Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Financial Education Via Television Comedy in Applied Economics Letters

NEW article by Andrew Crawford, Paul Lajbcygier and Pushkar Maitra in Applied Economics Letters, 19 Jan 2018 for their IMTFI-funded project, Mobile Money Financial Literacy via Television Comedy.


We show that television may be able to deliver rudimentary financial literacy in a cost-effective manner. In a controlled experiment, Cambodian garment factory workers were randomly assigned to one of three treatments: no video (baseline), slideshow and comedy TV show. After the intervention, to examine whether individuals were able to internalize the information that was provided, participants were asked to answer a set of questions on financial knowledge and attitudes. Our results show that participants randomly assigned to the comedy show are significantly more likely to report that they are interested in obtaining more information on savings accounts and are also significantly more likely to open a savings account in the next 6 months. This method of delivery may prove effective particularly for the disadvantaged sections of the population in remote regions of Cambodia.

In recent years, mass media has penetrated large parts of the developing world with traditionally remote communities now having access to television and internet. It is argued that this could be used to achieve development goals: entertainment can have an educational role to play, leading to the term edutainment. Evidence from different parts of the world suggests that this is indeed the case.

In this article, we examine whether mass media can be used effectively to improve financial literacy and consequently foster financial inclusion in developing countries. Television may be able to deliver rudimentary financial literacy to those most disadvantaged in a cost-effective manner. The promise of broadcast TV is that the financial education it delivers may prove effective as it will be accessible, memorable, and entertaining to a large audience of those normally excluded from financial services, particularly those belonging to disadvantaged sections of the population and those living outside the major cities.

The Cambodian Microfinance Association (CMA), in conjunction with the research team, produced a 5-min comedy skit to be ultimately shown as prerecorded segment in a popular Saturday evening television show, one which is watched by 20% of the country’s population. The episode involves a storyline mainly focussed on concepts relating to financial knowledge, loan management and savings. An advanced video of the episode was shown to randomly selected garment factory workers during their lunch break. A second randomly selected group of garment factory workers were shown a financial literacy slideshow video, which covered roughly the same material, but did not have any comedy content. After watching the respective videos, the participants were asked to participate in a survey to collect information on their financial knowledge and attitudes towards different financial products. The results were compared to that of a baseline group, which consisted of a third randomly selected group of garment factory workers who did not watch any video, but participated in the same survey as participants in the two treatment groups.

We find evidence that attitudes to savings accounts were significantly different for those who viewed the comedy show compared to those assigned to the control and the slide show, without going into explanations for these differences. Furthermore, it appears that the video was more effective than the alternative delivery approaches in piquing workers’ interests in savings accounts.

To access full article -

Photo taken from Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA)'s video on loan management from YouTube. View here:

Contact information:
Andrew Crawford, Department of Banking and Finance, Monash University, Caulfield Campus, Australia -
Paul Lajbcygier Department of Econometrics and Business Statistics, Monash University, Clayton Campus, Australia
Pushkar Maitra Department of Economics, Monash University, Clayton Campus, Australia -

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

“Capitalism is so much easier!”— Learning savings through playing a board game

By Farah Qureshi and IMTFI/Loy Loy Team at UC Irvine in the Geek Anthropologist

Loy Loy: The Savings Game in Washington D.C.!

Staging of Loy Loy at the AnthropologyCon Salon in Washington DC

Julia had been waiting until the last round to take her pot of money from the others. She was trying to get 50 Loys from every player to buy the coffee cart for extra income. After passing the star square it was savings group meeting day. She bid 50 and each player was obliged to give her the money, but the request was met with resistance. Earlier in the game, Chris had threatened to leave the savings group when Julia did not lend him money to buy a pig. Her high bid was a gamble completely depending on the players’ solidarity, so she held her breath while Chris’ deliberated his options. While playing, they had all learned that trust was crucial to the game, but she also knew he would not survive long alone. In the end, Chris resentfully handed over his 50 Loys to Julia, it was her first asset purchase anyway, and helping her would overall help everyone. 

Welcome to Loy Loy: The Savings Game ( where you play a Cambodian female worker trying to save up money with the other players to purchase a garment factory together.

