My hypothesis at the beginning of this journey: while access to financial services must be a human right for all, financial education is a crucial counterpart to access. By creating a population of informed consumers, we are able to further impact the lives of the underserved and foster greater economic development in impoverished regions of the world. After what I witnessed during my first day in the field, I’m certain that this type of positive outcome is being realized.
Over my 3 week Ambassadorship in India, I will be working with Accion’s Client Education program, specifically, a Financial Literacy project in Varanasi via a partnership between Utkarsh Micro Finance Pvt. Ltd and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The goal of this pilot project is to train 12,000 Utkarsh JLG (Joint Liability Group) women clients in a 12-18 month period, on seven basic financial concepts that aim to improve their ability to manage their household and personal finances. I am tasked with the testing of impact tools, an important aspect of any project that aims to create change.
I arrive in Varanasi, a city in the Uttar Pradesh state of northern India, and am greeted by my sponsor for the next seven days, Shyam Sunder, Senior Project Coordinator, and fast to become a mentor and friend. Today’s plan is to travel to Shadhi, a rural village on the outskirts of the city, and apparently, not easy to find. Navigating the narrow unpaved roads, we are passed by a few bulls, a couple of goats and finally a person who is able to direct us to the area where this small community resides. We arrive a few minutes late and the training is already underway. As I step out of the air-conditioned car, I’m hit with 90 degree heat and humidity. The village is quiet but alive with many children running about, some of whom stop to stare at the ‘outsider’ walking through their village.
As we approach, a group of 24 women (trainees/beneficiaries) are crowded around a small laptop screen watching a short film. The film aims to educate them on the use and importance of household budgeting and cash flow management. This is the second module of the seven part training. Creating and following a budget is no easy task for an individual with unpredictable income and expenses. Therefore, it is important for these women and their families to be able to differentiate ‘needs’ from ‘wants’. They each have a loan for income generating purposes; either for running a small shop, selling fruit, weaving rugs or for purchase of generators and electrical equipment that can be rented during the marriage and festival season. All the while, most are caring for multiple children and tending to the home. Their daily lives are challenging.