Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Dead Live in America

Recently I was in England for an American Studies conference. It was strange to hear presenters from Europe so comfortably overgeneralize about "Americans," "America," and "American-ness." Occasionally I felt compelled to assert my native knowledge about my home country in these discussions, but often I just listened silently as the exotic behaviors of the strange inhabitants of my land were discussed with a mix of amusement and distain.

During today's session at the annual research conference for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion the emphasis was frequently upon showcasing presentations from researchers working in geographical regions in which they already know the language and cultural practices. Given how easy it would be to be to leave the field to techno-missionaries with one-size-fits-all one-laptop-per-child ideas that emphasize American enthusiasm for individual enterprise, consumer electronics, and ideologies of novelty rather than treat indigenous people as stakeholders, the efforts of the Institute to bring this range of researchers to the United States are particularly noteworthy.

The first talk on the second day of the conference, "Understanding Social Payments and Relationships among Poor People in Ethiopia," was presented by Woldmariam Mesfin Fikre who asked if designers of mobile money should "create new people for new technologies" or "create new technologies for people." He pointed out that individuals had interconnected social networks among themselves, but that there were also intermediaries like priests and shamans who could connect to a supernatural realm populated on the one hand by Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints and by gods, including evil spirits, on the other.

How should a mobile phone be designed for people in Ethiopia and for the kinds of transactions in which mobile money might be needed? Too much research, Fikre argued, was focused on the technical aspects of mobile money not its social and cultural aspects. He detailed a number of basic questions that should be asked. What are the major relationships among people? How will these relationships be established and terminated? Why do people make social payments? What are gift procedures?

In introducing the evidence of his case study and the literature review, Fikre lamented the fact that "the most important articles" in his field "were difficult to access because of subscriptions and fees" charged by scholarly digital archives. (See John Willinsky's The Access Principle, which is available online in its entirety, for more about this issue.) Fikre's informants were Christian Orthodox Amhara and Oromo farmers with no access to electricity, who faced a 110 km round trip if they wished to travel to the closest financial institution in the area.

Fikre observed a high demand for mobile phones among this population, because they were a sign of prestige, a sign of modernization, and a sign of financial wellness. However, owners of these phones had to deal with a major problem with battery recharging.

He also enumerated a number of culturally specific financial practices that involved more complex forms of reciprocity than mobile phones generally can accommodate. For example, an "edir" serves as a traditional micro-insurance association to assist families facing the consequences of the death of a family member and participates in mourning rituals and provides cash payments. There were also payments for marriage and forms of tithing that were important to the focus groups that Fikre studied.

Fikre also raised a number of tricky issues that resisted simple technological solutions. For example, there were situations in which refusing money is important in social relations, which passive connective processes can not easily accommodate. Certain payments are conventionally recorded, while others are not recorded. In considering the design of mobile money it would be important to the culture to enable the giving of secret money, transactions involving confidential money, and gifts to the church without an amount visible.

Sirimevan S.S. Colombage presented on "Financial Inclusion in Sri Lanka: Constraints and Prospects." He described a financial landscape dominated by two state banks that hold sixty percent of the country's total asset base and his mix of research methods that drew from qualitative investigations (household interviews, focus group discussions, etc.) and a quantitative survey to understand the financial inclusion experienced by those who earn around one dollar a day in Sri Lanka. He described this group as "underbanked" not "unbanked," because even among the ultra-poor, 68.8% reported having an account, and 54.3% had financial transactions with a microfinance institution.

Americans were also among the IMTFI's line-up for the day. U.C. Berkeley's Joshua Blumenstock showed preliminary research from a massive study of cell phone records that added up to two-and-a-half terabytes of data. "Banking on the Phone: Using Novel Sources of Data to Understand the Impact of Mobile Banking in Rwanda" used anonymous call records, third party survey data, and structured phone interviews to get more precise information about cultural practices in a society in which people just buy anonymous SIM cards on the street corner.

As one of the creators of the website Hot or Not, which launched a series of similar Internet memes, Blumenstock comes to academia with a complex pedigree that includes developing sites like If I Die that offer to deliver notes from the dead to the living. Of course, Blumenstock also has a more conventional research profile, so it is somewhat less surprising that he was entrusted with so much personal data on so many people in Rwanda.

Blumenstock has examined how the use of mobile phones and mobile banking is distributed through the population and looks at the role of gender, age, and wealth. His empirical research strategy also contrasted phone users from non-phone users. Phone owners earned more than twice the income of non-phone owners. Among those with phones, men and women made about the same number of calls, but men made more outgoing calls while women received more incoming ones. Apparently people in Kigali talked to more different people during a given time period than those living outside urban areas. "Risk sharing" was another important phenomenon.

In one of the more striking moments of visual rhetoric at the conference, Blumenthal showed an animation of calls made on the day of the February 2008 earthquake and what regions of the country were most active in the time following the disaster. His other moment of visual rhetoric involved showing on equation; its configuration of Greek letters was described as a "simple method of estimating difference that you wouldn’t expect."