In November 2017, our team from UC Irvine’s Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) carried a role-playing board game to the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) annual conference in Washington D.C.. Loy Loy (which means “Money Money” in Khmer) is a financial education tool being developed by IMTFI to teach players how one type of rotating savings and credit association (ROSCA) works. Similar to Monopoly, you receive ‘payday’ money upon each circulation of the board, which represents one month in time. However, unlike Monopoly, all players both move collectively with a single placeholder representing time and save together to win by purchasing the $5000 garment factory before the maximum number of months is up. Your progress depends on random events and expenses (such as medical expenses), with occasional opportunities to purchase income generating assets (for example, a pig) despite the pressure to maintain your personal funds. If any player reaches bankruptcy, the game is over for everyone. All players are challenged to come together and reach the goal collaboratively to win, which you can do through extending loans to one another or paying one another’s bills.

As anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and Shirley Ardener have famously written, and as generations of ROSCA members and development professionals have experienced, ROSCAs are commonly used in low-income communities across the world but can differ dramatically from country to country. In East Africa, for example, members of the ROSCA (or chama) make sure that money is separated and stored in a box. All participants pay an equal amount each month, as payouts are all equal. Mexican and Mexican-American tandas provide a unifying social space, encompassing a form of community as well as consistent sharing of funds. In Cambodia, factory workers form a kind of bidding ROSCA. In this kind of ROSCA, each individual contributes towards a collective savings pot, for which each member of the group then bids by offering to repay at a rate of interest they’re willing to offer to receive the pooled funds. In Loy Loy, ROSCA day falls once each round to award one player funds from the pot, instigating haggling and bidding wars between players. Once a player has ‘won’ the pot, they cannot enter a bid on the next ROSCA day until each player has had a chance at winning.

The idea for the board game developed during a closed-door workshop for IMTFI fellows, "Getting Beyond the Survey: Ethnography and the Art of Seeing," where participants convened to share their in-progress research and discuss methodology. A creative group exercise materialized issues found in observations of payment practices in different field sites around the world. You can see the inception video here:

Games are recognized as a valuable tool to communicate complex social dynamics. Allowing students to participate, interconnect and play creates an immediate and ongoing feedback mechanism where failure is reframed as iteration so that learning happens by doing. In this case the game teaches you about your own interactions and relations with money even as it offers a window into the everyday economic challenges and financial practices of people like the Cambodian garment workers who inspired it. As a player, you’re responsible for both negotiating and preparing for expenses that turn out to be impossible to cover using the regular wage income that you’ll receive. Most players realize this within a few turns and begin to develop their strategies while playing, either forming as many close social connections as possible or bidding large on ROSCA days to receive loans and trying to hoard.

The game is engrossing: players are absorbed into a virtual reality constructed through their characters and ROSCA community. In both groups, players passionately embodied their characters while forming new friendships. Unique and surprising banter always appears as each player justifies their reasoning for deserving the money. The game encourages very particular creative thought and debating skills! We ran two testing sessions for interested gamers while at the AAAs, one in the lobby of the hotel where the conference was being held, and the second as invited guests at the AnthropologyCon salon for gaming and games at the conference. Sharing Loy Loy at the AAAs was a fun experience. I found it immensely valuable to receive feedback from anthropologists before and after each session, and in what follows, in the full blogpost I offer just a few reflections on what we learned.

For detailed reflections from the AAAs and background of Loy Loy, read the full blogpost in The Geek Anthropologist here:

Interested in keeping up to date, learning more or helping us distribute Loy Loy? Please join us on To purchase Loy Loy, follow this link to the Game Crafter site.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Insights on Demonetisation from Rural Tamil Nadu: Understanding Social Networks and Social Protection

NEW paper by Isabelle Guérin, Youna Lanos, Sébastien Michiels, Christophe Jalil Nordman and Govindan Venkatasubramanian, published in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, Issue No. 52, 30 Dec, 2017.

Queue in front of ATM in Chennai, January 2017
Photo credit: Santosh Kumar.

Drawing on survey data from rural Tamil Nadu, the effects of demonetisation are documented. Serious concerns arise with regard to the achievement of its stated goals. The rural economy was adversely affected in terms of employment, daily financial practices, and social network use for over three months. People came to rely more strongly on their networks to sustain their economic and social activities. Demonetisation has not fought, but has largely  strengthened the informal economy. Demonetisation has also probably further marginalised those without support networks. In a context such as India, where state social protection is weak and governmental schemes are notoriously subject to patronage and clientelistic networks, dense networks of supportive relatives, friends and patrons remain key for safeguarding daily life. With cashless policies gaining currency in various parts of the world, we believe our findings have major implications, seriously questioning their merit, especially among the most marginalised segments of the population.

