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CSI member Brett Matthews makes sure digital currency leaves no one behind

In most countries — Canada included! — our currency is easily differentiated by things like the colour and artwork of each bill or coin. But as the world moves away from cash and towards digital transactions, we are leaving behind approximately one billion illiterate and and innumerate (otherwise known as ‘oral’) adults who can’t read or write numbers like $1,250 or ₹24,300. This leaves them excluded from economic participation, contributes to cascading negative outcomes and perpetuates deep poverty.

With his My Oral Village project, CSI member Brett Matthews has created transaction records that everyone – including illiterate and innumerate people – can use safely, conveniently and independently.

In recognition of his systems changing work, Brett was made an Ashoka Fellow. Ashoka Fellows are the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. They champion innovative new ideas that transform society’s systems, providing benefits for everyone and improving the lives of millions of people.

We chatted with him about what this fellowship means to him, what the world looks like if My Oral Village achieves its goals, and how being part of CSI is making that happen.

Congratulations on becoming an Ashoka Fellow! What is the most meaningful part for you?
Ashoka gets what I’m doing, and believes in it. That is a big thing for me, because as I’ve been learning, they have been a transformational force in putting social entrepreneurship – in all its glorious impact and diversity – on the map. Getting to know them has been getting to know about this wonderful movement. There are Ashoka Fellows whose work literally takes my breath away. Their vision, energy and commitment provide a whole new benchmark for my own efforts.

What do you wish potential donors or supporters understood about people living in poverty?
Poverty, and the state of being in it, say nothing bad about a person. Poverty is not the result of a morally or intellectually deficient character. It is what happens when we humans create large-scale social organizations without thinking about the human consequences carefully enough. Poverty is a problem we have all created, and it is going to take all of us to fix it. And we can do it. In the Anthropocene, we can no longer say “the poor are always with us.” We must instead say – “what we created, we can fix!”

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned since you started working in Oral Information Management?
I remain utterly dumbfounded – I can’t think of a more accurate term – by the fact that the work I’m currently doing is even necessary. I have no idea why it wasn’t done a century ago. And the reasons for doing it have simply kept increasing in every decade since. Why would we not make it easier for illiterate and innumerate people to understand their own financial records by providing those in a form that this population can understand? We understand what we are trying to communicate to them, and we know that they have no chance of decoding our messages. Since we are code-makers, let us lever what they do know to fashion a code they can understand and use comfortably. How difficult can this be – honestly?

I studied Marshall McLuhan at the University of Toronto a decade ago. In one of his papers he put it like this: “We live invested in an electric information environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to fish.” I didn’t imagine then that something as basic as text could be imperceptible to us as literate adults. Now, hard experience has taught me that he is right.

What is your biggest hope for My Oral Village? What does the world look like if all those hopes come true?
No parent should ever have to pull a child out of school because the price of chickens drops, or a disease sweeps through her flock. This is one of many ways that poor people suffer because they can’t use formal financial services. Subsistence farmers and landless labourers do a great job of managing complex portfolios of in-kind assets, promises and precious metals. But to get out of poverty permanently is really hard if they can’t add cash and financial assets to their portfolios. If we succeed, everyone on earth will be able to safely and confidently enter the formal financial sector whenever they need to, and accomplish what they need to there. The issues we target are particularly onerous to girls and women, because of gender norms that disempower their natural desire to learn how to work with numbers and money. We can’t eliminate those gender norms, but we can reduce their power.

At My Oral Village, we’re building the science of ‘oral information management’, and designing practical applications from it. We want to put an end to the days when humans in advanced technological societies can look at the rest of the world and say “they’ll figure it all out, and if they can’t, tough.” This sort of attitude can’t build a just global society, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or help us adapt to the challenges of the Anthropocene. So in some ways our highest aspiration is to help to change thinking here. We don’t just have to take responsibility for the natural environment. We also have to take responsibility for human nature.

How has being involved with CSI impacted your work?
A lot! I discovered CSI in 2011 when we were renovating our house. I was a self-employed microfinance consultant at the time, and had spent most of the previous decade working in some of the poorest nations in Asia. I loved working in the villages in Asia, but had become very disillusioned by expat communities and the so-called ‘experts’ in microfinance and development. During my stint at CSI I met a lot of really beautiful people with really inspiring visions and the practical mindset and habits to realize them. It was an inflection point in my personal growth. I started seeing Toronto not just as a source of confusion and misinformation about global poverty, but also a genuine source of possible resources and solutions.

I’ll never forget a series of workshops I attended, organized and facilitated by Tonya Surman, at the newly opened Annex for social entrepreneurs working on new ideas. I was planning a new not-for-profit, to be called My Oral Village. She showed an immediate and genuine interest in what I was doing, and has kept that interest ever since. My work is different from hers, but she understands the challenges of building a social enterprise and a social movement, and her insights are always valuable. For our part we’ve been having our board meetings at CSI since our inception, and Tonya attended our first public event in Toronto, at CSI at 192 Spadina, facilitated by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail.

How can CSI members (or anyone!) get involved in My Oral Village?
We are currently looking for board members with experience in fund-raising, journalism or international banking and microfinance. We are also looking for volunteers in accounting, design and website development.

If you have an idea that will help build an equitable, regenerative and prosperous Next Economy, become a CSI member today!

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