Why we’re needed

Oral culture  |  Numeracy  |  Village Finance Savings 


A self-help group member studies her passbook in a numeracy test, Cambodia, 2010.

A Woman’s ‘Place’

What’s a ‘Zero’ Between Friends? 
Sothea is a poor Cambodian farmer. Every year after the harvest she sells some of her family’s rice surplus. This year she decides to use the bank branch a few kms away, in town. She goes to the bank to deposit 56,000 riels (about US $14). The friendly teller counts her cash and, in a clear voice, announces the total: “fifty-six thousand riels.” He then writes 5600 in her passbook, and returns it with a solicitous smile, encouraging Sothea to return often in future.

Field testing by My Oral Village in Cambodia and in India shows that microfinance clients may be comfortable saying a five-digit number, or counting the same sum in cash — and still be unable to identify the number, even if it is written for them. They are unsure of the number of zeros, and their location.

The passbook entry may be an honest error. Or the teller may have seen an easy target, knowing that Sothea was illiterate and from a poor family. In either case, she doesn’t catch the error until months later, when she returns to withdraw some cash. By then, nothing can be done.

Sothea’s mother had always warned to save her money at home — the traditional, safe way to save. This may not get villagers out of poverty, but at least they can control what little savings they get. She should have listened, Sothea thinks to herself.

A Threat to Women’s Role in Finance
Women are responsible for family saving in many traditional societies. They want their children to be schooled, and to do that they must save. Yet they are also less likely than their husbands or brothers to have received the schooling they need to track formal financial records.

A recent survey in 20 OECD countries found that in relative terms women outperform men on literacy, but underperform on numeracy. Perhaps for this reason, poor women are reluctant to use microfinance institutions and banks — especially to protect their savings.

We Can — and Must — Make Every Woman Numerate in Our Lifetime

In most domains of life it is still uncommon for a villager to encounter a number larger than 10,000 — but not in finance. One $US is worth (for example): 4,000 Cambodian riels, 1,600 Tanzanian shillings and 80 Bangladeshi taka. Microloans can require seven-digit transcription. To add to the confusion, passbooks — especially those prepared by village finance organizations — often feature pages of hand-written numbers that are poorly aligned and have no commas to aid interpretation.

Microfinance institutions, credit unions, banks and savings groups now reach hundreds of millions of poor people. Their transactional interface — from Sothea’s passbook to deposit receipts, loan contracts and remittance slips — is highly dependent on client numeracy. This interface is also an ideal theatre for imparting numeracy efficiently and effectively, without undermining the profitability that is essential to continuing client service. 

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