FinEquity Blog

Brett Matthews, My Oral Village

Testing financial numeracy in Tanzania, with colleague Hawa Nuhu Mnyasenga

FINEQUITY - What does your organization do and how does it relate to women’s financial inclusion.

BRETT MATTHEWS - My Oral Village is trying to redesign the retail interfaces of financial inclusion – including the digital services – to make them usable for illiterate and innumerate adults. Currently, many of these people can access such interfaces, for example by giving their PIN number to a family member and having them do it. But they can’t use them without help.

Women are particularly vulnerable to this situation. Of the billion illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women. In spite of this, even very poor women often find themselves having to look after the finances of their households and even raise their children without help, when their husbands are sick or die, or are working in another country or region.  

FINEQUITY - What is your role at My Oral Village?

BRETT MATTHEWS - I founded My Oral Village because it became apparent that as a consultant I could not achieve what was needed. I run the organization and shape its direction. For me, that has involved gathering the empirical evidence and developing the tools to advance the science and practice of “oral information management”. Think of OIM as analogous – for illiterate and innumerate people – to braille for blind people. It creates a 2-way stream of intelligible communication on paper and digital devices between illiterate people and literate ones.  

FINEQUITY -  How and why did you get into this field? When did you first come across Orality?

BRETT MATTHEWS - The oral world is what you find yourself as soon as you enter a village, for example, to talk to customers of a microfinance institution or a savings group. When I started out I was surprised to see that they were experiencing microfinance and reacting to it very differently than I had expected. I had worked at a credit union in Canada before coming to this, and with that background, I expected to see microfinance institutions shaping their products to serve their customer segments. Instead, I saw disconnects between what was delivered and what people needed everywhere. That forced me to ask why those disconnects existed and what could be done about them.

I had the good fortune at that time to meet Stuart Rutherford, who graciously invested many hours with me in Bangladesh. Written account records were clearly causing problems for illiterate customers of MFIs. He showed me how ingenious illiterate designers can be in shaping financial solutions. You may know his book The Poor and Their Money, which shows quite clearly that very good financial services can be offered, at very large scale, without writing. Even today we seem convinced that illiterate villagers would really rather use mobile money on a smartphone than join some silly group sharing cash under a tree. ROSCAs and informal moneylenders will continue dominating most poor people’s lives until we start thinking more intelligently – and strategically.

Later I read Walter J Ong’s amazing work, Orality and Literacy. All of us in financial inclusion should read Ong’s work and reflect on it carefully. He puts that disconnect I had been feeling in Bangladesh into a much larger frame. He draws on both history and anthropology to take a systematic look at oral culture – how people think, behave and make decisions in communities where text is not yet trusted because most people can’t use it. This forced me to reflect on how well we translate our written materials – like the personal financial records of an illiterate woman in a village – into a mode that is comfortable to her. And it empowered me to start working directly on solutions.  

FINEQUITY - What role does FinEquity play in your work (or what role do you hope the FinEquity community will play in your work)? 

BRETT MATTHEWS - It’s great to exchange ideas with other practitioners. FinEquity is a global platform that mingles voices from all areas of the world. Many of them still have lives that remain deeply entwined with the oral world. That aspect of their work – their fluent oral-digital biculturalism - is often devalued. Speaking personally, I have already learned from professionals at FinEquity like this. I hope to continue that fruitful exchange.

One of our future goals is to build an open-source repository for oral information management iconography, format and wireframes from contexts around the world. We will need many active volunteers and participants.

FINEQUITY - What are your top 1-3 priorities and/or challenges in your work on women’s financial inclusion and/or economic empowerment?  

BRETT MATTHEWS - First, I want to deliver high-quality OIM solutions to women entrepreneurs who must keep their own records, to women who are heading households or living alone, and to women who are customers of digital finance and microfinance. Women face social barriers that deter them from learning basic numeracy and deprive them of opportunities to do so. Yet even in the most patriarchal societies women often end up alone or raising families by themselves. Poverty and financial exclusion often converge in these situations with tragic consequences. I want this population to have ready access to digital solutions that allow them to feel entirely safe in independently keep business records, use mobile wallets, or understand their loan contracts, and that nudge them towards learning place value notation, calendar time, date stamp notation, and other critical codes of modern finance.

