Rather than pursuing marginal improvement to given products or channels, UNCDF seeks to shape the digital financial ecosystem to better serve migrants’ needs. We are working at multiple levels to bring about that vision. And we are brokering alliances between stakeholders whose paths might not otherwise cross but who need to work together creatively for migrant-centric finance to become a reality.

Supporting governments

For remittances to deliver their full potential, each country must have the right infrastructure, market conditions, and regulations in place. At the regional and international level, the sending and receiving countries must have effective frameworks for cross-border policy cooperation and inter-operable systems. They need to combat illicit financial flows while ensuring that law-abiding people can easily and affordably send their own money to each other.

UNCDF’s migration and remittances team includes policy and technical experts who themselves have held senior roles in developing countries’ central banks. They understand the need to balance competing policy goals—and how to do it in different contexts. Our experts provide comprehensive, real-world consultations with policymakers and regulators throughout the developing world. They carefully diagnose the current state of the policy framework around remittances: not just the regulations aimed directly at money transfers, but the adjacent ones—telecommunications, foreign currency holdings, taxation, and more—that shape the financial behaviors and choices of migrants and their families. Then our experts listen carefully to policymakers’ goals, and provide practical, actionable recommendations about steps they can take to move from the current state to the desired future state.

Because our experts have broad-based experience, they can also provide meaningful comparisons and lessons learned from other developing countries’ experience. And because UNCDF is committed to our ecosystem approach, we bring together policymakers with remittance service providers so that each can learn directly from each other about goals and constraints, grounded in deep understanding of migrants’ financial priorities.

Making digital finance work for migrants

Migrants—roughly four percent of the world’s population—are a vast addressable market for financial services of all kinds. Serving that market profitably and effectively requires first understanding their lives: their circumstances, their families’ circumstances, their preferences, their long-term goals.

It is also important to understand the business realities on the supply side. At more than half a trllion dollars annually, remittances are a big business—but a complicated one. Remittance service providers have multiple and complex challenges around cash management, low average transaction sizes, foreign exchange risks, and customers who may have limited financial capabilities. Remittance providers must also devote considerable resources to compliance with multiple sets of regulations. And in many remittance corridors, the persistence of unregulated, informal channels crowds out providers who could potentially, by accelerating the shift away from cash and toward digital, greatly increase remittances’ safety and transparency.

UNCDF invests and crowds-in investment partners to test new business models and services. We work closely with mobile network operators, banks, nonbank financial services providers, postal networks and others, providing financial resources, technical assistance, and promoting knowledge-sharing. Our goal is to support business models not only to scale digital remittance channels but also for the full range of remittance-linked financial services (savings, credit, insurance, investments, pensions) that can strengthen financial resilience of migrants and their families.

For financial service providers, serving migrants effectively also requires confidence that the necessary regulatory and other market conditions will be in place. UNCDF is bringing financial service providers together with policymakers and regulators for peer learning exchanges and capacity building. It is important for them to understand each other’s priorities and constraints—and for both groups to understand migrants’ financial needs.

At more than half a trllion dollars annually, remittances are a big business—but a complicated one. Remittance service providers have multiple and complex challenges around cash management, low average transaction sizes, foreign exchange risks, and customers who may have limited financial capabilities. They must also devote considerable resources to compliance with multiple sets of regulations. And in many remittance corridors, the persistence of unregulated, informal channels crowds out the providers whose presence could advance safety and transparency by accelerating the shift away from cash towards digital.

UNCDF’s teams includes former executives from some of the world’s leading money transfer companies. We understand the incentives and the constraints that shape providers’ business decisions.

We provide financial and technical assistance to a range of financial service providers in multiple markets, working with each to identify business and customer needs, and helping to design, pilot and scale up solutions. Along with grants, UNCDF delivers world-class technical assistance.

  • Product Research. Sharing market research and knowledge to deepen partners’ understanding of migrants’ behaviors, needs, constraints, and aspirations. This also includes providing transaction data analysis and training to the business teams.
  • Product design. Providing human-centered design expertise to better understand the customer journey—physical and financial—for better product design tailored to the needs of migrants and their families.
  • Provisioning. Providing technical assistance to help design, pilot, deploy, and scale up solutions for impact. Technical assistance is provided by digital finance and remittance experts who are experienced in product design, business model development and go-to-market strategies in some of the most challenging markets in Africa and Asia.
  • Partnerships. Facilitating strategic partnerships with stakeholders—including cross-border payment hubs, mobile network operators, financial institutions, and non-bank financial institutions—to enable partners to reach last-mile customers, and to grow sustainably.

Strengthening Financial resilience

Money is more than math. It affects, and is affected by, every aspect of human life: health, education, family dynamics, gender dynamics, social status, and the ability to imagine and plan for the future. Truly effective financial services are those designed around their target customers’ deepest aspirations and the realities of their current circumstances. Even financial products that are brilliantly designed from a technical standpoint can fail—unless end users see and embrace the value for their own lives.

All of these vital services, financial and otherwise, help build resilience: the ability to prepare for setbacks and recover from them more quickly and completely.

