Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Financial Literacy through Comic Books in Dharavi & Bihar with Deepti KC

In March of 2015 IMTFI arranged for a comprehensive visit to India to gather updates on four of their sponsored research projects, introduction can be found here. Developed with research in the Dharavi slums of Delhi, this second of four case studies takes a look at financial literacy and rural women in Bihar with Vanya Mehta and Deepti KC. 

(Left to Right: Vanya Mehta and Deepti KC)

Deepti KC of of IFMR has had a long-standing interest in the Dharavi slum in Mumbai where she has studied both site-specific cash economies (and the feasibility of introducing mobile or electronic payments) and the impact factor of financial knowledge, including knowledge derived from specially designed financial literacy comic books for male migrant workers and for female proprietors of small businesses. She has now teamed up with human rights activist and journalist Vanya Mehta to continue and refine an effective approach for disseminating financial knowledge tailored to specific populations. As Deepti has argued in a blog post, mobile money in India still lacks the brand recognition that it has in Kenya and there is a greater need for "knowledge platforms" in the country. Deepti has also worked with her fellow IMTFI fellow Mudita Tiwari to develop simple and engaging materials for raising awareness about digital money management and general financial literacy. According to Deepti, Mudita asked, "Shall we create a comic book and test if we can encourage women to save more?" and then "the rest is the history!"

In sitting down for an interview for this blog post, Deepti emphasized how much she had learned from her IMTFI mentoring and how the anthropological perspective in considering multiple points of engagement has been invaluable to her. "IMTFI has been very useful; it really taught us about the ethnographic approach, so before going in and just data collecting, we can find more than we might in a regular structured questionnaire." People can "communicate more about their lifestyles" when a research methodology is used for "mixing qualitative and quantitative," as she first did when working with IMTFI colleague Mani Nandhi. (See more about Mani's research on rickshaw pullers in another blog posting in this series). "I would not have scheduled five visits for these financial literacy tools with a more conventional survey."  

Deepti affirms that "making multiple trips to build trust" needs to be prioritized. The kind of information you get is totally different. Yes, the same budget can collect data from thousands of women, but let’s not get greedy about the numbers." She has made an effective case for getting to know subjects in deeper and more nuanced ways and has also received funding for her projects from The Ford Foundation.

According to Deepti, this mixed methods approach has been particularly important for not thinking about "access" to financial literacy tools too narrowly, particularly when barriers to financial inclusion are not constituted merely by straightforward inabilities to open accounts or push buttons on a cell phone. "At first I thought the problem was access. Now I understand that access is not the issue; the problems are cultural. It's about a lack of other kinds of information, a lack of handholding support. Funding from IMTFI allowed me to work at the interhousehold level and to notice that when we are pushing these financial products to women, we may be disturbing their position in the household and causing domestic disputes."

Deepti has focused on a fundamental question: "How should we empower women?" To do so, she argues that it is important not to ignore "how their husbands behave" and acknowledge unintended consequences of development work that could even be correlated to incidents of domestic conflict. Analyzing dynamics on the intrahousehold level can also be important for customizing requirements for financial literacy products more effectively. "I would also like to understand the role of daughters in motivating mothers to save, because the more we know about what is going on inside, the more we know about what is going on outside."

Deepti also shared a more existential reason in which IMTFI support has been transformative for her. "It has made me more compassionate. Anthropology teaches you about seeing them as people, not just data. When you are giving that respect and trying to understand why that person is trusting, you are gaining trust and opening up. When you achieve that comfort level, they will tell you where they are hiding money. But you have to be very human and respectful." But building this "personal connection" isn't always easy, because "as a researcher you are not supposed to have emotions."

Vanya explained how her research interests grew out of her interest in Dalit politics. In the interview she characterized herself as a relative newcomer: "I just joined in January to help run these projects on the ground. I had worked as a journalist and had conducted my own project with 216 households, in Hyderabad, working on public policies with scheduled castes. There are 37 or 38 different scheduled castes in Andhra Pradesh. By looking at four different scheduled caste neighborhoods, I could see community level differences that went beyond any questions about access to government benefits. It's about what kinds of jobs are they getting." (For more about scheduled castes, which are official designations given to various groups of historically disadvantaged people in India, such as the Dalit people who have been subject to discrimination as  "untouchables," see this site from the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment).

During elections, Vanya worked for the website TwoCircles.net. "It was founded by a Muslim guy for giving more space to Muslim issues. I was the first non-Muslim staff, and I chose to look at lower caste experience in India with long-form pieces."

On a bright Monday morning in a small village in Bihar Deepti K.C. and Vayna Mehta were checking in with the financial literacy team of surveyors and trainers who were organizing storytelling activities designed to cover a wide range of formal and informal money management practices. Small ruminants wandered around nearby. (See the work of other IMTFI researchers for the importance of goats  for financial well-being). Unlike printed matter that is merely disseminated to provide basic information through visual communication, the special comic books in plastic sheaths that the trainers used were designed to actively engage unbanked people.

