Oral Financial Numeracy

Multi-digit divide

Oral knowledge of place value is very weak.

Mapping the Usability Gap
The oral world involves little paid employment, but many vital, survival and subsistence-based livelihood tasks. These tasks demand a distinctive oral cluster of numeracy skills and practices. Seeking ways to better serve this vulnerable population, My Oral Village conducts research on oral financial numeracy, and has published the findings in technical papers and blogs.

During years of field work, Brett Matthews noticed that illiterate financial services users do not expect to be able to find entries in the passbooks they receive from microfinance institutions — although these entries contain critical information about their financial transactions. Field research in Cambodia and Tanzania in 2015 identified a multi-digit divide: illiterate adults can usually read 1-2 digit numeral strings, but are much less likely to be able to read 3+ digit numeral strings. This affects not just their ability to participate in financial services, but their relationship with the cash economy as well — there are many countries where a purchase of salt or matches can run to 3 or 4 digits.

In the oral world survival depends on measuring time in natural and event-based rhythms like the seasons and the lifecycles of livestock, so calendar time is an irrelevant distraction. Cash is valued as a medium of exchange, but not trusted as a store of value: it is too easily spent around the house, and big numbers deter its use for planning. The bedrock modern principle of ‘time-value of money’ is at best, deeply counter-intuitive.

Focus group on the oral number line.

Focus group on the oral number line.

Building on Oral Strengths
In spite of these challenges, oral adults living in cash economies adapt remarkably well. Even if they have never attended school, they can count larger numbers, more accurately, than individuals living in villages scarcely touched by contact with the modern world, such as many in deep Amazonia. Geoffrey Saxe has studied some of the processes at play among young Oksapmin men in Papua New Guinea, who their subsistence communities to earn cash working in a nearby mine. Under constant pressure to build competence in cash economy, they developed their traditional 27-unit body-based counting system beyond one-to-one correspondence with objects, transforming it into a pure mental reckoning system that required no external physical reference points, supporting more complex manipulation of larger numbers.

Cash can push oral communities into dealing with far bigger numbers than they are accustomed to, and they use every tool they can find to adapt, from complex symmetries in weaving to expertise in the manipulation of cash itself. The strategy of financial inclusion practitioners has always to build on oral weaknesses (such as text and place value) instead of oral strengths (such as cash). Effective design starts from strengths, which are inherently motivating, and using them to fill in weaknesses.

MOVE’s research on oral financial numeracy is summarized in this Briefing Note.