Expanding digitization to the poor inspires hope for a glimmer of silver lining amid COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted on 06/09/2020

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A Grameen Mittra in India helps a neighbor make a digital transaction using a thumbprint reader.

NASA satellite images track disappearing tumors of pollution over China. Residents in parts of India marvel at views of the Himalayas unseen in 30 years. Porpoises swim in Venice’s clear canals.

It’s human nature to search for the glimmer of a silver lining even amid a global pandemic that is devastating lives and livelihoods. Humans need hope.

At Grameen Foundation, we see hope in the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has heightened awareness that basic financial services delivered through digital technologies are our most promising path to empower the poor to survive and thrive. Since 1997, Grameen’s work has been guided by this principle and upheld each time we witness its transformative power.

Now comes COVID-19, and the world is catching on.

As governments scrambled to simultaneously safeguard and deliver relief to their populations and prepare for recovery and rebuilding, digitization for the poor has been at the core of their efforts.

Early in the pandemic, the World Health Organization warned that the exchange of currency could transmit the virus. This, just as countries in lockdown were rushing to deliver cash relief, especially to people in informal jobs who earn day to day and have little or no savings. India was on its way to losing 130 million jobs, and Nigeria to a 40%-plus reduction in GDP. Under pressure to act quickly, governments launched efforts to expand digitization for the poor, and the consequences are striking.

One recent report demonstrates that the Rwandan government’s decision to temporarily eliminate fees on mobile money transfers, making digital payments as cheap to use as cash, has resulted in enormous growth in volume and a 450% increase in value of person-to-person mobile money transfers. Particularly encouraging is the increase of female mobile subscribers, up from 31 to 36 percent of senders in just five weeks.

Fortunately, Grameen Foundation already had thousands of Community Agents in the Philippines, Africa and India on the ground, ready to help their neighbors with mobile money solutions when the crisis hit. Our agents’ anecdotal reports support the evidence from Rwanda.

Update: Our Community Agents (Mittras) in India now report a 239 percent increase in clients’ digital financial transactions from January – March , 2020 (prior to lockdowns) to April-June, 2020 (when lockdowns were fully imposed).

At Grameen, we see mobile money adoption numbers like these as a shiny silver glimmer. Because as crucial as digitization is in delivering emergency cash transfers to the poor now, it will be equally vital in boosting them later. This is especially true for women in low-income countries who are disproportionately impacted by global events such as COVID-19.

All of which affirms Grameen’s long-term commitment to grow our Community Agent Network to expand delivery of digital financial services to poor women and families in vulnerable communities around the world. Our mission is more important than ever, not only to help microentrepreneurs and smallholder farmers recover and rebuild, but also to empower them with the tools to be resilient when the next crisis arrives.

In the wake of this pandemic, an increasing number of microfinance institutions (MFIs) will pivot from traditional to digital models. Grameen Foundation’s knowledge, foresight, and People + Technology model position us to help them succeed. Thanks to support from our donors and partners, we have the experience to work with MFIs to train, manage and support Community Agents and to ensure they can bring low-income women along to a higher-tech offering. Likewise, Grameen’s subsidiary, TaroWorks has been delivering technologies to help organizations improve service delivery to the poor since 2013 and stands ready to help.

Yes, the COVID-19 outbreak will increase awareness of mobile money solutions among vulnerable women, but it won’t decrease their fear of technology or distrust in financial institutions. It will take Agents on the ground, from their own communities, to help them navigate technologies and discover how these tools can help them rise from poverty. Given that each Grameen Community Agent reaches an average of 150 clients, it’s easy to imagine the impact thousands more Agents can have.

The COVID-19 pandemic could set back poverty levels in developing countries by up to 30 years, according to forecasts by the United Nations University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research.

What a full-on silver lining it would be if our donors and partners were to rally with us to dramatically scale our Agent Networks to help ensure that prediction never comes true.

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