moderated Above all else, do no harm #ediscussionday3



Greetings colleagues, I have the honor of book-ending our conversation about social norms and financial inclusion. I lead research and evaluation efforts at Grameen Foundation (and prior to that, Freedom from Hunger). We're going to focus the last conversation on the concept of "do no harm." We've covered a lot of ground and while we've talked about the value of understanding social norms to help us develop better products and services, we also at a very basic level have to consider how we mitigate risks to causing harm. Below is a quote from the research I've referenced we conducted in Burkina Faso:

“There are women who take credit for their husbands, which strengthens the relationship between men and women. Women are also taking more and more money. [We believe there is a need for] couple’s training in financial education to prevent men from withdrawing some or all of the credit for other purposes.”

This reflects an unspoken and oft-ignored truth about women’s financial inclusion. For years, there has been focused funding and interventions targeting women’s access to formal savings, credit, among other financial services. And while many products are designed with women in mind or with groups of women in mind, these services are often used or given to other members of the household, for example, a husband or a son. We recently completed a project evaluation in Burkina Faso with women’s savings groups, that leveraged those groups to provide formal agriculture and micro-business financing, as well as agronomic and nutrition support and gender dialogues.[1] The quote above represents the perspective of one of our implementing partners as a lesson learned after looking at—and experiencingtheir services through a more gender-intentional lens.

On one hand, women accessing financial services, and in this case credit, on behalf of the household may be reason to celebrate as it demonstrates women’s elevated role in household finances. Global research continues to mark the gender gap in financial inclusion, with women representing the majority of the unbanked.[2] Significant donors see women’s financial inclusion as a way forward.[3]

On the other hand, it represents a risk: where women have very little decision-making power and elevated risk of intimate partner violence, women’s financial inclusion can mean very little benefit to her personally and at worst, economic or financial abuse if she carries the household debt burden on her shoulders. This risk is particularly heightened in group-based microfinance, as savings groups and village banks rely on personal guarantees, and social capital. For women that qualify for individualized financial services, the risk is no less to her personally, but the risk to her friends, family, and neighbors is more limited.

In this discussion, we’re going to focus on “do no harm”. While we have client protection principles set forth by the Smart Campaign and social performance management principles set forth by the Social Performance Task Force for microfinance providers, these principles do not provide specific guidance as to mitigating risks for women at the household level. When 1 in 3 women globally are estimated to experience sexual or physical violence at some point in their life and very few seeking help[4] and financial stress is linked to domestic violence[5] (and divorce), should we not ask ourselves how we are mitigating these risks where we can?

In the past several years, the SEEP Network has held a “fail fest” during their annual conference. For the first question in this discussion, I ask you to be brave and share your failures -- any lessons or observations in your own work that would highlight the challenges or outcomes that you feel either caused harm to women (or others) while trying to do good or you believe should be explored further. I’ll go first.

As the beginning of this post suggests, our recent research in Burkina Faso raised some important questions about whether it is good or bad that women are more financially included than their spouses. We target women through women-only savings groups to provide them with various financial and non-financial services. While we do think women’s access to credit can increase her “value” (and the men and women we interviewed do say this) within the household, she also then carries the responsibilities—and potential burdens—of using these services. For example, men from a focus group shared, “It's obvious that it's women who take more loans…Women have better discipline in managing their loan - they do not like humiliation. We rely on women to access loans. Some of us can no longer get loans.” Our implementing partners also raised the issue that men do not like to feel excluded and even noted the occurrence of a divorce that occurred in one couple where the savings group hunted the spouse of the member down for repayment. One partner shared, “Misappropriation of the purpose of the credit has resulted in cases of unpaid bills because the member's spouse took a portion of the credit. These are the cases where the solidarity guarantee does not work (the woman finds herself [alone] in front of the cashier). So we added the needs of the husband to the credit application.”

Even if men would never use the group-based services themselves, for example, they want to feel invited to the table. I feel as implementers, we can no longer design financial services (and other services, such as financial literacy training) that assume it is only the women who decide to use the service, use it, and benefit from it. I loved CARE sharing their guide about household financial planning!

What have been your experiences?

I'm also going to invite you to consider additional questions as they are relevant to your work:

Question 2: Some might argue that it’s simply not our place to involve ourselves in such personal, intra-household dynamics, such as intimate partner violence. That this is more of a societal, legal, or social work-type responsibility. Do you believe we have a responsibility to consider the risks our products and services do create and aim to mitigate them (this would mean taking the existing client protection principles and going much deeper)? How do we find the right balance?


Question 3: What processes or tools do you use or are you aware of that help guide thinking about how to identify areas where you could cause harm? What are your experiences in using them?


Question 4: Any product or process design features where you have intentionally aimed to mitigate risks of doing harm to women or other household members?


Question 5: While most of this discussion has focused on the potential for creating intrahousehold conflict and stress, what about other areas of harm (and to keep focus, we’re still talking about social norms)? Grameen Foundation is currently undertaking a significant landscape assessment looking at the connection between women’s economic empowerment and child labor and unacceptable working conditions for children. In short, yes, there is a connection if you simply consider most women entrepreneurs are labor-constrained and balancing caretaking with work. Most of the world’s child labor happens where children work alongside their parents in household economic activities. What are other areas where you've seen harm happen or experiences where you’ve worked to mitigate them?

Bobbi L. Gray

Research Director
skype: bobbilen  |   twitter: BobbiGray1   | linkedinbobbigray
tel: +1.806.670.7737

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