Isabelle Guérin ( is at the IRD-Cessma  (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, Centre d’études en sciences sociales sur les mondes américains africains et asiatiques), Paris, France and is associated with the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP), India. Youna Lanos ( is a doctoral student at University Paris Dauphine, DIAL (Développement, Institutions et Mondialisation), and is associated with IFP. Sébastien Michiels ( is at IFP. Christophe Jalil Nordman ( is at the IRD, Paris and is associated with IFP. Govindan Venkatasubramanian ( is at IFP.

A group of women complaining to a clerk office that their labour welfare benefits cannot be withdrawn from the bank, January 2016. Photo credit: Santosh Kumar.

This paper follows and explores arguments made in the Special PERSPECTIVES Series on Demonetization in India last year, take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 below: 

Read more about Isabelle Guérin, Santosh Kumar and G Venkatasubramanian's IMTFI-funded research here.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Mobile Money: The First Decade - NEW white paper

By Stephen C. Rea and Taylor C. Nelms

"Mobile Money: The First Decade" White Paper - 34pp.
IMTFI Fellows Jude, Sangaré and Kusimba at Day 3 Workshop (2014) 

Over the past decade, mobile phone-enabled financial services, such as those made famous by the Kenyan mobile money platform M-Pesa, have been heralded as a means of poverty alleviation and financial inclusion. The mobile platform represents an exciting possibility as a delivery channel for digital financial services and as a technology that, like money, connects people with one another. Indeed, mobile money has thus become a central pillar of a global and internally heterogeneous—although by-now mostly “market-driven”—financial inclusion agenda, bringing together many different stakeholders in international development and philanthropy, industry (including telecommunications, banking, technology start-ups, and more), multinational aid and regulatory organizations, government, and academia.

Yet mobile money deployments around the world have not had unequivocal success. In this working paper, we survey lessons from the first decade of research into mobile money, focusing on an archive of studies produced by fellows funded by the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI), based at the University of California, Irvine. We specifically target insights about mobile money users’ everyday social, cultural, political, and economic practices. We suggest that the ethnographic sensibilities of mobile money researchers have enabled attention to mobile money’s real use cases, while demonstrating how those use cases are context-specific and dependent on material, political, and sociocultural conditions that are often not replicable. At the same time, however, this literature has been characterized by a lack of systematization and comparative insight. Often explicitly aspiring to replicate and scale specific innovations, mobile money professionals (like those in across the development world) make constant use of comparisons across contexts. Many of these comparisons mobilize categories familiar to social scientists: culture, history, locality, inequality. We see the case studies produced by IMTFI researchers as contributing to an explicitly collaborative project that lays bare these assumptions of comparability, as well as their limits. It is our hope that this synthesis will be beneficial for mobile money’s various stakeholders.

Mind Your Ps and 2s

We describe mobile money’s primary use case—P2P money transfer—and argue that both the “Ps” and the “2s” of this model (mobile money’s “peers” and the technological and social infrastructures that intermediate them) must be understood in context. We find that the complexities involved in introducing and scaling mobile money, shared across contexts, resist distillation and are not going away. They include infrastructural maintenance, liquidity management, and coordinating interaction among all of the people in the system, from users to agents to service providers to regulators. From a practical perspective, we insist that such complexities are best thought of not as “pain points” to be bypassed or “frictions” to be smoothed over, but challenges to be carefully and regularly attended to in ways that put history, culture, and politics front and center: not as buzzwords, but as windows onto the variables that make a difference—differently in different times and different places—in shaping uptake and use of both money and technology.

Insights from the Research Archive

In what constitutes the bulk of this paper, we outline ten insights from the IMTFI research archive that demonstrate these contextual complexities. These insights have to do with:
  • agent networks; 
  • physical infrastructure; 
  • location, place, and space; 
  • kinship and family; 
  • gender and gender inequality; 
  • class, caste, and rank; 
  • religion and ritual; 
  • time and tempo; 
  • government and regulation; and 
  • the persistence of both cash and non-currency stores of value. 

