Money talks: Mobile money, marginalised language speakers and humanitarian assistance

How does language affect the use affected people can make of mobile money in an emergency, and what does that mean for humanitarian cash assistance? As part of a wider research collaboration, GSMA’s Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Programme and CLEAR Global have been exploring the state of inclusion of marginalised language speakers within digital humanitarian services. You can see the full report here, and this blog shares insights from the research as they relate to mobile money.

Around the world, mobile money has had a significant positive impact on the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, many of whom would likely have been unserved or underserved by formal financial service providers. As the mobile money sector continues to grow, with 1.75 billion registered accounts globally as of 2023, it offers stakeholders a unique opportunity to support the financial inclusion, health and wellbeing of a wide range of potentially vulnerable and marginalised groups.

Mobile money has also been an important part of the humanitarian landscape for several years, increasingly becoming the distribution channel of choice for agencies providing cash assistance to crisis-affected people. Civil society organisations (CSOs) consulted for the research spoke about the obstacles and risks that speakers of minority languages in their respective countries navigate to use mobile money. Their insights point to steps providers and their humanitarian partners could take to expand safe access to mobile money services.

Services are not widely available in suitable languages for crisis-affected people

Mobile money is in use in many humanitarian settings; there were live deployments in 30 countries out of a total of 36 with a 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan. But in many of these, the languages the services are available in do not necessarily align with the languages spoken by crisis-affected groups, especially those who speak more marginalised languages (see for example, Table 1).

In Kenya, for example, mobile money services are available in English and Swahili, which only a combined 30% of the national population speak as their primary language at home. It can be assumed it will be even lower amongst the nearly 750,000 refugees, given that 55% are from Somalia, and likely to speak a dialect of Somali as their first language. More than 85% come from countries where Swahili is not a recognised official language.

In Somalia, services are largely available only in Mahaatiri Somali. Given that Mahaatiri is not widely intelligible with the Maay and Benadiri dialects, this excludes roughly a third of the Somali population and half of internally displaced people.

CountryLanguages of mobile moneyEstimated national population speaking as main language
Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)Swahili
SomaliaMahaatiri Somali63.6%
UgandaEnglish0% (90% 2nd language)
Table 1: Languages of mobile money services (source: CSO research participants)

Marginalised language speakers often find workarounds, bringing risks

Despite these language barriers, research respondents described high levels of mobile money use even in marginalised communities such as refugees in Western Uganda and minority clans in Somalia. It seems a combination of the perceived benefits and a lack of viable alternatives makes it worth people’s while to find a workaround. As key information like the account balance is numerical and because many mobile services use simple number-based USSD interfaces, many learn to navigate platforms based purely on the numbers, without necessarily understanding the text.

Something like M-Pesa becomes second nature so that you don’t even need to have it translated into your mother tongue because you do it over and over again.

Civil society informant, Kenya

That doesn’t work for everyone, however. One informant in DRC stressed that many marginalised language speakers, especially women in rural areas, are without formal schooling and have no chance to acquire literacy or numeracy. As a result they can’t understand any of the information on the platform or in SMS messages sent to them – regardless of whether it is text or numbers. And even when people do figure out workarounds, not understanding text-based messaging can leave them at increased risk of fraud or other harm. Informants in Somalia and Pakistan said it was common for marginalised language speakers to ask a shopkeeper or stranger to make a payment for them on their mobile money account.

Agents remain a largely untapped resource for bridging the language gap

Mobile money agents offer the possibility of in-person assistance with mobile money services, provided in whatever language an agent speaks. This can bridge comprehension gaps where services remain available only in majority languages – while recognising that this itself can sometimes present a fraud risk.

However, in many settings agents are not recruited with linguistic diversity in mind. An informant in Uganda explained that mobile money agents in refugee settlement areas do not typically speak the languages of refugee communities.

If you want to warn an old woman about fraud, you can’t do it, you can only say “How much do you want to withdraw?” or “Please enter your PIN number”.

Civil society informant, Uganda

Promising initiatives to actively recruit agents directly from the communities they serve will go some way to addressing this.

The future is multilingual

These considerations are likely only to grow in the coming years. The 2024 State of the Industry Report on Mobile Money found that over a third of new registered and active 30-day accounts in 2023 globally were from West Africa, chiefly Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. Looking only at the ongoing humanitarian crisis in northeastern Nigeria, multi-sector needs assessment (MSNA) data suggests that services only in English and Hausa, for example, would leave many unserved. Women in particular would struggle, undermining efforts to expand mobile money access to this key demographic.    

Mobile money providers and their humanitarian partners can expand access and reduce risk for marginalised language speakers by:

  • Offering services (including customer support, financial literacy training, complaints mechanisms and fraud detection) in a wider range of languages, based on data about the languages people in affected communities speak and understand.
  • Recruiting agents directly from the communities served and supporting them to translate key concepts into terms that are understandable and appropriate in the languages of those communities.
  • Disseminating vital information in local languages, including through agents. Especially as related to risks faced when using mobile money services.
  • Conducting user experience testing in affected communities to optimise the wording and navigation for second language and less literate users.
  • Exploring scope for audio communication to supplement SMS, such as via interactive voice response (IVR) where deemed suitable. 
  • Applying plain-language principles to all user communication, in particular avoiding legal and humanitarian jargon and testing translations for local understanding.
  • Collecting data on the main language users speak at home, and using this to identify where language may be driving exclusion or other negative outcomes.

This initiative is currently funded by UK International Development from the UK government and is supported by the GSMA and its members.
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