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Digital ID applications grow in Pakistan, but obstacles remain: State Bank exec

Digital ID applications grow in Pakistan, but obstacles remain: State Bank exec

The adoption of digital ID technologies in Pakistan’s financial system is growing, but there are still some obstacles in both personal and business banking to overcome before comprehensive adoption can be achieved.

These are the views of Reza Baqir, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), who recently spoke in a webinar organized by SBP, alongside other experts in the financial and tech sector.

“On the strength side, we have a stable and well-capitalized banking system with excellent asset quality. Our banks were also resilient in time of the recent pandemic due to supportive measures taken by the SBP,” said Baqir during the online event.

Baqir defines digital identity as a “foundational pillar of a digital society” in the country.

“In Pakistan, you have 120 million adults that have biometrically verified National ID that is 96 percent of the total population aged 18 [and above] […] there are 43 licensed banks, 32 commercial banks as well as 11 microfinance banks, and together these have more than 17,000 branches in the entire country.”

However, the SBP executive also warned that Pakistan has only 11 million mobile app users for digital financial services and about seven million internet banking users.

“[This] means there are at least 70 million who have bank accounts but are not currently using digital means such as apps or the internet for their banking needs.”

The executive said he sees these as opportunities for the adoption of digital ID solutions for banking in the country, alongside rapid growth in technology-focused startup investments.

In terms of obstacles to the adoption of digital ID solutions for banking in Pakistan, the SBP executive mentioned the presence of a pronounced gender gap in the country, with only one Pakistani woman having a bank account for every three men.

In addition, Baqir explained the country had a total of “only” 82 million unique bank accounts, which represented a penetration rate of 62 percent, “amongst the lowest in the world.”

There is also a lack of support for small businesses, with only three out of 100 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in Pakistan holding bank accounts.

To solve these issues, Baqir suggests a vision of using technology to transform the country’s financial system from “one that caters for the privileged few to one that caters to all except the illicit.”

Working toward this goal, SBP has already undertaken several initiatives, alongside a licensing framework for digital banks. Many of the initiatives, Baquir said, utilize remote biometric verification and digital channels.

“We are very excited that three of our banks are already offering app-based remote biometric verification, and therefore app-based digital onboarding of customers.”

The country has also launched a national digital wallet with remote biometric enrollment to improve financial inclusion.

Additional initiatives currently undertaken by SBP focus on open banking, digital currency, and other digital technologies to support SMEs in the country.

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