Working with The Poorest Women in Pakistan

16 January 2014

CGAP recently commissioned our design firm, Continuum Innovation, to complete a research project that used applied product innovation techniques to identify the constraints of linking these government-to-person (G2P) payments to financial inclusion. Be sure to read the preceding post, Literacy a Hidden Hurdle to Financial Inclusion.

We recently completed a project for CGAP that used applied product innovation techniques to finding ways to help government-to-person (G2P) beneficiaries in Pakistan. The insights from this research provide a nuanced understanding of the difficulties of providing financial services to the very poorest in a society, specifically the barriers that come from extreme illiteracy. This research is applicable not only to other G2P payment providers and government ministries, but also to any financial provider that seeks to design a product that meets the needs and the capabilities of low-income clients.

How can G2P payments be used to build financial inclusion? The government of Pakistan established the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) in 2008 to distribute cash payments to low-income families. BISP pays poor families 3,000 PKRs every three months, which is a little over $10 a month per family. Soon the amount will be increased to 3,500 PKRs—about $12 a month. Currently about 5 million families receive BISP payments. The project focused on helping impoverished women in Pakistan who depend on these small BISP payments to learn how to use a bank: how to get their money out of the bank, but also how to keep some of their money in the bank as savings. We hypothesized that women who were part of the banking system would be able to save more safely than by storing cash in their home and would be able to make payments more conveniently. The project involved working closely with Habib Bank Limited (HBL)—one of the distributors of BISP payments.

BISP recipients live in stark poverty: the family income of the people we met was typically less than $4 per day. The way these families think about and interact with the world is different from the way we do. We needed to get close to the recipients to understand their lives and build empathy with them so that we could find ways to help them to connect to the banking system. We spent about five weeks in southern Punjab, talking with women in poor areas around Lahore and Multan and looking for ways to help them. It was a process: we slowly began to see the world through their eyes.

Poor women in Pakistan
The Benazir Income Support Programme, established by Pakistan government, distributes about $10 a month to around 5 million of the poorest women in Pakistan.
BSIP recipients in Pakistan
On behalf of CGAP, Continuum Innovation worked directly with BISP recipients to understand the problems they face and to test solutions that work for them.
Interviews with BISP recipients
Each interview lasted about an hour. We asked about their sources of income, social circles, financial behaviors, and thoughts on banking.
A woman makes key chains to sell.
One woman we spoke with was married to a welder. She makes and sells these key chains.
BISP recipients are mostly illiterate.
BISP recipients are very poor and live day-to-day. Most are illiterate. Their primary concerns were making sure they could pay for essentials.
Trunk for saving at home
We spoke to many women who preferred to save money in metal trunk in their home rather than in a bank.
A BISP recipient uses an ATM machine
Even though most of the women did save in their home, they were not ready to save at a bank. They did not trust banks enough to leave their money there.
Many BISP recipients are illiterate
Illiteracy is a hidden hurdle that makes it difficult to bring financial inclusion to BISP recipients. This woman was unable to understand written numerals.
A woman writing her name
The standard for literacy in Pakistan is to be able to write your own name. The women we met were unable to do even this.
Entering a PIN into a cell phone
Learning to enter PIN numbers from left to right is difficult for BISP beneficiaries, who know that Urdu runs from right to left.
A phone receipt
BISP recipients couldn't understand the phone receipt on the list, but the one on the right, with one large number, was comprehensible.
ATM receipt
Normal ATM receipts were incomprehensible, but BISP recipients could match the right number of Rupees with the simplified receipt with just one large number.
Testing prototypes in Pakistan
We recommend designing tools specifically for illiterate people. For example, most BISP recipients learned these visual instructions for using an ATM quickly.
Visual tool to teach people to use an ATM
This is an example of a visual tool that works for BISP recipients. We recommend using photographs to teach BISP recipients how to use the banking system.
ATM education tool
Since there was great desire among the women to learn to use ATMs on their own, we created smaller versions of the instructions so they could share with others.
A BISP recipient visits an agent
BISP recipients also had trouble interacting with bank agents. They couldn't check their balance or read their receipts, and didn't understand the process.
Poster explaining how the agent process works
We tested simple posters to explain the agent process. Recipients understood these and could articulate how their experience had differed.
This is an example of what a simple agents poster could look like. We also made a shareable version.
BISP communications
Expressing amounts paid in this way makes it easier for BISP recipients to monitor their payments, reducing the likelihood that they will be defrauded.
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We found that basic tasks for most people in developed economies—going to a bank or an agent, using an ATM, punching in a PIN code, reading a receipt—are huge hurdles for the women we met. These women, for the most part, are illiterate and disempowered. Despite well-meaning efforts, the banks and BISP have been slow to accommodate the needs of their customers, and many small glitches in their operations are hurting BISP recipients. The system is slowly getting better, and some very committed people in banking and in the Pakistan government are determined to make significant improvements.

