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Paying Across Borders: Can Distributed Ledgers Bring Us Closer Together?

Guest post by Rodrigo Mejía Ricart, Camilo Tellez, Marco Nicolì, June 6, 2019

Blockchain Series: Blog 6

Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), often referred to as blockchain, has garnered a lot of attention in the past few years. Is it just “a solution in search of a problem” or, does it offer answers for real-world policy questions such digital identity and remittances? This six-blog series, by Rodrigo Mejia Ricart and Camilo Tellez, aims to foster a better understanding of the technology. The first three blogs discuss what is DLT, the debate around key stated benefits and the evidence around different use cases. The last three blogs discuss DLT for digital identity, supply chain and remittances in detail.


Rodrigo Mejía Ricart (BTCA), Camilo Tellez (BTCA), and Marco Nicolì, The World Bank
This blog post was originally published on and can also be found on The World Bank’s Private Sector Development Blog.

$642 billion

is what global remittances are projected to reach in 2018

Remittances are critical economic resources in emerging economies, helping vulnerable populations withstand adverse economic conditions. Personal remittances represent as much as 10.5% of GDP in the Philippines, 13.7% in Senegal, 28.3% in Nepal and 29.3% in Haiti. Global remittances reached $613 billion in 2017 and are projected to have grown 4.6% in 2018 to a record high of $642 billion. To put this in perspective, global remittances represent four times more than total official development assistance globally, which in 2016 reached $158 billion.

Recognizing the vital importance of remittances in and for emerging economies, the international community, including the G20, G7 and the World Bank have led initiatives to bring greater safety and efficiency to the remittances market and better serve the needs of the world’s most vulnerable groups. Clear progress has been made, with a significant decline in the price of remittances as measured by the World Bank Remittance Prices Worldwide database over the last decade. However, more work is needed; the average global remittance cost stood at 7% as of Q4 2018—4% higher than the 3% target set in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.

Remittances are more expensive precisely in the corridors where they are needed most. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the most expensive region to send money to, with an 8.97% average cost.

Cross-border payment innovations can help reduce operational costs for remittance service providers

Traditional B2B cross-border payments tend to be slow and opaque, which affects the business and cost structure of remittance service providers, including Money Transfer Operators (MTOs) that handle most personal remittances transactions. While remittances are often available to the recipient for collection within minutes of the transaction being completed by the sender, on the MTOs side, funds take longer time to move across borders through intermediary correspondent banks.

Moving funds through the current corridors requires transferal through the relevant domestic payment systems, which often have different operating hours and are located in different time zones. For certain corridors, the funds must be routed through several banks and intermediaries before they reach their destination, leading to higher fees and slower payment settlement.

These shortcomings make the cross-border payment industry ripe for disruption and innovation. Some see distributed ledger technologies (DLT) as having the potential to drive industry-wide change. Indeed, B2B cross-border payments, traditionally characterized by fragmentation and opacity, are a potential use case for the successful implementation of DLT.

Like many other businesses, MTOs could benefit substantially from this innovation and reduce the costs of moving funds across borders. Some of this savings and increased efficiencies could be passed onto customers, in the form of lower prices for remittance services.

Using DLT solutions could also bring down compliance costs and improve the transparency and traceability of transfers. This could help ease the impact of the de-risking phenomenon that has affected the remittance services industry over the past few years. Increasing the transparency of transactions could increase the confidence of the banking sector in the remittances industry. Further, DLT solutions could enable remittance service providers to operate without the need for a correspondent banking relationship but still in full compliance with global financial standards.[1]

Solutions are being actively tested in the market

In 2018, Ripple, a FinTech company, piloted xRapid, a DLT-based cross-border payments solution, along the very competitive U.S.-Mexico corridor. Financial institutions involved in the pilot saved 40% to 70% in foreign exchange costs, and the average payment times was just over two minutes. The transfer of funds on xRapid took two to three seconds, with most of the processing time explained by domestic payment rails and intermediary digital asset exchanges.

Launched in 2013, Circle is also leveraging blockchain to provide peer-to-peer instant money transfers. Its Circle Pay service is currently available in 29 countries and allows seamless transfers between U.S. dollars, British pounds, and euros. Circle Pay’s website reports that it charges zero fees and zero exchange rate markups.

Industry incumbents are also being pushed to innovate, in order to reduce costs and better serve market needs, whether through DLT solutions or otherwise. For instance,

  • SWIFT implemented this year a proof of concept using DLT to address Nostro account reconciliation issues. Beyond DLT, SWIFT has also implemented Global Payments Innovation (GPI), aimed at dramatically modernizing B2B cross-border payments by making them faster and more transparent. The SWIFT GPI can deliver payments within a day, and often within minutes.
  • Visa’s B2B Connect is testing a DLT solution for B2B cross-border payments.
  • JP Morgan is trialing a DLT application that provides messaging, validation and foreign exchange pricing services to improve the customer’s cross-border payment experience. JP Morgan also developed JPM Coin, a digital coin designed to make instantaneous payments using blockchain technology.

Is the future of cross-border payments distributed?

DLT-based cross-border payments potentially offer a promising pathway to dramatic improvements in the lives of millions of people in emerging economies. DLT could improve the traceability of remittances and reduce compliance costs for MTOs and supply chain payments, stimulating economic activity in destination countries. However, their development and broad adoption face considerable challenges:

  1. A framework is needed for DLT solutions to be adopted across multiple jurisdictions. Today, regulatory uncertainty and mistrust in DLT-based solutions, in part due to confusion between crypto-assets and their underlying DLT technology, are impeding the development of such a framework. The new set of FATF standards on virtual asset service providers, expected to be completed by FATF in June 2019, could represent an important step in the establishment of such a framework. [2]
  2. It remains unclear if DLT-based solutions will be able to outperform other technologies available in the payments space, with questions and concerns remaining unresolved on key issues such as security, governance rules for protocols, recourse mechanisms for users, privacy, and scalability, among others. For example, as fast payments are increasingly adopted to facilitate real-time domestic payments, solutions such as SWIFT GPI could allow links between domestic fast payments systems, achieving real-time and low-cost transfers across borders.

Whether DLT will be an effective solution to the challenges the remittances industry faces, and when the technology will reach sufficient scale to effectively disrupt this space, remains to be seen. In any case, there is ample opportunity—and of course need—for innovation in the cross-border payment industry. Without more innovation, it will be difficult to achieve international targets such as the SDGs, and to minimize the cost of remittances while maximizing transparency and safety in the market.


[1]: This sentence has been edited from the original version to clarify that such business models can be compliant with global financial standards.
[2]: Reference to the new FATF Standards on virtual assets was added after publication of the original text on the World Bank’s Private Sector Development blog.

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About the Author

Rodrigo Mejía Ricart, Camilo Tellez, Marco Nicolì

Joint Post

Rodrigo Mejia-Ricart
Research & Policy Analyst, Better Than Cash Alliance
Rodrigo Mejia-Ricart is a Research & Policy Analyst with the Better Than Cash Alliance.

Camilo Tellez-Merchan
Head of Research and Innovation, Better Than Cash Alliance
Camilo Tellez-Merchan is the Head of Research and Innovation for the Better than Cash Alliance.

Marco Nicolì
Sr. Financial Sector Specialist, World Bank
Marco Nicolì is a Sr. Financial Sector Specialist in the East Asia Pacific team of the Finance Competitiveness and Innovation Global Practice of the World Bank.

Learn more about Rodrigo Mejía Ricart, Camilo Tellez, Marco Nicolì

Rodrigo Mejía Ricart, Camilo Tellez, Marco Nicolì

Joint Post