Second, I want to see the whole conversation about literacy and numeracy become far more concrete and action-oriented. There are critical and easily-corrected cognitive barriers to financial inclusion. We went through a long period of confusing literacy with ‘financial literacy’. As a result, we now have mountains of reports about failures of financial inclusion programs that mention actual illiteracy in highly general terms or forget to mention it altogether. And I find myself often contacting authors of studies in our sector who explain low financial inclusion in various ways that don’t include literacy, to ask them: ‘did you check literacy in your sample?’ and being told ‘sorry, no – but maybe next time.’ Numeracy is even more neglected, and unlike literacy is not even tracked with a single global indicator. Since we deliver our customers’ personal financial records in numeric code, shouldn’t this matter to us?

Even the Global Findex asks people why they are not financially included, but includes no reasons that involve cognitive barriers, such as illiteracy or innumeracy. There are technical reasons why gathering such information is hard. But its absence leads practitioners towards the unfortunate working assumption that everyone on earth can read a financial transaction slip or bank statement. Most of us would agree that such an assumption is wrong. Nevertheless, much of the practice of financial inclusion reflects it. This is ironic because so many of us want to close the gender gap – and the cognitive gap against women is both large and relatively easy to close with the right technology. But what we measure is too often all that we work towards.

Third – and this is closely related to the first two – I want to see an end to the naïve assumption that voice is a ‘magic bullet’ that will somehow solve all this. Conceptually, this solution is quick, easy, and dead wrong. And reliance on it has a cost because we could be doing better right now, today, with mixed image, icon and number solutions that do more to help people not only feel safe but learn the financial numeracy skills that should be considered a basic human right.

FINEQUITY -  Do you have a “success story” you’d like to share? (An occasion where you felt that you or your organization was making a real impact in the lives of women in developing countries?) 

BRETT MATTHEWS - It is very satisfying to observe innumerate women when we are conducting usability tests of our designs. On the digital side, they feel triumphant when they are able to input a long number using cash images or navigate through a menu confidently and without errors. On the paper-based side, I have watched with delight as women who have not written anything with a pen in decades pick one up and write a number in the correct cell of a passbook or account record, without help.

We do seem to be shifting the conversation. Ten years ago, no one seems to have even realized that very large populations – half the population of many nations – couldn’t read two or three-digit numeral strings. If you’d asked an expert in numeric cognition they could have told you, but in our sector this was unknown. Three years ago Peter Zetterli from CGAP came up with a creative funding model that allowed us to test our field results with Financial Inclusion Insights in two large, nationally randomized samples in Côte d’Ivoire and Myanmar. I feel we’re approaching a tipping point when our sector grasps both the nature of the cognitive gap and its implications for how they share their interfaces with oral customers.

I have developed a ‘Savings Group Practice Guide’ for PFIP in the Solomon Islands that included significant OIM components. It was adopted by the Ministry of Women and the Mothers’ Unions of the Anglican Church of Melanesia for their savings group programs. These programs reached thousands of women in remote island communities that remain predominantly subsistence, with extremely high levels of illiteracy. World Vision in the Solomon Islands has implemented a more directly tailored OIM design as well, stating that it worked especially well for illiterate members.

For the last several years we’ve been full-out at My Oral Village to find funding for a demonstration project at scale. We expect to have more to say on this soon.

FINEQUITY - Has COVID-19 impacted your work, and if so how?

BRETT MATTHEWS - I think people are paying more attention to what we do. It’s one thing for poor women to be giving their PIN numbers to mobile money agents, or to be using their children to keep their business records. It’s something else again for a woman who is raising children while single or with an absentee husband, to be forced to leave the house to get help figuring out what the government is communicating to her.

FINEQUITY -  Is there anything you’d like to add?

BRETT MATTHEWS - Literacy is a big problem, and our sector can’t solve it. We shouldn’t even be expected to. But numeracy – and especially what I call ‘financial numeracy’ – is an entirely different matter. It is a massive cognitive barrier to financial inclusion that both damages trust of existing customers, and stops many people from participating altogether. It profoundly weakens understanding by customers of service offerings. Recent research in learning cognition clearly shows that spaced learning events – say a week or a month apart, over several months – are the best way to learn many things, including basic financial numeracy. And that is exactly the kind of spacing we see in the way people use financial services.

Together, we can solve this problem. Let’s stop making excuses.

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