Imagine the following scenario: It’s payday and you want to pick up your salary. But first, you have to navigate a series of deteriorating, hazardous dirt roads to get to the bank. It takes you a few days just to talk to a teller. When you finally do, the teller informs you that the bank is currently out of cash – you’ll have to wait some more. By the time you actually get paid, you’ve had to miss several days of work – and to top it all off, between bank fees (including bribes or unofficial fees to bankers and security guards), the cost of lodging, travel and food, you’ve spent 15 percent of your salary just to pick it up.
Much has been written about the gender gap in mobile phone usage, specifically on why women are less likely to have access to this technology than men; why women are less likely to be technically literate than men; and why women are less likely to be aware of the many potential benefits of a mobile phone. We recognize that there is a gender gap, as high as 38 percent in South Asia. Within the development community, there is no disagreement that this digital gender divide needs to be addressed in order to drive women’s economic empowerment and ensure a more equitable future. However, there are varying points of view on how to close this gap.
Connectivity transforms lives. Access to a mobile network, including the internet or a mobile phone, opens the door to information, and information enables people to discover their full potential. Without connectivity, people are in the dark, closed off from opportunity. Yet, more than 4 billion people remain unconnected to the internet, and 20 to 40 percent of the poorest billion people are out of reach of even very basic mobile networks. Many of these people live in remote, hard-to-reach locations. And, each person among the poorest billion has only US$2.25 per month to spend on mobile services.
Reaching isolated, impoverished communities is not easy. It takes a clear understanding of context and demand. New mapping tools, like the mAccess Diagnostic Tool that maps connectivity, are helping governments, private-sector companies, and nongovernmental organizations understand the context of those who are out of reach of mobile networks. These tools are shedding light on the affected areas and are helping us visualize network coverage areas, prices for services, local incomes and the numbers of individuals who are mobile subscribers. In-depth research is emerging to fill out the picture by showing who among the poorest uses phones, for what purposes, and when and where.
Like many countries, cash is an extremely common form of monetary transaction in Bangladesh, including among U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) implementing partners. Paying for something as basic as participant expenses at workshops, for example, often entails a finance person from Dhaka, the capital, traveling to rural communities with a bag of cash to make disbursements directly. This method is costly (in terms of travel and per diem costs for the cash runner) and risky (in terms of potential for theft and graft) and can result in lost productivity.
The introduction of mobile money to Bangladesh in 2011 changed this equation by making it possible for implementing partners to send money directly to individual program participants and staff without leaving their desks in Dhaka. Mobile money is an emerging technology that provides convenient and affordable financial services through use of a mobile phone.
Having the option of using mobile money is great, but making the change to any new technology or process is rarely easy. And, unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Finding the right mobile financial service for a project’s needs is crucial but not the end-all. Staff and program participants need to understand the benefits of mobile money and feel comfortable using it.