If indeed the comparative categories of social science—history, culture, and politics foremost among them—are now being embedded in the strategies, operating procedures, and even self-presentation of global development, then it’s up to us to specify the contours and content of those categories. For each, we attend to the gaps between the hopes for and realities of mobile money’s impact thus far, as well as some of the fissures that have emerged among mobile money’s different stakeholder groups.

Concluding Thoughts and Provocations

We conclude by raising issues that promise to be critical provocations for the next decade of mobile money research, making an argument for methodological diversity, and interrogating the limitations of the “financial inclusion” frame within which mobile money has been situated as a development intervention. If mobile money is, at its core, a technology of communication and circulation, it is also a central means of distribution and redistribution. What would it mean, then, to shift the conversation from debates over financial inclusion to questions about financial justice?

Read the full white paper: "Mobile Money: The First Decade" - (34pp.)

IMTFI Fellows Day 3 Workshop (2016)
View Flickr stream for more photos of and by IMTFI researchers

Read previous installments of the PERSPECTIVES blog series on Financial Inclusion:

We invite you to send comments to

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

(Dis)Trust in Mobile Money in Ghana: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

By IMTFI Fellow Vivian Dzokoto, Virginia Commonwealth University and John Kojo Aggrey, Louisiana State University

Yesterday: The Struggle to Gain a Foothold

In the early days of our IMTFI-funded fieldwork on Mobile Money (MM) in Ghana, MTN Mobile Money ads and billboards were out there. Yet, many interviewees either hadn't heard of MM at all; confused it with the e-zwich platform (a biometric smart card); or just didn't feel comfortable about the notion of converting physical cash to electronic value and keeping it on a mobile wallet on a cell phone. What was the discomfort about? For some, the apprehension concerned the non-materiality of the value. If one rolled up one’s cash and kept it in a bra, tied it in the corner of a cloth, or kept it in a repurposed plastic or tin container, one knew where it was at all times, and could access it easily. Intangible e-value was just too…. Intangible. For others, the concerns varied from utter disbelief that such technology could exist (it just seemed too good to be true), to suspicion that politicians must somehow be involved (and therefore it was something to be avoided). Additionally, interviewees from middle to upper income brackets thought that the technology would be hampered by the unreliability of the phone network (with statements like “right now, you need a backup for the backup”). Would the e-value get lost if the transaction was interrupted due to a spotty network? The variety of reasons indicated curiosity and a degree of skepticism about how the technology worked. It just didn’t seem trustworthy from the get go.  But that was in 2009. And 2010. And 2011. And 2012.

Money in the Cultural Context

It’s important to think about the context in which this technology was being launched and relentlessly promoted due to its success in Kenya. Traditional Ghanaian culture puts value on the form in which some payments are made. Apology pacifications may require a sheep, for example, and wedding bride prices come in the form of cash AND a variety of other goods. Yet nowhere has the form of money been more of an issue in contemporary Ghana than in the introduction of money technologies such as Mobile Money (MM). In a largely cash-driven society such as Ghana, getting people to switch from cash to cash-lite means of payments has been an ultra-marathon. While a host of obstacles such as poor infrastructure have been implicated in the failures of different card-based payment options in the early 2000s, trust and the lack thereof has played an important role in Ghanaian adoption rates of money technologies- in particular cell-phone based ones. At the onset, trust was hard to come by.

Today: The Wobbly Foothold

Fast forward a few years and Mobile Money has taken a foothold in the Ghanaian marketplace.  People recognized the convenience of the technology that enabled them to change local currency into electronic value, load it onto an electronic wallet, and use for spending, bill payment, savings, insurance, and remittances. Due to the doggedness of  Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), banking partners, agent networks, regulators and other stakeholders, trust in and use of Mobile Money grew, and grew, and grew some more, ….and then, sadly, ran into a brick wall. Criminals figured out how to exploit Mobile Money, and it was estimated that 50% of customers had been targeted. The criminal network included people from the inside. The modus operandi of the insiders was found to include (i) accessing the MM database of merchants without authorization and altering customer information; (ii) resetting the phone number assigned to the MM account, and then granting access to the new number to change the PIN  and (iii) acquisition of new SIM cards using a false identity, register for MM services. These provided cash outs access to customer and merchant accounts.