For migrants, remittances are about much more than transferring money from point A to point B. They are the primary means through which migrants support their families to meet basic needs and build a better future. Despite the expense and inconvenience of dealing in cash to send remittances, the force of habit and the value of the tried and true are powerful, especially when the family’s money is at stake.

So UNCDF is pursuing a global programme of human-centered design. We want to ensure that financial service providers can pilot and scale products that keep the physical and financial lives of migrants and families, rather than distribution structure and costs, at the center. This migrant-centric focus will increase the uptake of remittance-linked digital financial services including insurance, pensions, and credit for access to education, energy, health, water, and livelihood purposes. It makes sense for financial services for migrants to be linked to remittances, both because remittances are such a universal feature of the migrant experience and due to the extensive distribution network remittance service providers already have in place. 

UNCDF is also working to build migrants’ digital and financial literacy towards long-term behavior change. We intend to work with a range of partners who can deliver on-going briefings, ideally beginning pre-departure, so that migrants have the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes to use the digital products that will help them reach their financial goals.

All of these vital services, financial and otherwise, help build resilience: the ability to prepare for setbacks and recover from them more quickly and completely.

Building awareness and advocacy

People all over the world—governments, businesses large and small, families, and individuals—have rallied behind the inspiring vision expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals. UNCDF is working to ensure that the unique role remittances can play in achieving that vision is widely understood, and that there is broad support for the work necessary for remittances’ full potential to be achieved.

The COVID-19 pandemic made the importance of remittances much more visible. As the world went into lockdown virtually overnight, migrants everywhere saw their income disappear or drastically reduced, and their families back home, often in countries with limited social safety net protections, were severely affected by the loss of remittances.

In response, UNCDF collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to support a Member State-led initiative calling on policymakers, regulators and remittance service providers (RSPs) to improve migrants’ access to sending and receiving remittances, and to reduce transfer costs during the ongoing pandemic. Spearheaded by the Governments of Switzerland and the United Kingdom, the Call to Action – Remittances in Crisis – How to Keep Them Flowing issued on 22 May – is also supported by the World Bank, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Association of Money Transfer Networks (IAMTN) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). Since it was announced, member states receiving high-volume of remittances across regions have joined the Call. The goal is to remove the obstacles that migrants and their families face when sending and receiving money so that they can continue to cover the basic needs and services it pays for, such as food, housing, education and health care.

As part of efforts by the United Nations on financing towards the Sustainable Development Goals, a High-Level Event on “Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond” was co-hosted by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica with the United Nations Secretary-General on 28 May 2020. During the statement given by the President of the Swiss Confederation, H.E. Simonetta Sommaruga gave specific mention of the Member State-led call to action and encouraged member states to join these efforts.

As devastating as the pandemic has been, it has also demonstrated how quickly the pace of innovation can be accelerated when necessary. UNCDF works to sustain that momentum. We publish extensively and speak (virtually for the time being) at conferences, raising awareness about the issues affecting remittances, the importance of remittances to sustainable development, and the opportunity to reimagine remittances beyond moving money from point A to point B—as the gateway to powerfully effective financial services for people on the move.


Global discussions around remittances often remain gender-blind, ignoring the complex realities of men and women migrants and those who receive their remittances. With half of all migrants being women, the persistent gender gap in financial inclusion, compounded by the influence of adverse social norms, makes remittances a gender equality issue. Evidence shows that remittance patterns are gendered – in the channels, amounts and frequencies of remittances, as well as how and by whom the money is used.

Women may experience specific risks or constraints when sending or receiving remittances. They may have limited control over how, when or to whom they send money. Women migrants may also face barriers to accessing formal remittance channels, as they might be confined to secluded accommodation or workplaces, and sometimes do not possess necessary documents such as ID or proof of residency. Further, banks and other remittance service providers (RSPs) may not recognize low-skilled migrant women as an important customer segment, as they tend to send smaller amounts.

Mainstreaming gender in the UNCDF Migration and Remittances Programme
UNCDF sees the paramount importance of redressing gendered constraints to the access and usage of remittances as a precondition for the successful transition of migrants from informal to formal, digital channels. Thus, a systematic gender mainstreaming strategy is at the heart of the UNCDF Migration and Remittances Programme. Together with a robust learning and research agenda and backed by rigorous measurement of our results, our gender-responsive approach is designed to both empower migrant customers and create business value for service providers.

We mainstream gender across all our activities, including our work on supporting governments, strengthening financial service providers, and financial resilience for migrants, and building awareness and advocacy.

Mainstreaming a gender lens in the Migration and Remittances Programme is not about adding a ‘woman’s component’, nor is it about studying differences in how men and women remit. By ‘mainstreaming gender’, rather than creating a separate workstream or stand-alone activities, we ensure that a gendered approach is reflected in all our efforts. We work to identify the diverse experiences, capabilities and interests of both women and men and ensure that they are reflected in remittance innovation at all levels. Key to this is an understanding of the factors that shape the differences in migrant women’s and men’s remittance behaviours.

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