Why the Gates Foundation's first direct Middle East grant is a mobile money platform

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp, located near Mafraq, Jordan. Photo by: Mark Garten / United Nations / CC BY

LONDON — The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will invest $3 million in a grant initiative focused on financially empowering vulnerable groups in Jordan, namely Syrian refugees and low-income citizens.

The platform, called Mobile Money for Resilience, was launched at a ceremony in the Jordanian capital Amman on Tuesday. The project is in partnership with the Central Bank of Jordan and aims to provide access to digital financial services such as payment transfers, savings, and credit through a mobile money platform.

This new tool is the latest effort by the Gates Foundation to bring innovation to payment infrastructure

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is announcing free and open source software to address the lack of interoperability between financial service providers and payments platforms.

Gates’ $3 million buy-in kicks off the program, which the foundation hopes will raise up to $11 million over the next five years to scale up mobile money services in government and humanitarian agency cash transfer programs. Because the foundation’s financial services programs are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, MM4R marks the first direct grant by the $2.1 billion philanthropy in the Middle East and North Africa region.

“The idea is to leverage existing things that the foundation is working on, in this case financial services, but in Jordan we have a number of other programs, particularly in primary health care and sanitation, two other big priorities to serve refugee populations,” Joe Cerrell, managing director of global policy and advocacy told Devex.

At the same time, he said, the initiative won’t ignore impoverished Jordanians, particularly those without access to financial services. More than 70 percent of adults in Jordan remain unbanked, according to Gates estimates.

“The number of Syrian refugees in Jordan living below the poverty line exceeds 80 percent, but poverty in Jordan as well extends well beyond the refugee population,” he said.

A spokesperson for the foundation offered a rough estimate of potential reach. She said the initial $3 million grant from the foundation “will allow MM4R to benefit about 178,000 people and increase financial inclusion by 24 percent.” The goal, however, is to reach 1 million individuals over three years while increasing financial inclusion in Jordan by 50 percent, she added.

“Out of the 1 million beneficiaries we expect to reach, it is estimated that 60 percent would be Jordanians and 40 percent would be refugees,” she added.

Cerrell said “if we can provide some limited financial commitment, plus more importantly, some technical or knowledge that we have in-house, then that’s key for this emergency relief program.”

The initiative is part of a small but growing portfolio of foundation investments in emergency response. Cerrell said he is already at work getting other donors and partners on board with MM4R, most recently at the Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum, which ended yesterday.

“We were talking to some of the bilaterals there about [partnering], for example with GIZ [German development agency], I think there are some big players that we hope, given the potential for this kind of initiative might be encouraged to come in,” he said.

Cerrell added he believes there may also be support “from other GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] donors,” and that MM4M is the “kind of initiative that would have some appeal” to partners in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

At the Riyadh conference, Cerrell said he also discussed the new initiative with officials from the United Nations Population Fund and U.N. Children Fund, who “wanted to learn more about the specific ways women will benefit from increased access to financial services.”

Asked if the foundation hopes to replicate the program elsewhere in the region where the dual challenges of migration and poverty converge, Cerrell said “absolutely.”

“Obviously it’s going to take a little bit of time, but absolutely we think the initiative has the potential to be replicable in other humanitarian settings,” he said. While each context is different, he added, many of the same types of donors and facilitators should be able to come together to create something impactful. “If you look at the players that typically get involved, whether it’s regulators, mobile money providers, humanitarian organizations, [it is] something we can absolutely contribute in terms of thinking about the potential of financial services and digital payment systems, and something that reaches women in particular. We hope it’s going to be a replicable model.”

The MM4R investment is part of a drive by the foundation to expand its work to address the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Cerrell said. The effort aims “to catalyze positive change for communities affected by displacement, by investing in innovative programs that take advantage of advances that have been made elsewhere in global development efforts,” according to a statement from the foundation.

The program will be managed by a dedicated unit embedded in the Central Bank of Jordan.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.