What to Do When the Mice Eat the Money, or, 'Where Are the Non-subsidized Financial Services for Persons with Disabilities?'

> Posted by Mary Dakim, Intern, Financial Inclusion for Persons with Disabilities Program

Siddhartha Chowdri with clients from Bihar

Mary Dakim

Portfolios of the Excluded: Anyone who has lived or worked in the field recognizes the difference in international development research that is enriched by voices and realities of the field versus what is produced in developed countries based on books, internet searches, and a general literature review. For that reason, I was delighted to hear of The Center for Financial Inclusion’s goal of finding case studies from across the world of non-subsidized financial services for persons with disabilities (PWDs). I think their approach will yield a more authentic perspective on the magnitude of exclusion for this population. Whether the investigation yields root causes on the demand or supply side, it will allow for a deeper understanding of the opportunities and obstacles persons with disabilities as well as financial service providers face in reaching inclusion for this population. If you have case studies, please let us know via a comment below or email us.
In hopes of providing one of those “voices from the field,” I offer you my own story. My personal experience living in Nigeria for 28 years as a woman with a disability and facing poverty is unlike the millions of other similar women with disabilities whose stories will remain unwritten and unknown. I was lucky to have been accompanied on my personal path to financial citizenship.
Access to Finance: I was born and raised in poverty. My parents, who are both farmers, did not have access to microfinance. They were income-generating farmers who, like many of their peers, hid their money in a metal box.
Siddhartha Chowdri with clients from Bihar

My old elementary school in Nigeria.

To access “credit,” my father would borrow money from friends and repay his loan with maize harvest. Personally, while growing up in the village, I would hide my money under my bed. However, I would switch locations from time to time for fear that someone would find it. One time, during elementary school, I decided on a large cardboard box that was attached to a wall of my grandmother’s room. Formerly, the large box was home to my brother’s three birds; now, it was my personal safe deposit box. Despite my sense of security, one day, mice destroyed the money (US$30), which was in the form of paper notes. It had taken me 3 months of selling cooked vegetables after school to save that amount, and I had hoped to spend it on a school lunch allowance that my parents could not afford. I could have purchased at least 2 weeks’ worth of lunches. Similar situations were true for most of my friends who were deaf—they hid any cash they had under their pillows or elsewhere in their homes.
First Bank Visit in Nigeria: My first formal banking experience was in 2001 (at about 27 years old) when I began teaching at a public school for the deaf. A leader in the deaf education community in Nigeria accompanied me to a bank, where he had an account. The treatment that I received and the overall experience were both helped enormously by his presence and status as an existing customer. For example, before the agent realized that my friend was an existing customer, the agent was unwilling to communicate with us in writing—we were limited to reading his lips. In fact, the agent initially thought that we were beggars, since some people who are deaf in Nigeria enter offices, banks, and public places with requests for charity. Eventually, this bank closed, and I was unable to salvage my assets, since I was already in the United States.
First Bank Visit in the United States: My first banking visit in the United States could not have been more different. Again, I was lucky to be accompanied, this time by an employee of Gallaudet University, who is assigned to support the on-boarding of international students to their new communities. As soon as we informed the bank employee we were deaf, she reached for paper and pen and even attempted to communicate with the sign language that she knew. I was treated like any other new customer who spoke a different language. I appreciated the effort made by the staff at the Northeast branch (722 H Street) of Bank of America in Washington, DC. I experienced financial inclusion.
Remembering Quality: While the adoption, signing, and ratifying of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has the capacity to increase the integration of PWDs into formal financial services, it is not enough. Even if an MFI aims to work towards financial inclusion, how will quality be ensured and measured as a part of this quest for inclusion? What happens when the person with disability is unaccompanied — whether in Nigeria or the United States?
I was delighted to read Beth Rhyne’s announcement that the Center for Financial Inclusion  seeks to answer this question about quality, among others, as a part of their leadership in financial inclusion. I agree with her perspective that the purpose of microfinance “is not to cure poverty but to reach out to the most marginalized groups.” Not only does the Center’s Smart Campaign protect clients, but also new programs like the one aimed towards financial inclusion for persons with disabilities will afford opportunities to preserve the quality of products and services that all people deserve as they define the destinies of their own financial citizenship.