All of the women interviewed were grateful for the BISP payments, but they also did not trust BISP because of the irregularity of their payments. When a payment was not available on time, they did not know why this was the case—had they done something wrong, had someone else taken the money, had they been disqualified from the program, or had the money not arrived yet? Also, most women did not know how to get their money from an ATM on their own, or did not understand what was happening when they got their money from an agent. The women’s illiteracy was compounded by their lack of personal agency, which made them vulnerable to the person helping them at an ATM, the agent, or their husband or other person who took control of their BISP debit card. As a result, even though most women did save in their home, they were not yet ready to save at a bank.

At the start of this project we thought that mobile phones could be a low-cost and convenient way for women in remote areas to interact with a bank. However, we soon learned that many of these women did not have a phone and did not know how to use one. As smart phones penetrate even the poorest and most remote parts of Pakistan, phone banking may then be an option, but mobile banking for this population is not viable in the near term.

Although the women were all illiterate and unfamiliar with basic technology, this does not mean they are not able to learn or lacked other forms of knowledge. One old village woman in particular who had lived her entire life in the country was completely illiterate and could not use a cell phone. However, she was proud and confident, and when we described some financial products to her in a way she could understand, she immediately understood how to use them to her advantage in ways that our team had not anticipated.

Despite these barriers, most of the women wanted to be able to manage their money themselves and they understood that a bank is the best place to save money. After analyzing the results of the study, we arrived at four recommendations to help these women make the most of their G2P payments and their resulting inclusion into the banking system: (1) ensure BISP payments follow a regular, published schedule; (2) use photographic instructions to teach BISP recipients how to use an ATM or an agent; (3) increase transparency in the system by making it easier for BISP recipients to know how much money they have in their accounts and understand how much money was withdrawn, for example, by providing receipts with simple, large text of only the most relevant information; and (4) offer simple savings products and a loan product that provide options for BISP recipients. These recommendations are a natural extension of how recipients are thinking about their interactions with the bank today. With these changes in place, the BISP program could be an effective stepping-stone to fuller financial inclusion. And with the ability to control their money, perhaps these women will develop a greater sense of personal agency.


Harry West and Rachel Lehrer work for Continuum Innovation.



Submitted by Hassan on
Very nicely written. Unfortunately, the delay in payments is due to the beurocracy in charge of BISP. It is a huge problem for banks as well because beneficiaries start reaching out to them for cash withdrawal with no money in their accounts. Often they travel huge distances and return back with no money.

Submitted by Atika Kemal on
I am a PhD researcher in UK and my research on mobile banking is based on Pakistan. I found this blog very interesting and insightful for my study. I would like to have your email contact so that I can get in touch with you for further discussion. It would be very much appreciated. I hope to hear from you soon.

Submitted by Sundas Liaqat on
Hi Atika, I am currently a graduate student in Washington DC and a potential Ph.D researcher planning to focus my research on financial inclusion of women in Pakistan. I read your comment and thought it would be interesting to know what you are researching on. If you would like please email me at sundasliaquat at gmail dot com. I would love to hear from you.

Submitted by Harry West on
Atika, Thank you for your comments. Best way to contact me is: [email protected] Look forward to talking, Harry

Submitted by Rachel Lehrer on
Thanks Atika. My email is rlehrer (at) I look forward to answering any questions you have.

Submitted by Raul Santos on
Harry, Rachel, you where surprised about the ways that women can use financial services to their advantage. Can you tell us some examples?

Submitted by Y P ISSAR on
The study is an important contribution on the literature on FI. In South Asian context poverty coupled with illiteracy becomes a formidable challenge for FI. Our urge to achieve larger numbers in a given time does not let us simplify the approach, pilot it and the implement it after incorporating the beneficiaries points of view. The study brings out the benefits of simpler approach in FI very convincingly. Emphasis on doing simple things correctly like regularity in payments or big figure ATM receipts or pictorial representation of processes are telling examples.

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