Digital Inclusion in Belgium Anno 2022
46% of the Belgian population is at risk of being digitally excluded, according to the latest research by the King Baudouin Foundation. This should matter to the banking industry.
That is 46% of the population that is insufficiently equipped to do banking in a digital world, whether they lack the tools or they lack the knowledge to use those tools.
That is 46% of the Belgian population likely not considered in neobank’s marketing campaigns that claim they were set up to improve financial inclusion.
For more context, we invited:
- Linde Verheyden, Director of Public Affairs at BNP Paribas Fortis and one of the founders of DigitAll
- Ilse Mariën, a post-doctoral researcher at SMIT VUB and policy advisor for digital inclusion at the cabinet of Vice-Minister President Bart Somers.
This session was a follow-up of a first session on digital inclusion in June.
“It's evident that being able to do banking is part of the norm within society”, explained Ilse. “So in that sense, making your services accessible to all, I think, is a responsibility of the financial sector.”
Rise of Digital During COVID
During COVID, the usage of digital tools grew exponentially, yet the number of people who risk becoming digitally excluded grew. While in 2020, this was only 40% of the population, it was 46% in 2021. 7% of the population did not have suitable access to digital tools, and 39% lacked the required digital skills to use them (fyi: in The Netherlands, this number is only 14% thank to a long tradition of researching and combatting digital exclusion).
So despite the higher usage of digital tools and apps, the level of digital education didn’t follow at the same speed. More people started using digital without correctly understanding how to use it or use it responsibly.
It is one thing to have the tools, another to have the so-called ‘button knowledge’, and another to know what is behind the use of those buttons. Why did one spend 3.000€ using his phone? Why do I get all these tempting targeted promo messages? Why is my app blocked, and how can I unblock it?
A second reason, linked to the above, is that the data to measure digital exclusion is based on Eurostat. They finetuned the data by adding a section related to online safety: are people capable of detecting phishing etc.
No digital inclusion without digital skills
Ilse: “Access alone never goes towards the goal, which is to enhance or to enable people to use ICT for their own benefit.” The lack of digital skills also explains why initiatives like the ‘One Laptop per Child Initiative’ didn’t work.
An attendee raised the concern that in the past, and still today, gender equality is ignored in this debate. Indeed, when looking at women, the % of digitally unskilled goes up from 39% to 45%.
Luckily, this attendee wasn’t the only one observing this. Ilse: “In Belgium, we now have an inter-federal action plan for more women in ICT. This means that with the recovery plan of the EU, the government also has means and will start to expand the number of activities to increase girls in the ICT education.”
Other segments that score above average are singles (48%), people with a low income (55%), the elderly (60%) and people with lower education (69%).
Through initiatives like Iedereen Digitaal, Digibanken and many more, 500 million is being invested in digital inclusion in Belgium today. That is part of a recovery plan, meaning it is only temporary. The next step would be to transform this into a sustainable transversal plan that overcomes the country's complex political structure.
The Role of Banks in the Digital Inclusion Debate
Access to financial services is a norm in society. It is impossible to live an everyday life without financial services. That is why it is so important for banks to act upon more inclusion.
In that respect, Febelfin is currently working with the Brussels Capital Region to jointly organise information sessions for Brussels residents. The 5 biggest banks have representatives to explain how their digital tools work and help with the installation of apps, for example.
Linde: “I think that if you do things together, it makes a bigger impact.” DigitAll is another excellent example of that. It is a coalition of companies, social organisations and governmental institutions that formalised the ambition to work towards more digital inclusion in Belgium. BNP Paribas Fortis and Linde founded the coalition to increase awareness of the issues, promote more research and build a network of specialists and organisations in order to exchange expertise and best practices and work together on specific projects that contribute to more digital inclusion.
This is a never-ending story. The world and the digital world move on. We find new solutions and improvements, and some people won’t be able to evolve at the same speed.
So Linde is realistic: “There will never be a situation where everybody will be digital. So, the non-digital or the less digital people will always need an alternative offer.”
Even in a world without branches, who knows… one day… banks must ensure alternative channels for people that cannot bank through an app or desktop, whether because of the never-ending pace of change some are unable to deal with or because of any other disability.
Digital exclusion is everyone’s problem. As we move from one crisis to the next, the vulnerable in society are the ones that suffer most. Clearly, that is not different in the context of digital inclusion.
As digital is interwoven in our day-to-day lives, we exclude people from regular life if they cannot afford to be digitally included comfortably.
With increasingly more people who risk facing the dilemma of paying for internet or heating, we can only hope the issue of digital exclusion will not get worse in the near future.
We still have tremendous efforts to close the gap with The Netherlands. Even after closing that gap, we should ask ourselves: should we be happy with 14% of the population that lacks the required digital skills to integrate into a digital society?