UNITAR’s Digital Finance Initiative aims to leverage the digital age by harnessing innovation and scaling financial inclusion to support the achievement of the SDGs.

UNITAR Executive Director Nikhil Seth emphasizes the urgent need to strengthen efforts to support the “new digital normal” to reduce inequalities in financial inclusion.


10 May 2021, Geneva, Switzerland - UNITAR has launched a new set of projects that aim to support efforts to expand Financial Inclusion beginning with its first annual virtual conference on Digital Finance. The conference was held on April 21st, World Creativity and Innovation Day, and included three panel discussions, each centered on specific topics that address the role of developing FinTech innovations in sustainable development. 

The conference opened with remarks from UNITAR Executive Director and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Nikhil Seth, who emphasized the role of digital technology in shaping the global development landscape. The Covid-19 pandemic has made these technologies even more essential in day-to-day life but has also shed light on inequalities and disparities to access around the world. Mr. Seth reaffirms UNITAR’s commitment to reducing digital inequalities and increasing financial inclusion through training.

In line with this, Ms. Mihoko Kumamoto, Director of UNITAR’s Division for Prosperity, announced the launch of UNITAR’s new comprehensive Digital Finance Initiative, which aims to support countries and organizations to harness digital technologies by equipping people with essential digital and financial knowledge and skills. The Digital Finance Initiative includes a portfolio of online courses and face-to-face training, advisory and facilitation services for digitalization in the public sector, and an annual conference for discussing the most urgent challenges and opportunities in the field. This year’s conference is the first in an annual series of conferences that will feature the participation of leading FinTech innovators, government and central bank representatives, financial regulators, development experts, and the academia.

This year’s conference was moderated by Dr. Judit Kozenkow, Professor of Economics at the Webster University of Geneva. The first panel featured speakers from academia and the FinTech industry to give an introductory explainer on the nature of FinTech and how they can be used to address key areas of the Sustainable Development Goals. Professor Michal Paserman of the Geneva Finance Research Institute at the University of Geneva, one of UNITAR’s key partners in this new Digital Finance Initiative, spoke about the most popular forms of Digital Finance that are used today. Mr. Jean-François Lagassé of Deloitte Switzerland identified characteristics of digital technologies and how the finance industry can take advantage of these, while Mr. Daniel Mika, President of the Swiss Finance + Technology Association spoke about how members of their organization used digital technologies in their everyday services that cater to various clients. Finally, Mr. Daniel Sandmeier, CEO of Instimatch Global, talked about business solution opportunities that FinTech can offer small and medium sized businesses that will help them provide better services and easier access to their clients. The first panel highlighted the role of FinTech innovations in making financial services easier to access, especially for historically marginalized populations, including women, while also emphasizing possibilities for addressing the climate crisis with Green FinTech.

The second panel of the day focused on issues of regulation and policy making concerning digital finance and featured leading experts from across the globe. In this panel were Ms. Anikó Szombati, Chief Digital Officer of MNB – National Bank of Hungary; Mr. Sopnendu Mohanty, Chief FinTech Officer of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Mr. John Karamuka, Director of the Payment Systems of the National Bank of Rwanda. These policy experts talked about the need to increase digital security and data privacy in the context of the rising number of FinTech solutions currently offered on today’s market and how government bodies have adapted to these innovations in terms of policy making. Hungary’s MNB has recently set up its Innovation Hub, which offers information and training for local entrepreneurs in incorporating digital innovations for their businesses and helps them with legal compliance and policy issues. Mr. Mohanty spoke about the role ‘sandboxes’ played in Singapore’s digital innovation landscape and how these have helped foster a culture of innovation in the local finance and business sectors. Mr. Karamuka spoke on the importance of data privacy in digital security in the context of cross-border trading. Finally, Tim Grant of SIX Digital Exchange, a leading provider of digital asset security and trading, spoke about the role of government fiscal policies in influencing the global digital financing and trade.

