Financial Literacy is a Human Right

May 2, 2012

Hong Kong-born lawyer and long time Shanghai resident Audrey Leung says that working people migrate for the same reason she did, to better their lives and make a chance for a brighter future. She says that this is as true for the professional classes as it is for Hong Kong’s almost 350,000 imported domestic workers, many of whom maintain that if they could find decent work at home, they never would have left the shores of their own countries. While many come with dreams of saving to establish themselves when they return home, the experience of most is ending each month with empty pockets.

While the basic focus is on supporting their families, they find that no matter how much they send home, it is never enough. “We love our families, but often they are our biggest enemy,” is a common complaint. “They think our resources are endless.” Family pressure is often behind debt. The Philippine consul general, Noel Servigon, says that in his work with the migrant community, debt problems are everyday problems. Migrant workers flock to Hong Kong in almost equal numbers from Indonesia and the Philippines. Both groups are predominately female and want to do something to help their families escape the poverty of a bleak present and bleaker future.

On a more structured basis, Jaime Aristotle Alip, a young Filipino graduate in financial management, decided to do something “to alleviate poverty in the hinterlands of the Philippines, especially among women.” In the ensuing 25 years, the foundation he started, CARD-MRI, has grown into the largest micro-credit provider in the country and today boasts 6,700 field workers across the scattered islands of the Philippines and consists of nine institutions, including micro-credit, a bank, insurance services with 6.7 million policy holders, and a scholarship program.

Just over 12 months ago, CARD began offering its introductory courses in financial literacy to migrant workers in Hong Kong. At a graduation ceremony, Alip said that financial literacy is just as important as reading and writing. The president of CARD in Hong Kong, Edna Aquino, explained that most Philippine organizations in Hong Kong are involved in the struggle for human rights. “But financial literacy is also a human right,” she notes. “Everyone has the right to know and understand their own financial situation and being able to plan effectively gives a chance to make realistic plans.” Alip explains, “It facilitates people in making informed decisions.”

The introductory courses are taught by a group of young Filipinos working in the financial sector in Hong Kong, who have formed themselves into a society called Project-Be.

The president, Doods Sarmiento, said that he is always struck by how the attitudes of people change as they increase their skill levels. “They become a lot more community minded,” he went on. “A lot more conscious of the value of the contribution they make to the lives of other people.” He added, “We teach skills from debt management to planned saving and income management. It is a matter really of teaching them how to ask the right questions.”

However, he was quick to add, “It is not one-way traffic. We discover ourselves growing in our own skills and expanding our horizons through our experience of the migrant workers.”

Graduating from a CARD introductory course entitles people to begin their compulsory savings program, which must be completed before they can qualify to borrow money to begin a livelihood project. It is also a passport to the extensive range of financial and market advice offered by the non-government organization’s field officers.

Alip calls it a way to prepare to go home and be ready start a new life immediately upon arrival, with all the preparations made. One graduate, Evelyn Cabucos, said that she has learned that there are possibilities in life other than being isolated from her family for ever overseas. “I have learned that I can go home and still provide for my family,” she concluded.

And is it popular? Sarmiento explains, “In one year we have come from nothing to leaving an imprint on the lives of more than 200 people.”

In the long run it is about maximizing the hard earned dollar from working overseas.

Columban Fr. Jim Mulroy lives and works in Hong Kong.