Additionally, some merchants were found to have overcharged for their services. Scammers have also been involved in defrauding MM subscribers using several tactics. First, the you-have-won-send-money-to-claim-your-prize scam, a financial crime also perpetrated via email. Once the subscriber sends the money, it is cashed out and the SIM card destroyed. Second, the problem-when-there-is-no-problem scam in which MM subscribers are informed that an amount of money transferred to them has been wrongfully sent as airtime or that there is a general problem with their account. Under the guise of “fixing the problem”, the “customer service” person on the phone takes the subscriber through steps which result in a money transfers to a scammer’s phone or code generation for an ATM withdrawal. Third is the related please-send-back-the-money-sent-to-you-by-mistake scam in which subscribers receive a call about an erroneous transfer meant for someone else. The subscribers motivated to do the right thing end up sending money from their account to these fraudsters. The fraudsters are getting craftier by the day, and so in a new development, subscribers simply receive a notification on their phone that an amount of money has been withdrawn from the MM account. These are withdrawals not authorized or carried out by the subscriber.

Deconstructing Mobile Money Crimes: Technology or Humans?

An MNO representative noted that problematic fraud was not due to a breach in MM platform itself, but due to nefarious human activity. The MNO staff involved were able to do so due to their access to the MM technology by virtue of the work they do with the telcos, and not because they are able to bypass the security systems in place. The fraudsters on their part, used their knowledge of the use of the MM technology to outwit people who are less versed in it and then defraud them.

This framing of the problem is consistent with perspectives about the misappropriation of tools in general and technology in particular for criminal purposes. Cars are not considered bad because some users chose to drive drunk or drag race on public streets, cryptocurrencies are not generally considered evil because bitcoin became the currency of choice in Silk Road and other dark websites, and the internet has not been dispensed with because websites are routinely (it seems) hacked. The question is, will Ghanaians (in a market where mobile money has entered but not dominated the payment space) care about the difference, or will they throw out the baby with the bathwater? Will consumers care that as one MNO representative put it, it’s about the "gullible consumer" and not a “system vulnerability issue”?

Elsewhere in the world, challenges to trust in particular systems and platforms have resulted in shock, but not necessarily in long-term decreases in their patronage. For example, people did not stop investing in the stock market because of Bernie Madoff or after the 2008 financial crisis. People across the world have not stopped using email despite threats to internet security, and it does not appear that people have stopped using Wi-Fi since the recent announcement by a Belgian researcher that Wi-Fi networks using the WPA2 protocol are vulnerable to hacking. However, each of these threats to consumer confidence have occurred in the context of products and platforms that had already successfully penetrated the market - not ones that are in a crucial growth phase as seems to be the case in Ghana. So the question remains: to what extent is trust in Mobile Money in Ghana impacted, and how will this affect subscription, active use, and growth of the user base?

Tomorrow: Finding its feet again, or will the other shoe drop?

Trust in Mobile Money in Ghana and its future patronage will be contingent upon a variety of factors including perceptions of how well the current investigations are going, perceptions of product safety, and perception of future customer vulnerability vis-à -vis the perceived benefits of having a mobile phone-based payment medium.

On the one hand, the fact that MNOs eventually went public to discuss the issue is encouraging, and a testament to their commitment to dealing with the problem. Hopefully it will warrant a few trust points. These “trust points” may further soar with MTN’s publicized sanctioning of a whopping 3,000 members of its agent network in a bid to curb their fraudulent activities, and release of information that contrasted targeted subscribers (up to 50%) with those successfully defrauded (less than 0.1%). Other concerted efforts to curtail the problem that have been discussed in recent weeks include a re-registration of SIM cards, changes in procedures related to agent activities to enhance privacy, industry-wide agent blacklisting, better and more accessible agent identification by consumers, and changes to features in the user interface to provide the consumer with additional control over cash outs, and text filtering to block out identified scam messages. In addition, MM subscribers have been reminded via text, automated messages and via the media to protect their PINs, and change them regularly. In other words, there have been movements at the levels of regulators, MNOs, and the consumer (education efforts) to minimize the likelihood of recurrence of such crimes. Will these corrections and structures boost or repair consumer confidence?