The final panel of the day revolved around opportunities for harnessing digital innovations and FinTech in development work. In this panel, Ms. Ratna Sahay, Deputy Director of Monetary and Capital Markets Department at the IMF, spoke about the importance of FinTech from the macro-economic perspective. She presented data from the IMF about how financial inclusion has proved to be an effective enabler of the sustainable development goals, particularly when it comes to two areas – the eradication of poverty and the empowerment of women and girls. In this research conducted over the last few years, it has been found that FinTech has rapidly become an essential element in addressing finance problems for populations in developing countries but also especially for women in small businesses. And while Africa and Asia and the Pacific have seen rapid economic growth in the last few years, partly due to FinTech innovations, a gender gap still exists. The use of digital innovations has not only brought light to this gender gap, but also the digital divide – in most parts of the developing world, digital infrastructure is still lacking, which means that key populations who may benefit from FinTech innovations are kept, quite literally, in the dark. 

Ms. Sarah Mbi Enow Anyang, Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology of the African Union Commission emphasized the same opportunities – governments must be able to put in place policies that enable FinTech innovations to thrive and be more accessible to people, but also policies that augment local infrastructure that supports digitization. Ms. Simonetta Zarrilli, Chief of Trade, Gender and Development at the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) spoke more specifically about the inclusion and empowerment of women through Digital Innovation and FinTech. She identified three key barriers to women’s access to traditional financing which includes the lack of money, the lack of need to access traditional financing, or the lack of official identification documents; these barriers can be addressed with digital financing. She spoke more specifically about a case study on international cross-border trading in some Sub-Saharan African countries where many women have taken advantage of mobile payment systems to run their small businesses. Mr. Thomas Abell, Chief of Digital Technology for Development at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) emphasized the need for developing not only the physical technological infrastructure that helps enable digitization, but also the need to develop fiscal and digital literacy that enables and trains people, especially women and operators of small and medium sized enterprises, to take full advantage of FinTech innovations. 

UNITAR’s new Digital Finance Initiative aims to address these gaps by providing affordable, accessible training opportunities in the use of digital innovation in finance and development. UNITAR is offering a wide range of courses available both offline and online, in collaboration with its partners. These courses include, Systemic Trends in Cross-Border Trade and Finance: Opportunities and Risks of the Digitalization Challenge, FinTech: Financial Innovation, Transformation and Opportunities in the Digital Age, Understanding Financial Crime Threat in Digital Financial Service, Economics of FinTech: Foundations, Applications & Impact, and Harnessing Digital Innovations for Sustainable Development. UNITAR will also provide digital transformation training and facilitation services for various government bodies and the public sector.

This year’s Conference on Digital Finance is first of its kind and will be continued annually in the next years. UNITAR’s vision is that the conference be one of the prime venues for discussion and discourse on the field’s most urgent challenges and opportunities. As the Covid-19 pandemic becomes more contained in the future, UNITAR hopes to be able to offer a hybrid conference on Digital Finance in the coming years, with an in-person meeting that will also be broadcast online for accessibility. This year’s conference was convened in partnership with the Asian Development Bank, Deloitte, The Geneva Finance Research Institute of the University of Geneva, Instimatch Global, the National Bank of Hungary, the Swiss Digital Exchange, and the Swiss Finance and Technology Association.

Conference Recording

Full recording of the Digital Finance Initiative virtual conference 2021, please visit www.unitar.org/DF2021

For partnership inquiries, please email michael.adalla[at]unitar.org

Upcoming online courses on Digital Finance

Systemic Trends in Cross-Border Trade and Finance: Opportunities and Risks of the Digitalisation Challenge (Course Date: August 30 to October 1, 2021)
Online registration: https://www.unitar.org/event/full-catalog/systemic-trends-cross-border-trade-and-finance-opportunities-and-risks-digitalisation  

FinTech: Financial Innovation, Transformation and Opportunities in the Digital Age (Course Date: September 13 to October 22, 2021)
Online registration: https://www.unitar.org/event/full-catalog/fintech-financial-innovation-transformation-and-opportunities-digital-age

Understanding Financial Crime Threat in Digital Financial Services (Course Date: September 20 to October 22, 2021)
Online registration: https://www.unitar.org/event/full-catalog/understanding-financial-crime-threat-digital-financial-services

Economics of FinTech: Foundations, Applications & Impact (Course Date: October 11 to November 19, 2021)
Online registration: https://www.unitar.org/event/full-catalog/economics-fintech-foundations-applications-impact

Harnessing Digital Innovations for Sustainable Development (Course Date: October 25 to November 26, 2021)
Online registration: https://www.unitar.org/event/full-catalog/harnessing-digital-financial-innovations-sustainable-development 

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