AGENT BANKS ADVANCE COMMUNITY RESILIENCY DURING COVID-19 IN BANGLADESH
ASSESSING AGENT BANKING AS A RESILIENT MODEL
In November 2020, Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking, which scores the largest 53 economies on their success containing the virus with the least amount of social and economic disruption, ranked Bangladesh as twentieth in the world for handling the virus most effectively. When this study was initially conducted, the ranking represented the country’s low number of 34 cases per 100,000 people, mortality rate of 1.6 percent (44 deaths per million), and a test positivity rate of 10.2 percent. Though the Bloomberg rating provides insight into how well the country responded to the pandemic, various Bangladeshi systems experienced major ramifications affecting economic, political, and social stability. COVID-19 revealed weaknesses within the financial system that discouraged financial institutions from serving rural populations. These weaknesses included caps on interest rates, as instituted by the Bangladesh Bank and financial institutions' lack of presence in rural areas.
As of September 2021, Bangladesh is currently ranked forty-fourth in the world for handling the virus effectively, with a 7.1 percent vaccination rate. As with so many countries, the Delta variant has put significantly more strain on Bangladesh’s ability to respond.
COVID-19’S IMPACT ON THE FINANCIAL MARKET SYSTEM
Demand for financial services during times of crisis is typically high. That was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Feed the Future Bangladesh Livestock Production for Improved Nutrition Activity, funded by USAID and implemented by ACDI/VOCA, conducted a COVID-19 situational analysis in May 2020 to measure its effect on households and market systems. The analysis found that access to finance was a major constraint to the recovery and resilience of the livestock sector. In addition to the overall demand for services, access to finance is also crucial to resiliency. During times of shocks and stresses, SMEs must have access to financial services, including savings, working capital, additional credit, and insurance, to maintain their livelihoods. The ability of SMEs to build up assets and invest in their businesses will help sustain their livelihoods during times of crisis. Savings, whether formal or informal, can provide a form of self-insurance to help people weather economic shocks without resorting to negative coping mechanisms.
The Activity already worked closely with several financial institutions in Bangladesh and wanted to dig deeper into understanding the pandemic’s effect on some key financial models supported by the Activity, including agent banking.
In July 2020, the Activity conducted a resiliency assessment to identify the extent to which banking agents demonstrated resiliency during the COVID-19 crisis. The Activity used surveys and interviews with financial sector players, including agents, customers, and parent banks from its partners Bank Asia, BRAC Bank, and City Bank to identify the extent to which agent banking demonstrated resiliency. The Activity also developed a framework for measuring the resiliency of agent banking so the Activity can continue to boost its success.
Resiliency Framework of Agent Banking
The Activity conducted surveys with more than 80 female and male agent banking customers and agents to supplement the quantitative analysis completed using the resiliency framework. The surveys provided insights into the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on agent banking’s ability to absorb, adapt, and transform during the crisis. The Activity applied a gender lens to design the framework and conduct the resiliency analysis, resulting in more holistic insights and ensuring that data led to a better understanding of the opportunities and barriers women face. In addition to the survey, the team conducted interviews to gain insights into the bank’s crisis response strategy and how agent banking played a critical role.