels and ages. When providing financial services, FSPs should therefore either focus strongly on one segment or they should offer quite a range of services. Despite great differences amongst refugees, they also have a lot in common, continued Van Swinderen. Refugees are active, entrepreneurial, resilient, persevering and have a problem-solving mind-set – the ideal characteristics which investors usually look for. Hence, refugees should be seen as a financing opportunity for FSPs; not for charity, but for business.

Yves MOURY was next to present his views on this topic. He started off arguing that it is most crucial for refugees to have their right to financial inclusion recognised. Financial inclusion gives access to insurance, trainings, information and financial services, hence: economic stability. Moury reminded the audience that, even when refugees reside in a place with economic growth, refugees have little means to take advantage of that. He then emphasised that humanitarian support, although very necessary, is insufficient, as it does not redistribute political power and does not improve mobility for refugees. 

Moury said that scale is another issue when talking about financial inclusion for refugees. He said that costs need to be reduced. In his view, the way to do so is twofold. First, by working with governments, as they have resources and infrastructure. Second, to digitalise, given that services like access to capital, insurance and information can all be provided digitally. Alignment between government interests and refugees’ needs is crucial for these solutions to be successful, as well as cooperation between public and private actors. 

Lisa KLINGER agreed that cooperation is key. She said that within the field of financial inclusion, she has observed the rise of new partnerships and efforts. Klinger referred to the 2017 G20 Hamburg Summit: it was the first time that financial inclusion was put on the international agenda. It is no longer about explaining why financial inclusion is important, she said, now the focus is on how we are going to achieve it.

BMZ and GIZ, together with a range of partners, developed a road map, which includes a stakeholder analysis setting out what can be done by whom and what is needed. Klinger summed up that translating policies into action requires an enabling national financial inclusion strategy and regulatory framework, a financial and physical infrastructure, consumer protection and awareness, engagement of FSPs and coordination and alignment between partners.


Moderator Emma LALA BOUALI said that there is a strong interest for FSPs to propose services and products for refugees but asked the panellists how financial services can help improve the lives of refugees. Van Swinderen replied that there is anecdotal evidence of great interest from refugees for those services. Formal services become more important for refugees, as they often do not have access to informal loans from their network in their new host country. Digital payments are also an important financial service. Van Swinderen explained that refugees in settlements are now given the choice to either go for food distribution or cash payments. Most choose cash, with long waiting lines as a result. As such, Van Swinderen continued, it would be helpful to digitalise these payments. 

Moury commented that formal financial services provide people with a diverse range of payment and savings systems to manage money, including remittances and insurance. This requires investments for a good (digital) financial infrastructure, as this will increase access to services. Lala Bouali added that the role of regulation is fundamental in providing access to formal financial services and products. 

Lala Bouali then invited the panellists to share some last thoughts with the audience. Van Swinderen emphasised that while it is crucial to recognize the precarious situation of refugees, foremost they are people with potential. Klinger added that, in partnership with different actors, it is important to actively showcase the potential of refugees and financial inclusion for them. Cohn emphasised that, besides providing humanitarian aid to refugees, there should be a stronger emphasis on programs offering empowerment, inclusion and dignity. Moury pointed out that the development and humanitarian sectors did not change much over the years. He challenged all actors in the sector to do their work in a more transformative way: to stop addressing symptoms and to start systemic change.