Late last year, Xi Jinping gave a speech declaring that blockchain technology presented an important breakthrough on several key areas within China and that the government intended to utilize the technology. Xi Jinping claimed that the development of distributed ledger technology provided a pivotal moment in which it allowed the Chinese state to reform and improve the inefficiencies found within the Chinese financial market. Stating that “It is necessary to explore the application of ‘blockchain’ in people’s daily life, and actively promote the application of blockchain technology in the fields of education, employment, pension, data-driven poverty alleviation, medical health, anti-counterfeiting, food safety, public welfare, social assistance, etc”. (1) Xi’s speech was in stark contrast to China’s previous posture on blockchain technology, specifically on cryptocurrencies such as BTC. But the public statement displayed that the Chinese government had finally come to an understanding on the potential blockchain technology can provide to the state. Unfortunately, most crypto evangelists took the speech to mean that the Chinese market was opening itself to the publicly traded cryptocurrencies found in crypto exchanges. An appreciation in the total crypto market capitalization only reinforced this notion that China was simply going to adopt the current, open source blockchains present. Weeks passed and China’s historical stance on cryptocurrencies was further fortified when several crypto exchanges halted or ceased services amid speculation of a crackdown within the country. (2) A contradicting development to Xi’s previous speech earlier in the year. However, there has been collaboration and developments by the state in the background that would corroborate Xi’s statements.
Financial Access 2020
The foundation was laid at the 2015 World Bank Group–IMF Spring meetings. These meetings resulted in the establishment of the Universal Financial Access 2020 (UFA2020) initiative. The World Bank Group along with both private and public sector partners, committed themselves to promote and enable global financial inclusion in a multi-year program. With the intentions of enabling individuals who are not currently connected to the financial system, to have access to a transaction account to store money while also being able to send and receive payments. Setting a goal of enabling one billion unfinanced individuals to gain access by 2020. Their approach being the development of a platform that has a biometric identity database, virtual payment addressing, and digital payment interoperability. (3)
At the time, there were over 30 partners that committed towards the UFA2020 initiative. Participants that now include the likes of Alipay, Du Xiaoman Financial (Baidu), BBVA Microfinance Foundation, CFPA Microfinance, Confederation of West African Financial Institutions (CIF), MasterCard, Pakistan Microfinance Network, State Bank of India, VISA, etc. (4) With each of these partners doing independent projects or collaborations to meet the UFA2020’s target.
One such program that was spawned from the UFA2020 initiative, was the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI). A three-year program formed by the collaboration between the World Bank Group, the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructure (CPMI), and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The program is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (5) Their collective goal is “to support and accelerate the implementation of country-led reform actions to meet national financial inclusion targets, and ultimately the global ‘Universal Financial Access 2020’ goal”. (5) This subgroup plans to utilize the “work of the CPMI-World Bank Group Task Force on the Payment Aspects of Financial Inclusion (PAFI), the BMGF’s Level One Project, and the ITU Focus Group – Digital Financial Services, to deliver implementation solutions, deep topical analyses and practical investigations, working toward the goal of Universal Financial Access by 2020”. (5)
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Level One Project is recognized by followers of Ripple due to the project’s development and intention of utilizing the Interledger Protocol to address interoperability between financial systems while helping lower the costs in developing inclusive payment platforms. Thru panels held at the FIGI symposiums, there is apparent dialogue and collaboration between the FIGI organization, the World Bank, and Ripple. (6)
The main purpose of the FIGI receiving grant money from the BMGF in 2017, was to accelerate financial inclusion in developing countries. With three countries being selected to be the focus of the initiative. Those countries being Mexico, Egypt, and China since they contain millions of unbanked individuals. (7) Ultimately, the development and progression of the initiative will be used as models for digital financial inclusion innovations around the globe. And regarding the selected countries, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) specifically requested support from the World Bank Group to aid in bridging the gap between the Chinese financial system and their citizens found in remote areas. (7)
Interesting enough, the FIGI initiative aligned with other partnerships and projects in 2017. Partnerships that were composed of Ripple, Huawei, Mojaloop, etc. As some in the Ripple/XRP community might remember, officials from the PBOC visited the San Francisco Ripple offices in August 2017. (8) The community speculated on numerous possibilities on why Ripple was being visited by PBOC officials but there was no disclosed explanation of the meeting between Ripple and the PBOC. But looking at other announcements from 2017 chronologically, some perspective on the PBOC and Ripple meeting can be gained.
