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What makes individuals become agents of change? Lessons learned from the development of Indonesia’s financial inclusion strategy

03 May 2022

Policymaking needs motivated individuals with the ability to initiate and push change in and across institutions. These motivated individuals are “agents of change”. So, what makes someone an agent of change? Reflecting on Corbett’s empirical evidence on leadership qualities, and findings from my PhD research where I interviewed 34 policy actors involved in Indonesia’s financial inclusion strategy between 2010 and 2016, I suggest a combination of personal characteristics and a supportive environment (external features) leads to individuals who can promote and create positive change.

Financial inclusion policies aim to improve access to mainstream financial products, such as bank accounts, and build financial literacy for marginalized groups. They have been promoted by the World Bank, and many nations have developed and adopted them in different forms of policy (strategy, regulation, government statement) since 2010, including Indonesia. Individuals within a range of institutions and organisations, including financial regulators, government and NGOs, initiated and pushed for the adoption and development of Indonesia’s financial inclusion strategy.

Diagram of a businesswoman titled An Agent of Change. Surrounding text reads Supportive Environment, Personal Characteristics and Mental Barriers.

Diagram of what it takes to be an agent of change.

Personal characteristics

Interests and initiative are two essential personal characteristics that differentiate people who are agents of change from others.

Interest is a personal purpose that someone develops before sharing and expanding it with others. Agents of change develop interest when they bring personal meaning to their knowledge of a phenomenon or social problem. For example, a banker who I spoke to was interested in promoting bank accounts in remote areas, as it was aligned with their marketing strategy. Another developed an interest based on their personal experience of not being able to access formal financial services due to their lack of financial literacy.

Although all the people I spoke to developed a personal interest in financial inclusion, only some could turn their interests into initiatives to address this. This is where mental barriers might come in.

Both perceiving themselves not to have power and becoming comfortable with how things are can make potential agents of change submissive and passive. Some people I spoke with said, “I just followed the order”, “It’s not part of my job”, or “I was only [position]” to justify their situation in the policy process where they did not act based on or to support their values. However, the people who took the initiative and promoted financial inclusion in their institutions felt that they had power and could promote their personal interests through making change. These were the people who led institutional change such as establishing a new unit, regulation, or practice to support the financial inclusion strategy. One coalition of agents of change made it a national target that seventy- five percent of adults in Indonesia needed to have a bank account by 2019. This target was then translated into various key performance indicators (KPIs) in different institutions, such as the number of financial education programs and the number of microcredit disbursements.

A supportive environment

When someone wants to make a change in their institution, interest and initiative are not enough. An agent of change requires a supportive environment. I observed three important external features in my interviews: trust, resources, and legitimacy.

Trust, especially from superiors, is critical. Trust opens support within the institution to create change. For example, two people I spoke to could not follow up on their idea for financial inclusion in their institutions because their superiors did not have confidence in them or their idea. One of them also perceived that their superiors preferred to trust ideas from expatriates over others in their team.

Another factor is legitimation. The more senior an individual is and the more relevant their scope of work and educational background is to the issue, the greater their perceived legitimacy and the easier it is for them to mobilize support to promote change. After three years of being stalled, Indonesia’s financial inclusion strategy was issued as a presidential regulation. One of the critical factors that led to this was the Ministry of Economic Affairs taking over the strategy development process from the National Team for the Acceleration of Poverty Reduction. The Minister at that time was a senior bureaucrat who had been working across institutions such as the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance. Everyone I spoke to agreed that his profile helped to legitimize the strategy, which led to it finally winning support from the necessary institutions.

Legitimation is likely less influential in mobilizing support than trust, but the two are closely linked. One example of this is the role of Queen Maxima of the Netherlands, who was appointed as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Advocate (UNSGSA) for Financial Inclusion. Most of the interviewees said that her visit to Indonesia as the UN special advocate in 2016 was a key factor that drove the strategy. Her title as Queen of the Netherlands meant she was perceived as a trusted figure by local political leaders, and the backing of the UN provided important legitimation. Queen Maxima became a celebrity advocate of financial inclusion. One of the interviewees said:

“… because we know she is a special advocate for financial inclusion, her recommendations are sometimes, not sometimes, but always, followed. Especially since she met the president, right? She can propound to the president. For sure, the president [then] ordered his subordinates. [Because] this [issued financial inclusion strategy] was what she asked …”

Besides trust and legitimation, resources are also crucial. People I spoke with struggled to make changes in and across their institutions with inadequate resources (such as lack of staff, budget, and networks). Although they possessed interest, initiative, trust, and legitimation, they suffered burnout from their work. Thus, they had no resources left to learn, mobilize, and adapt – all essential to promoting change. The government was able to implement the strategy for financial inclusion after receiving a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They used this grant to hire experts and run a secretariat under the Coordinating Ministry of Economic Affairs to assist its implementation.

Agents of change are necessary to turn ideas that will have a positive impact on society into action. They see a problem and develop solutions for their community. In the case of Indonesia’s financial inclusion strategy, the individuals I spoke with articulated financial inclusion as a pathway to national prosperity. They initiated coordination meetings within and across institutions to develop a national strategy for financial inclusion and identified relevant targets for their institutions to achieve.

The financial inclusion strategy has led to programs and actions to improve access to mainstream financial services for many people across Indonesia, including financial literacy programs and the revitalization of the non-cash social assistance program. Understanding the individuals who made it happen, including their motivations and limitations, provides more opportunities for all individuals to become agents of change.

Like this? Learn more about the importance of mission-driven bureaucrats and the need for intrinsic motivation to create positive social change in another recent blog.

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