Shaozeng Zhang also came to the IMTFI conference from an American university context in explaining "Financial inclusion or developmental exclusion? The carbon credit payment to forest inhabitants in Brazilian Amazon." He described how REDD programs aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation worked for forest residents who were to be compensated for not deforesting in Brazil as part of the larger global carbon credits market, Zhang focused on the Juma Reserve where "coboclos" or immigrants from drought-plagued Northeastern Brazil had become subsistence farmers dependent on slash-and-burn agriculture after enduring the decline the of rubber economy after World War II.

Zhang pointed out that this was purportedly a successful REDD program, because of the effects of a shortage of financial resources elsewhere in the voluntary carbon market that involved the carbon credits of Marriot Hotel International. In that sense the program was "running faster" and thus was "in some sense more successful" in dispensing its four forms of assistance: 1) the family forest allowance that provided monthly cash, 2) the income forest allowance that provided support for non-timber forest product extraction with commodities like Brazil nuts, 3) the social forest allowance, and 4) forest associations that covered operational costs.

Yet Zhang noted that the cost of gasoline for the canoes to reach the nearest Bradesco Bank greatly reduced potential profits for the indigenous inhabitants. He argued that the carbon market may be subject to the same economic cycles of boom and bust in which the residents of the rain forest had little to say. In asking about the valuation of the forest by whom and for whom, Zhang reminded the audience of the long history of colonial and post-colonial exploitation in financial schemes involving gold, sugar cane, and coffee in Brazil. Zhang asked if low-cost carbon credit might just be another system of harvesting.

"Gender and Money: Case Studies from Philippine Indigenous Communities" by Mary Janet Arnado was the next research study presented, which highlighted differences in how a man and a woman stores money. She also described family conflicts around money and the lack of attention to interest rates among low-income – Igorots, Tagbanua, and Higaonaon. Themes of visibility and invisibility also appeared as she showed the women's communal bathhouse, a sulfur hot spring where money and family matters could be discussed.

As Arnado explained marriage and death can be expensive in the rural Philippines because of the need for men in the family to feed the whole village. Furthermore, gender segregation and related patterns of social spending also made saving difficult for those who often bought goods in very small quantities in a "sari-sari store."

American Eric Silverman followed with "Moni, Marginality, and Modernization in Postcolonial Papua New Guinea." He began his narrative dramatically with an account of a disastrous flood that decimated the village that he had studied and disrupted the life of his local "brother." Silverman described a lack state money now that the inhabitants had abandoned traditional shell currency. Yams were not enough to support currency exchange, and the situation had become worse since the buying of tourist art depicted in the film Cannibal Tours had been lost. He described how all village trade stores were shuttered, and there was no petty capitalism, so that there were more poor and more unbanked than in the village two decades earlier.

Silverman's method included collecting children’s drawings of money and their consumer desires. He explained how moral imperitives around reciprocity and kinship often made money flow difficult. In summary, "a good capitalist is a lousy kinsman; a good kinsman is poor." He described shame in asking for cash, women struggling to save for the future, and instability introduced by transitioning to the nuclear family. In this environment there was little fiscal planning, and all decisions were immediate and ad hoc. As he pointed out traditional structures don’t map neatly onto imported models for capital, particularly when who to give to and who to share with was not clear. He described how the inhabitants now even charge interest when loaning money to kin, and how women were more successful in this struggling informal economy because they made baskets used by local people on an everyday basis not tourist goods like men.

The title for this blog post comes from Silverman's narrative about the villagers insisting with him that "the dead live in America." These dead had once traveled to the village to buy goods, but now perhaps the Australian were preventing this trade and perhaps even selling goods to Asian countries. "Unblock the road to the dead!" they demanded. Even his local brother asked "What are we doing wrong that we live like this? We have no money."

Economic anthropologist Julia Elyachar wove together a number of threads from these panels. As she pointed out, they were "ending with roads":roads to the dead, roads to the forest, global flows to the indigenous. She also discussed the "rediscovery of the informal economy" in the presentations and the role of nature as outside of markets and outside of the economy. She noted the themes of secrecy and visibility in these presentations as well, since they included open baskets of cash in convenience stores, money buried by a man to be hidden from his wife, and coins in a Coke bottle to handle daily expenses.

In the afternoon presentations, another visiting researcher from Malawi, Chinyamata Chipeta, gave a talk entitled "Adapting and extending the use of accumulating savings and credit associations through village savings and loan associations," which explained the promotion of local VS and LA institutions. He explained that it was easier for villagers to bank through their own banks and use their own social capital. The structure of these institutions were organized with a country coordinator at the top of the hierarcy, officers, village agents, and VS & LA committees. He noted the sequential nature of borrowing, the brief one-month loan period, the variations in capital contributions among members, the use of cash boxes and passbooks, and the checks and balances in operation, which included a mechanism in which three keys were required to open a cash box. Chipeta closed his talk with a video in which village women sang,"If this bank ends, we are going to complain."

Kurt von Mettenheim and Lauro Gonzalez presented research on Brazil that included a type of institution often overlooked by neoliberal mobile money enthusiasts, the government bank or "those old things." They showed a number of spreadsheets with largest banks in Brazil represented on their rosters. They also praised the "Bill Maurer method of looking in your wallet" and displayed one of the 110 million citizenship cards that had been issued, which were not identity cards. Their final visual aid was a Sao Paulo Google map to encourage the audience to visualize the three million unbanked people and their need for family grants from the government. More information about their presentation on "Banking and Microfinance in Brazil" can be found here.

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