Translating numerals into universally recognized values.

Why are there not finger-counting icons and/or tallies (see right) on every passbook owned by every illiterate client in microfinance?

Arrayed as a legend along the bottom or the side of the passbook, or printed on the back cover, this provides support to clients struggling with financial code, much as braille supports ATM keys in modern banks.

This small change could contribute usefully towards our shared goal of ‘access for all’.

I have presented this simple idea to many MFIs and financial cooperatives recently. For the most part, these organizations passionately want to connect more closely with illiterate clients. Some are using photos in passbooks, mobile video units to introduce themselves. But none have introduced this far simpler and far cheaper method, that is likely to have far more widespread impact.

Why? Because the logic underpinning it has nothing to do with literacy and illiteracy. It has to do with oral culture.

Loan contract, rural Cambodia.

Our desire to help illiterate people has led us to millions of thumbprints on opaque contracts and a lot of excuses about how their daughters can read for them. Who said they want their daughters knowing they’ve used their land as collateral for a loan? And what happens after their daughters are married off at age 12 and leave the village?

We can do a better job of advancing the social and business principles of transparency, confidentiality and accountability — and the concept of democracy that depends on them!