Through the comic books, Deepti hopes that women with limited literacy can still get the message that "everyone should save" and be able to prepare for unexpected events through "saving small amounts on a daily basis." Trainer Rekha was a lively interlocutor with an expressive face and voice who tried to bring the story to life. She says that she has also changed her own financial behavior as a result of being part of the team and now herself uses a financial diary to budget herself.

We began at the home of a woman in "Group E," the group of subjects who were randomly assigned to receive all the services that the field team provided to rural women: financial diaries, lock boxes, and literacy training with the comic book. She had received a machine from the government to start a tailoring business with her husband. A sign on the door warned that activities were being videorecorded, as we waited in her sitting area while she completed her puja, the prayer ritual of devout Hindus. Mehta explained, because of the design of the project, the most needy people weren't necessarily the ones targeted with the most interventions. At the end of each unit, the trainer tested comprehension of major story points and encouraged conversation about applicability and recorded responses on a laptop. Later a surveyor would come and ask the same questions to ensure that the data collected was not impacted by the biases of the trainer. Deepti noted how a one-time survey would have generated much less disclosure.

During the training, other members of the family periodically listened in, and the woman explained that her five-year-old son was now saving for a bicycle based on lessons learned from the comic book. There was money in her lockbox for this purpose, and her financial diaries indicated regular updating, although she had taken a four-day hiatus from her scrupulous record-keeping during the recent festival of Holi.

The training section on informal savings was clearly a message she applied to her life. She was animated in responding about the usefulness of the stories related to storing cash securely and tracking daily financial expenses. These were areas in which she could clearly express her agency, while formal banking was obviously appeared to be a domain of her husband, who was in charge of both their bank account and the mobile phone. She also shared how as a daughter-in-law of the household, she had many limitations and commitments that curtailed her movements like being able to attend the local cooperative society meetings. But she added that she did not really miss them as the issues taken up in those meetings were less interesting to her since they had begun to only focus on the financial inclusion message while leaving out other ways that women could help other women.

The next woman we visited was also in Group E. She was resistant to the educators' message and was very vocal and lamented on the futility of offering financial literacy training to people who didn't have any money.

She was a barber's wife struggling with medical expenses and her financial diary had no entries. She told us that her pen had been stolen and then laughingly added that she was illiterate. She used her lockbox for a single gold piece of jewelry. (For more about the significance of gold, see the blog posting about IMTFI researcher Nithya Joseph who has a forthcoming post in this series.)

The third woman we visited was in a group that received only the financial diary. She had five children and had opened a small shop in her home. Although she was illiterate, her diary was filled with neat entries penned by her son. This included basic provisions (potatoes, lentils, etc.) and expenditures for her children's education (school fees, exam fees, etc.).

Deepti believes that it is very important to engage with questions about the informal sector, because it is often in these spaces that the disadvantaged actually are found to act and express their financial agency more comfortably. She recalled from her last project in Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai that is the largest slum in Asia, "we were trying to understand the business transactions among small entrepreneurs: 100 business owners and 25 women entrepreneurs." (For images of Dharavi, you can see this National Geographic coverage). "They had access to finance, ATMs and bank branches close by. They were using mobile phones, and their employers opened bank accounts for them." These kinds of "direct transactions" are often privileged in financial inclusion work. However, she explained that in these areas "people relied more on informal mechanisms. They always opted for cash transactions. There were behavioral biases."

Deepti thinks that one must not stop here and blame the subjects but instead focuses on embracing the human element. She learned by watching the gaps in effectiveness that emerged when "some sort of information about banking services and financial modules easily available online" without considering why people "could not relate" to the message. These financial literacy pitches "talk about someone coming and telling you what to do, but they don’t talk about lifestyle or choices. They are very preachy with one character doing exactly what they are expected to do, rather than saying there might be another option."

Deepti emphasized the importance of using rigorous experimental methods, even if randomization and the use of control groups might sometimes lead to delayed or displaced reward systems for those most in need. "We could look at only budget and actually create such financial literacy modules and test them." The stories in the comic books were "all based on our research findings about how women save." We even gave pictures from visits to field sites to the designers. "People can relate to comic books. The goal was to ensure that women understand what we are saying by using a character very similar to them."

According to an unpublished draft report, it looks like this approach is working: among those who received only financial literacy training, their savings increased by 8%, while those who received a lock box along with financial literacy training increased their savings by 42-51%, and 77% of women who received financial literacy training reported that they shared their knowledge with others (friends, and family). As Deepti shared enthusiastically, "we noticed during our field visits too, that there was a ripple effect of the literacy program."

Link to comic book, "Financial Literacy for Women Entrepreneurs(148,815KB)
Link to comic book, "Financial Literacy Education of Migrant Workers" (39,931KB)
*please allow time to download larger files, we recommend viewing in Firefox, Chrome, or Safari.

Link to project,"Assessing the Impact of Financial Knowledge on Adoption of Mobile Payment Systems among Enterprise Owners in Dharavi, Mumbai"  

[Photo credit: Elizabeth Losh]

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