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Reaching the Philippines’ unbanked, rural and poor

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The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a special challenge to those in poor and rural communities, and particularly for millions of individuals who are under- and unbanked. With access to financial institutions already limited, and banks further curbing hours and branch openings, receiving government help has become even more difficult. In the Philippines, rural banks, cooperatives, microfinance institutions, payment collection companies and NGOs joined together with RCBC, one of the country’s largest banks, to facilitate the government’s P200+ billion emergency subsidy to over 18 million families. The combined branch network and customer touchpoints of these partners exceeds 8,000 throughout the country. (The collaboration is called Damayang Sambayanihan: Hatid-Ayudasa Kababayan). RCBC’s pocket and mobile ATM, known as ATM Go, enables cash withdrawal, balance inquiry, funds transfer, bills payment, and e-loading transactions – getting desperately needed funds to quarantined Filipinos quickly. 1,250 RCBC ATM Go terminals are currently in use in some of the most rural areas nationwide, and an additional 2,000 units are being deployed for use by partners.

“We heed the call of President Duterte for the private sector to complement government’s effort in containing the pandemic and providing relief to those severely affected. This is one of RCBC’s contributions as a member of the larger Philippine society,” RCBC President and CEO Eugene Acevedo said.

Lito Villanueva, EVP and Chief Innovation & Inclusion Officer at RCBC gave us the following exclusive interview.

“When the COVID-19 lockdown happened of course the government came up with a social subsidy to address the situation as most of the displaced workers were affected by the what we call the enhanced community quarantine. This emergency cash subsidy, amounting to about 200 billion pesos, was to go to about 18 million families in the country. So while we’ve had an existing conditional cash transfer programme (CCP) in existence in the country for over more than about 8-10 years now, that only covered about 4.4 million household beneficiaries; so you still have practically 13.5 million families that are not covered by the CCP.

There was a logical question around how quickly the government would be able to disperse those funds, especially as people are trying to sustain their families in terms of having to eat every day. We have 7,000 islands in the country’s archipelago. So, the logistics would definitely be a major nightmare. The good thing was that the mindset of collaboration was coming from the regulators and we really believe that we have to get approvals from the regulators because of course RCBC is a regulated entity. I’d like to highlight the fact that the BSP approved our request in a matter of seven hours.

We messaged the president of the Rural Bankers Association in the Philippines, the CEO of the Cooperatives Association and other players in the industry; they quickly said yes, cascading information to their members. And before you know it in a matter of one day or two days, we were able to mobilise people and also come up with a process on how we will be able to engage with each other in terms of delivering the services to the public.

I think in any crisis, collaboration is definitely one of the major elements that you really have to leverage because, number one, no single entity is able to able to solely deliver the services that are being required by the government. This crisis really saw the magnitude of collaboration and of being able to work together in the most expeditious manner possible. I think that in the context of collaboration, the openness amongst those players in the industry to really work on a common goal in terms of providing the services to the public, and quickly delivering those is a highlight of this story.”

Stories such as these beg the question: Will we ever go back to “business as normal”? Or can we hope that collaboration is the new normal and continues to work better for the disadvantaged among us?

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