BEN AND JOY DIP IN TO THEIR BOX OF CASH
AND JE WELRY TO PAY FOR EMERGENCIES
like dengue fever-induced medical bills. Next
door, Juan and Ana struggle with a cockfight
gambling addiction, and Pep and Rita nearly
lose their business below the weight of a falling mango tree. The solution for everyone is
the same: make measured financial decisions.
The couples are soap opera characters
created for an educational campaign by the
humanitarian organization Mercy Corps
to teach financial lessons to rural Filipinos
affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. But
the stories did not unravel on TVs or radios;
rather, they were told on mobile phones
through calls and texts.
THE POWER OF A GOOD S TORY…AND DATA
After Haiyan, Mercy Corps opened bank
accounts for 25,000 typhoon victims. Along
with money, the organization wanted to
provide financial wisdom to a population
that earned an average of US$2 per day. Few
saved money, or only saved at home, not at
a bank. Many physically lost their savings in
“In focus groups, people said they know
they should [save] but didn’t really grasp why,”
Vaidehi Krishnan told E4C. Krishnan was the
head of Mercy Corps' program in the Philippines before moving to Syria.
Using soap operas as a teaching approach,
Mercy Corps recorded and delivered 22 episodes in 844,000 texts and automated calls
to 20,000 of its bank deposit recipients via a
unique tool built by non-profit engageSPARK.
It surveyed its audience after each episode to
gauge comprehension and used the survey
answers to guide the campaign from one
episode to the next.
The soaps were a hit among those who read
or listened to them, particularly women, Krish-
nan says. “We were doing one or two a week,
and women asked if we could do more because
they wanted to know what was happening.”
To assess results, Mercy Corps performed
a randomized controlled trial among a subset
of the program participants. They found
that calls—though less frequent and more
expensive than texts—had a 10-fold higher
response rate: 48.2 percent compared to
4. 5 percent of texts. Also, those who
received calls were more than twice as likely
to save money and use banking services.
“Both times we saw a jump in transaction
data [it was] around the time we ran the
campaigns,” Krishnan adds.
SOAPS IN TERNATIONAL
Following the campaign in the Philippines,
Mercy Corps and engageSPARK adapted the
concept for other disaster and conflict zones
around the world, including an investment
awareness campaign in Afghanistan. Data is
the crucial element to each campaign.
“We’d like engageSPARK to help us make
our programs more adaptive. If [the programs]
don’t adapt in real time, we could be completely
off and not know it,” Krishnan says. •
"Field Reports" are written by Engineering for Change—a knowledge hub that enables the
global development workforce to improve the lives of underserved communities worldwide.
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this respect, [the innovation ecosystem] is
caught in an echo chamber.
Also, let’s flip the question around: what
if three 25-year olds from Kenya came to the
U.S. and said they wanted to solve all our
problems. How would we react to that?
SM: On the other side of that, the people
with the deep pockets who can afford
to do R&D on new technologies focus on
strategies that are aligned to their bottom
lines—the ones that can become profitable
near-term. The rural poor get left out of
that equation. Instead, government agencies and donors try to bring innovations to
them, but the goals change too frequently.
The market needs to think longer-term.
E4C: Reading through the 50 Breakthroughs report, the body of work feels
both illuminating and daunting. How has
it affected your personal sense of purpose and commitment to your work?
SM: I’ve had a checkered career—I started
in software and then went into business
strategy, then international development strategy. My work now brings all
of those experiences together and helps
me connect the dots in interesting ways.
Every day, I get to use my past training
in a novel way and look at problems and
solutions from multiple angles. That, for
me, is tremendous.
I also meet amazing people in this field
who have their hearts in the right place and
are committing their lives and energy to
social good. This work has especially helped
me appreciate the practical challenges
of people on the ground who are getting things done. That’s where I draw my
energy and inspiration.
SB: Last year, we wet through a rough
patch in terms of funding. We really had
to scale down the team. Part of me was
tempted to just go work for another organization. That would have been a comfortable decision, but through this project, I
feel a personal sense of responsibility to
make these breakthroughs happen. People
look to us to do that. •
Soap operas by phone
teach the power of
savings in crisis zones
Focus group participants
knew they should save
money, but few could or did.