Friday, October 01, 2010

Theory as Storytelling

The closing talk at the conference for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion on "The impact of M-PESA: results from a panel survey of Kenyan households"
was delivered by Billy Jack, who described the rapid adoption of the popular cell-phone based mobile money service by eight million people in country of thirty million, which was accompanied by a growth of M-PESA agents in a place in the developing world with better cell phone coverage than Westchester county.

Jack described how a number of indicators about customers unable to withdraw money, unable to deposit money, not being asked by agent to show ID, or not trusting agent had been steadily improving. Unlike some cyber-utopians, he also explained that the focus of his research was not on "getting rich" but on a potential "gain in insurance" that could be important for "smoothing shocks." He described how M-PESA was "not the bank for the unbanked" exclusively, because many different populations -- rural, urban, unbanked, and banked -- all showed growth in using M-PESA, although the service was definitely expanding to those not as well off.

He also asked a fundamental question often not asked in mobile money circles: "Is sending money important?" He noted that users are more likely to send and receive money but that economists should be careful not to see causation in correlation. Among so-called "early adopters" Jack observed that there was not much change between sending and receiving money, but late adopters did change remittance behavior. (Most people in Kenya are paid monthly, so that was a particularly important unit of use.)

Kenyans still used traditional means of storing money among the unbanked, according to one of Jack's bar graphs. In fact, mattresses beats out M-PESA among Kenyans. Like others with an economics background at the conference he spent little time on formulae. When skipping over regression results, Jack said, "we’re at a beach after all."

Although Jack said that "theory is just storytelling," he argued that the data showed that M-PESA users were better at smoothing positive and negative shocks. However, he was also cautious about these results, particularly since the effects of M-KESHO were still unknown. He was also wary of claiming too much about macro-economic effects and monetary policy, particularly since M-PESA actually causes there to be less money out in the system. At the level of everyday life it also creates challenges for users in a culture that expects contributions. Furthermore, he noted that M-PESA's parent company Safaricom was a monopology.

What are the lessons learned? For Jack, M-PESA is a story about "not designing for the poor" and the value of thinking about financial inclusion inclusively. When people in the audience asked why bother researching something that was a success, Jack joked about the Microsoft analogy but defended the nuanced picture that he was presenting.

In closing the proceedings, organizer Bill Maurer argued that designers had been urging him and other conference participants to get "less noun-y and more verb-y" in two days of research that was more about "moneying" than "money" in asking "what's the user interface for money?" and "what is money if it would be more democratizing?" And then what he described as a conference about "tearing," "throwing," "converting," "hiding," "interring," "celebrating," "securing," "exploiting," and "trusting" came to an end.

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