Mobile in Microfinance: Not Just Mobile Payments

05/07/2015 09:00 am ET | Updated May 07, 2016

When our team first started doing this work four years ago, I used to get asked all the time, "So are you giving out mobile phones?" We use mobile technology to reach invisible populations like factory workers, farmers and, most recently, microfinance borrowers. In the last four years, mobile penetration has continued to skyrocket. India has three times as many mobile phones as the United States, and 78 percent mobile penetration. So the answer is no, we do not need to give out mobile phones.

Two years ago, some folks in the microfinance industry asked if we might take our experience of giving factory workers an anonymous channel to report on working conditions and apply that to microfinance borrowers or "clients" in countries like India and Peru. The need is the same. When a woman in India takes out a small loan to sell tea at the local market, she borrows from a local Microfinance Institution (MFI) and her main point of contact with the MFI is her loan officer. If she faces some type of mistreatment by the loan officer, or feels unable to keep up with her loan payments, she may not have another channel to report those issues anonymously -- in a way that will not compromise her ability to get loans in future.

Enter the Smart Campaign. Starting in 2008, leaders in microfinance started coming together around the idea that microfinance should be first and foremost about the borrowers, the woman with the tea stand and the millions of others who are positively impacted by small loans around the world every day. Smart Campaign partners and sponsors -- including Ford Foundation, The MasterCard Foundation and USAID -- developed a set of Client Protection Principles for the industry to follow.

There are seven Client Protection Principles, including:

· Prevention of over-indebtedness - To ensure that clients have the capacity to repay without becoming over-indebted.

· Transparency - Including clear and timely information in a language clients can understand so they can make informed decisions.

· Fair and respectful treatment of clients - Including non-discrimination andsafeguards to detect corruption and aggressive or abusive treatment by staff and agents.

· Mechanisms for complaint resolution - So that clients can submit complaints and they will be resolved in a timely manner.

Transparency, fair treatment and complaint mechanisms are all principles we work to uphold with factory workers making clothing and electronics, so it was a natural fit to extend our mobile technology tools beyond factory walls to assess whether these same principles were being upheld in microfinance. We were invited to join a pilot called Voice of the Client, led by Dutch donor Hivos and MIX Market, a leading provider of social performance data in microfinance.

We wanted to test whether the medium matters. If you're invited to answer an anonymous survey, does it matter whether you answer the questions on an automated platform (through phone or computer), to a live operator (like a call center), or face-to-face through an interview? We suspected it would make a big difference, especially on sensitive questions you might not feel comfortable telling a stranger.

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We collected a total of 6000 responses from microfinance clients under four MFIs in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. We tested three different survey modes: call center, face-to-face interview and our traditional Interactive Voice Response (IVR) automated survey, pre-recorded in local language.

We were right. On the most sensitive questions -- like "Do you ever face mistreatment by your loan officer?" - the automated mobile survey had 9x more respondents answering "Yes," compared with call center or face-to-face interview.

What does this mean for any company or organization that's trying to survey a hard-to-reach population? It means don't ask sensitive questions face-to-face or even over the phone and assume you are getting a straight answer. It's imperative to build trust and confidence in a truly anonymous channel. We've found that automated mobile technology like IVR is the best way to build that trust. And the best part is that we don't need to distribute mobile phones to do it.

Good World Solutions is a partner of Cisco CSR. Cisco sponsors The Huffington Post's ImpactX section.