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01.26.2016

Alumna researches ways to expand mobile banking

“Millennials would rather go to the dentist than to the bank,” Yoonee Jeong (MIDP ’13) said to current fellows at a career talk on Thursday, Jan. 14.

While this observation was followed by laughter from the audience, Jeong noted that there are currently 2 billion adults worldwide that are unbanked. This is a significant problem, Jeong said, as it is a large barrier to socio-economic progress in developing countries.

Jeong, who was born in South Korea and raised in the Philippines, has worked at the intersection of technology and global development for almost 15 years. She met with fellows as part of the alumni-in-residence series, which is offered as a professional development service by the Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) program.

Jeong has an expansive professional background working in both the private sector, leading technology companies such as Sykes and EMC, and for international organizations such as Oxfam, the United Nations and the World Bank. She has implemented programs in over two dozen countries in Asia Pacific and Africa.

She currently is a research director for consulting and research firm TRPC in Singapore. TRPC is a think tank focused on policy and economic analyses of technology, particularly in Southeast Asia.

More than half of the company’s clients are multinational tech companies. The other clients are organizations like the United Nations’ Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), which commission research from TRPC. Working for TRPC has allowed Jeong to explore this problem of a high number of unbanked individuals globally and to address the growing topic of financial inclusion. She specifically researches ways to increase access to financial services, namely through mobile banking.

“No technology has been able to achieve what mobile has achieved in this short span of time,” Jeong said. The global penetration of mobile is somewhere around 50-60 percent worldwide, she emphasizes, even in emerging markets.

However, despite the widespread use of mobile devices, Jeong said, mobile banking is underutilized. Based on her research, she thinks mobile banking is a key way to address financial inclusion challenges currently faced in developing areas.

“There are significant pros to having access to formal financial services,” she said. “Among them are safety and security, cheaper options and building credit.”

At the same time, the challenges to mobile banking are diverse and complex, Jeong said. For one, in many developing countries, brick and mortar banks can be far way or very hard to get to, which deters people from having established relationships with a bank, even if they have the money.

Further, these banks often enact burdensome regulations, like mandating two forms of an ID and requiring a minimum balance in an account.

There are additional barriers for women in terms of financial autonomy, Jeong said. While women are the ones typically making the budgets and spending the family money, in many developing countries’ cultures, it is the men whose names are on the bank accounts.

In 2014, only 37 percent of women in Indonesia had a bank account in their name, compared to 55 percent of men.

“This doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any progress,” Jeong said. She emphasized how important it is that financial inclusion has even become a big topic to question and research. Since 2011, 700 million adults have gained access to formal finance. Further, there are 300 million mobile money accounts.

“The fact that people at the very bottom of the socio-economic pyramid, for the first time, are able to access a [mobile] device that can provide them with so many resources [like mobile money accounts] is very revolutionary,” Jeong said.

As part of her work, Jeong helps companies and organizations determine the barriers to the adoption of mobile financial services in different countries.

“You have to understand the multiplicity of regulations and jurisdictional issues,” she said. “When it comes to different aspects of finance, you need to have a clear picture of who needs to be involved where.”

Jeong emphasized how critical the MIDP program was to her current work. Prior to coming to Duke, she believed she had fairly good hands-on experience, but felt she was always focused on implementation. Her time as an MIDP fellow, she said, gave her the skills in policy analysis and statistics that are necessary for successful research.

“I learned enough from MIDP to be able to design my own applied research, which has opened a lot of doors for me,” she said.