By Giudy Rusconi, Specialist, Quantitative Research and
Sonja Kelly, Director of Research and Advocacy, Women’s World Banking

Financial institutions provide a literal lifeline for many of their hundreds of millions of clients around the world, and never more so than now. As Covid-19 spreads to more low- and middle-income countries, financial service providers (FSP) are fighting back. Alongside their fiscal responsibility to mitigate the impact of the crisis on their business, many of the 10,000 financial institutions serving low-income populations globally are prioritizing social responsibility by offering new products and communication channels that demonstrate their commitment to the well-being of customers and staff.

It’s not unusual for financial services providers to take on a role in addressing public health challenges. Microinsurance products such as Caregiver, designed by Women’s World Banking and offered by its partner financial institutions, helps low-income families ease the financial burden of hospitalization. The Gates Foundation has invested heavily in interventions that combine access to finance with streamlined ways of delivering appropriate health services, products, and information. USAID has been outspoken about the potential for finance to accelerate public health goals. Now, to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, financial service providers are building on their health care experience with solutions tailored to this particular moment.

To do so, they are having to navigate the obstacles created by lock-downs and shelter-in place orders, which have upended the traditional touchpoints that most use to serve low-income customers. Even though providers had already started integrating more technology into their channels and systems, many still rely on simple, high-touch models in which staff meet with groups of customers or individuals at regular time intervals to collect savings deposits or loan repayments. Over time, these personal interactions allow customers to develop trust in their FSP counterparts, especially since frontline staff often come from similar backgrounds and are more approachable than traditional bank staff. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, even these staff members are working from home, and some countries have introduced loan moratoria.

Rather than forcing  financial institutions to shut down, such limitations are inspiring them to create new patterns of communication. Since staff cannot hold physical meetings, they are staying informed about their customers’ situations through WhatsApp groups, text messages, and phone calls. Some have launched mass communications through call centers and interactive voice response (IVR) to convey information about new systemic flexibilities—like delayed loan payments and new digital channels—and to make sure clients are weathering the economic shocks.

Institutions are also using this blend of formal and informal communication channels to deliver vital information that goes beyond the standard financial services-related activities. Against the backdrop of shelter in place, financial service providers and their frontline staff are creatively distributing information about the virus and advice on the necessary public response:

  • At small finance bank Ujjivan, frontline staff who usually go from one group meeting to the next to collect loan repayments are now calling group loan customers on specific days to check in and respond to questions and concerns. In parallel, Ujjivan has started a large-scale information campaign about Covid-19 through IVR, reaching over 800,000 customers. This IVR system, created prior to the pandemic, has been repurposed to send simple and effective health notices. To more systematically understand the challenges of Covid-19 on customers, Ujjivan has carried out a round of phone surveys with key questions that assess the impact of the crisis on customers.
  • Short videos allow financial services providers to easily communicate information to customers with varying literacy levels, and many are working with authorities to transform official messages into accessible videos and gamified content. Staff circulate this content to customers through messaging channels like WhatsApp. Other institutions are casting a wider net by sharing their simple informational videos through their Instagram handles and Facebook pages.
  • As financial providers are a trusted source of information, customers are coming to them with many questions, some of which go beyond what frontline staff can answer. In response, one institution that Women’s World Banking works with has set up a helpline to give customers information about Covid-19-related health issues, a remote diagnosis, or the addresses of local pharmacies and hospitals.
  • Across different regions, financial providers have joined forces with telemedicine companies and hospitals to offer toll-free or discounted services to customers. Satya Microcapital in India estimates that its free telephonic medical consultations and counseling related to Covid-19 could reach more than 2.5M people, including staff, customers, and their households; it is also using text messages to alert customers about these services. Other institutions have launched extensive campaigns on social media platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook to directly promote such services to their clients.

By expanding their outreach, offering vital information, and engaging in the fight against misinformation, financial institutions are providing a global public health service while creating more value than ever for their own customers. Most institutions are rightfully concerned about their economic outlook as a result of this crisis, but in the midst of this uncertainty, they are prioritizing the health of their customers, managing relationships, and contributing to crisis mitigation. We are inspired by these financial “first responders” and grateful for the ways in which they are innovatively serving their customers and using the financial inclusion infrastructure to support the wider public health mission.