First, the PBOC sought guidance and help by the World Bank Group to foster financial inclusion innovation within the country. The FIGI under the UFA2020 initiative, choose China to be one of the three countries focused on fostering innovation early 2017. In August 2017, the PBOC visited the Ripple offices in San Francisco. Two months later, BMGF and Ripple’s collaboration and development on Mojaloop was publicized. (9) Yet one aspect of the announcement on Mojaloop that was overlooked was that four mobile systems companies were brought to help develop an Open API for mobile money interoperability. Those companies being Ericsson, Telepin, Mahindra Comviva, and Huawei. (10) And with a document from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on “Digital Currency including Digital Fiat Currency”, we know that the Mojaloop API was designed by the four mobile companies that included Huawei. (11) Huawei and the BMGF have also been collaborating on promoting interoperability and financial inclusion since the previous year. Late 2016, Huawei announced partnership with the Gates Foundation on the Level One Project. (12) With the partnership focusing on developing “scalable, low-cost, interoperable and fraud resistant payment systems will be based on open Application Programming Interfaces (API’s) and help people in the world’s poorest regions improve their lives and build sustainable futures by connecting them with digitally based financial tools and services”. (12) Coincidentally occurring right when the Mojaloop API was being developed in the same Level One Project. Nonetheless, the Mojaloop API seems to be both an innovation and solution both Huawei and the BMGF sought to develop in their partnership.
We know that the BMGF and Bill Gates himself, have been aware since 2016 ,of the potential revolution the Interledger Protocol can bring to the financial system1d. With Bill Gates even recognizing how Ripple’s technology can move money across countries efficiently and cheaply. (13) Although Ripple’s known involvement in China is thru LianLian Pay and some possible penetration thru third parties such as AirWallex, there appears to be a potential utilization of the Mojaloop API thru Huawei in FIGI’s project within China. This can potentially explain why Ripple expanded into China with the opening of offices in the country. (14)
Outside of FIGI’s scope in China, there are other developments with UFA2020 affiliates forming and investing in projects that could leverage the Interledger Protocol. A recent example involves a group of Ripple investors and partners raising capital for Currencycloud. Currencycloud is a UK startup that has developed remittance APIs that allows any financial business to integrate money transfer services thru Currencycloud’s platform. A duo of Ripple shareholders in SBI and Siam Commercial Bank participated in the Series E round for the UK startup. But interesting enough, VISA and the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation also partook in the series round. (15) Two key members of the UFA2020 initiative. These investors intend to promote and utilize Currencycloud’s API for cross-border payments. While VISA has also entered a partnership with the UK startup. Thrugh the partnership, VISA plans to expand and improve their services by using Currencycloud’s platform. (16) Yet Currencycloud has another notable partnership with the Ripple associate, DWOLLA. DWOLLA is not only known for sharing a seat with Ripple on the US Faster Payments Council but more importantly, for their collaboration in developing the Mojaloop platform. (17) DWOLLA will be leveraging the UK startup’s platform to expand their network for coverage on 38 currencies in 180 countries. (16) And on a final note, Currenycloud has an impressive group of clients that includes The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (16) Furgther adding another affiliate to the assortment of UFA2020 and Ripple partners involved with Currencycloud. (16)
Looking at announcements or projects through the perspective of promoting and expanding the Universal Financial Access 2020 initiative, one can conceivably see the purpose and structure of collaborations done by Ripple associates to possibly promote adoption of the Interledger Protocol.