[TC-I Changemaker]: CGAP’s Gautam Ivatury on the linkage between technology and financial empowerment of the poor

The ThinkChange India staff is committed to providing our readers with interviews with people we believe are at the brink of something special but have for the most part been overlooked by the mainstream media. Readers will be able to see other conversations under our TC-I Changemakers tab.

This week, Vinay sat down (over the phone) with Gautam Ivatury of the The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), a consortium of 33 private and public development agencies focused on working together to expand poor people’s access to financial services. Such services include but are not limited to microcredit and branchless banking. Within this organization, Gautam is the Manager of CGAP’s Technology Program (their blog on India can be read here), which focuses on researching, identifying and disseminating knowledge on how technology will help financial institutions deliver such services to the poor. The Technology Program is co-funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Vinay Ganti: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with ThinkChange India and its readership. Why don’t we start out generally. Can you speak more on CGAP’s goals and how the aspect of technology plays a role?

Gautam Ivatury: CGAP is about building financial systems that work for poor people. However, there is more to it than that as we want this financial system to be integrated with the mainstream financial system at large. We do not want to create a state where the poor bank in some parallel world completely disconnected from the resources and financial options that other people enjoy. In essence we envision one inclusive financial system that provides tailored products to all types of people, including the poor.

This desire for inclusion partly stems from the need to develop financial institutions for the poor that are sound and stable, and one of the most effective ways to do that is to link them to the mainstream financial architecture. Poor clients need to have the same level of security regarding their savings and deposits as do individuals elsewhere in the traditional banking structure.

To address the stability while also providing a wide array of financial products, CGAP recognizes that there must be an approach that moves beyond just microfinance institutions (MFIs) and includes other players in the space to maximize choice for the consumer and to help us attain scale. When one looks past the traditional MFI, one observes postal banks, agricultural banks and other actors that are already helping the poor.

This is where the technology program becomes so critical as it is charged to identify those technologies that will best assist this wide range of potential providers to reach out to the poor regardless of their location or personal circumstances. Right now, the one obvious solution is the mobile phone and the rise of branchless banking that can be done via that medium.

VG: CGAP’s website highlights three key players — financial service providers, public and private funding organizations, and government policymakers and regulators — that are stakeholders in CGAP’s work. Can we discuss the conflicts that emerge among these actors?

GI: All of these actors are critical. Without governments implementing the proper regulatory framework for banking, it cannot be done. Likewise, the other stakeholders also play a vital role. In fact, there is a fourth actor, whom CGAP does not deal with directly, who are the actual customers themselves. In any market these can at times become opposing forces. Government wants safety plus access; businesses want to make money. This forces CGAP to take a practical approach with each stakeholder.

Each player has different incentives and needs, and therefore when our conversations with them require differing skill sets that reflect these distinctions. When you sit down with a banker you have to understand their perspective. She will ask what services am I supposed to give and how should I give them? Do I want to provide them at the branch and encourage the poor people to come inside or do I want to do it in a way where it can happen remotely? What sort of incentives must I provide my employees to provide these services, and what is the structure in which the employees interact with these new clients?

In contrast, when we deal with an MFI, there concerns are more technical with regard to the management and oversight of their loans or disbursements. Questions regarding improvements to portfolio tracking software, customer relationships and external fund raising all dominate the conversation.

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IBM and Rural India Make a Connection, Literally.

As a follow-up to previous posts relating to the role of mobile technology as an enabling factor in the development of rural India, IBM has recently launched a pilot project in south India that will allow rural communities to access information ranging from healthcare service providers to potential markets for finished goods through a toll-free number. Users will be able to access this information either through their own mobile, or through local “kiosks”:

Rural users can dial the toll-free number from a kiosk or their own handset to find out things like what precautions to take for some common diseases, where to find the nearest primary healthcare centre, which plumber or carpenter is available at what time and at what charges, what are the micro-finance options available and also learn some basic English or another language.

This project is part of the India Research Lab’s “Spoken Web” project, which includes 6 other projects in the area of voice-enabled mobile commerce. In terms of the logistics, the exact revenue model has not been disclosed, but the kiosks themselves will be established in partnership with local NGOs.

Although I am optimistic about initiatives of this nature, it is my hope that IBM, in partnership with local NGOs, work not only to enlighten rural communities on the concrete, locally relevant implications of this resource, but also provide insight into the connection between access to information/knowledge and power. If a community member does not feel empowered enough to effect profound change within their own lives through more concrete means, how can they see the tangible benefits of a voice enabled mobile service? There need to be more concrete, awareness/confidence building initiatives that accompany these technological innovations in order to bring about true behavioral change and boost self-confidence on both an individual and community level.