International Philanthropy Award 2020

A partnership at the heart of tackling poverty

On the face of it, it seems like a bold ambition, but Shane Nichols isn’t swayed by the size of the challenge. “It is the first time, by 2030, we’re aiming to eradicate extreme poverty,’’ Shane, CEO of Good Return says. “Unfortunately, COVID will set us back a couple of years but it’s not going to affect the overall progress that we’re making. We’re still gunning hard for that target and if it does slip by a couple of years, so be it. But we’re on the right trajectory, there’s no doubt about it.’’

One of the many diverse steps towards achieving that goal is a financial capability program that Good Return runs with Accenture in Cambodia and Nepal. In the past five years, 7,500 people in those two countries have completed the program, helping individuals have greater control over their economic future. This is a significant step towards redressing the extreme poverty that impacts on 1.2 million people across the Asia-Pacific region.

“These are people who self-identify in the villages and regions we operate as saying that they want to start a small business or invest in something,’’ Shane explains. “And so they approach our partners, and what we do is we support them with access to training in money management, small business management and help them access the finances they need to pursue their own ambitions. These are people living in poverty and essentially they are pursuing their economic ambitions on their own terms and what we’re doing is providing them with a bit of a step up on that journey.’’

Those ambitions can be to start or grow a business, or just have a greater understanding of household budgeting. Fundamentally, the program seeks to provide a way for people to improve their financial wellbeing, especially women who are often marginalised when large financial decisions are made within the family.

Critical to the program is the partnership between Good Return and Accenture, which has been going for a decade. It has been a decade of deep collaboration, shared intelligence and regular monitoring of progress.

Initially, Accenture’s focus on Good Return’s performance delivery was new to the organisation. “It did necessitate a little bit of shift in terms of our accountability, in terms tracking and reporting and measuring our progress for them,’’ Shane says. “I think there were some definite positive spin-offs for us in terms of harnessing some of that private-sector thinking and approach and incorporating that into the way we work…The targets were what we proposed to them and negotiated with them, so they certainly held us to account and continue to do so.’’

But there has also been another important marker of the relationship – the deep engagement of Accenture staff – and the delivery of their expertise – to help broaden in some instances, and sharpen in others, delivery of Good Return’s program.

“I’ve not come across a corporate supporter who has been so willing to be genuinely engaged across so many levels of the company and across the various elements of the work we’re doing,’’ Shane says. “And they are genuinely interested… we see Accenture walking the talk in that space and that’s how we’re able to sustain a strong relationship for more than 10 years now. And have some terrific outcomes on the ground as well.’’

One of those outcomes has been the development of the My Money Tracker (MMT) mobile app

Accenture’s probono work extended to staff visits to Cambodia to help with research and user-testing. Now, as mobile phone use increases across the country, the MMT is about to come into its own as a tool for locals to help control their economic destiny.

The MMT originated as a paper-based tool within Good Return’s financial literacy program. It would help track money, in and out, on a daily and weekly basis. It would also set up important distinctions between money used for household expenses and business use, a crucial antidote to the intermingling of finances that can complicate the real picture of a person’s economic well-being. “This is one of the key constraints we find in our work,’’ Shane says, “that people are not separating their different financial flows…and it becomes very hard to know which activities are profitable, how profitable they are, and are they something worth investing in, as in borrowing money to invest in.’’

All of those elements were built in to the MMT to make it a vital decision-making tool and help users know exactly their outgoings and incomings. But because its intended user base had low literacy levels, the app was designed around easily recognised icons. “It’s very simple, very intuitive and we’ve been through a couple of rounds of user-testing and we’re just about to roll that out in Cambodia,’’ Shane says. “We’re excited about the potential of that to really scale our work to achieve maximum impact.’’

At its core, the MMT is the expression of Good Return’s focus on empowering communities economically, and building greater awareness of financial issues, whether it’s domestic budgeting, finding a loan or avoiding scams. “For some people, it means investing and generating more money. For other people, it’s more about allocating their current resources better, being less wasteful, optimising their time and resources, so it’s not always about getting more money,’’ Shane says. “It’s about being mindful and pursuing your own goals …obviously we’re targeting people living in poverty but it’s not exclusive to that group. Anybody can download it.’’

Good Return will use its local micro-finance organisations – and other NGOs – to help promote the app. Facebook, which is common in the countries where Good Return works, will also be important, along with partnerships with the government, including the relationship Good Return has with the Cambodian Central Bank, to raise awareness.

The overall picture, though, is more nuanced than many Westerners may believe. ”You’ll find that on the one hand for people for whom money is a scarce resource, [they] are incredibly good budgeters by necessity, so it’s not suggesting they don’t already have those skills, but often they haven’t interacted with formal financial systems before, with things like debt and insurance and all those sorts of things that they need to be aware of,’’ Shane says. “They can be vulnerable to scams, so a big focus of our work is on that consumer awareness, be aware of what’s out there, talk to other people before you make a decision.’

However, the next large steps in eradicating extreme poverty are not all down to NGOs.

Governments have to play a major role. “It’s all about political will – we know we can do it, it’s just a question of whether we’ve got the political will to do it,’’ Shane says. “We can’t just leave it to governments though: it does take all sections of society, so having the private sector come together with civil society is a critical element, and Accenture and its foundation are a great example of this.’’

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