On the other hand, several challenges have been identified in the execution of investigations of crimes involving Mobile Money. In addition to the fact that some scammers have covered their tracks well enough to avoid being identified, there have been some reports of less-than-ideal cooperation from some MNOs. For example, representatives of the Ghana Police Service “expressed worry that managers of some mobile telecom operators do not give the necessary information to the police concerning suspects in mobile money fraud who work in the telcos”.  Additionally, some people who crossed paths with fraudsters are calling for a boycott of specific MNOs altogether in order to regain a sense of agency and the recognition that consumers need to protect themselves. Such calls emanate from the recognition that that there is limited recourse for a defrauded consumer since there is no guarantee of a refund from the MNOs.

So what will happen to Mobile Money in Ghana? Time - and the consumer – will tell. No matter the outcome, it will undoubtedly revolve around consumer trust.

Read their first blogpost, "Yet Another Cashlite Stumbling Block: 'Alarming' Fraud and Mobile Money Uptake in Ghana"

Monday, November 20, 2017

Continuing the conversation about “financial inclusions” in Latin America – onto Mexico

In IMTFI's PERSPECTIVES blog series, IMTFI’s International Board members and affiliated researchers take on the definition of financial inclusion. This series aims to foster an open dialogue on issues around money, technology, and financial inclusion for the world’s poor. Individual contributions reflect contributors' own reflections on recent events based on their research and areas of expertise. The topic of financial inclusion will conclude with a capstone white paper by IMTFI titled "Mobile Money: The First Decade."

By Magdalena Villareal, CIESAS Occidente, Maria Elisa BalenUniversidad Nacional de Colombia and Soléne Morvant-Roux, University of Geneva
"What I haven’t yet understood is what this business of financial inclusion is really about… and more importantly, is there anything new?"
This was the important question posed by Dr. Lourdes Angulo-Salazar at the end of the first day of the seminar, "Current Dilemmas Concerning Financial Inclusions," which took place in Guadalajara, Mexico on May 14 and 15, 2017. While it might seem to be a curious question to end with, there are two aspects of the ongoing dialogue during that day’s discussions that she captured with her intervention.

On the one hand, there continues to be a productive skepticism with regard to the explicit goals of financial inclusion and how these are informed by underlying objectives, whether in terms of governance, the favoring of particular financial industries - or both. Yet on the other hand, such doubts were also complicated through the variety of perspectives and case studies offered by presenters in the seminar.

Audience at the seminar. Photos by Saúl Justino Prieto Mendoza.
“Financial inclusion” seems to be on everyone’s lips these days, in different countries in Latin America and beyond. But it means different things. For one presenter, financial inclusion implied an unquestioned policy target akin to bancarization, one predominantly envisioned as a vehicle for positive “economic and social development.” For another, financial inclusion was the problematic reification of social hierarchies through interest rates. A third presenter inscribed financial inclusion within a genealogy of failed development remedies prescribed sometime after the microcredit crisis, wondering whether “financial inclusion” is merely another diversion from more pressing discussions we should have about the need for structural change in our economic systems. However, other presenters discussed the ongoing need for financial inclusion in the context of an explosion of alternative currency projects in Brazil, or concerns about deportation policies under the Trump administration in the US. Without a reliable way to send their savings home, Mexican migrants increasingly fear that deportation could entail the complete loss of their savings, not only through physical deportation, but also through restrictions on keeping accounts remaining in the US in their own names, irrespective of whether they are in Mexico or the US. Given the complexity of these dilemmas, what financial inclusion is (or should be) about is far from settled, as Lourdes’ concluding question reminded participants.

Such lively discussions generated a great atmosphere for the seminar, organized by CIESAS (Center for Advanced Research and Postgraduate Studies in Social Anthropology), IMTFI, and the University of Geneva, with the aim of launching a regional IMTFI satellite in Latin America.

Participants included members of policymaking bodies such as Carlos Alberto Moya, Regional coordinator for the Alliance for Financial Inclusion (AFI) and Nancy Esthela Conde from the Central Bank of Ecuador, as well as academic practitioners such as Mariana Carmona and Isabel Cruz from the Mexican Association of Social Sector Credit Unions (AMUCSS) in Mexico, and Leandro Morais from UNESP (Universidade Estadual Paulista) from Brazil. Alexandre Roig from the University of San Martín in Argentina, Solène Morvant from the University of Geneva, Maria Elisa Balen from the National University of Colombia, Ursula Dalinghaus from IMTFI, Clement Crucifix from the University of Louvain in Belgium, and Enrique García and Magdalena Villarreal from CIESAS in Mexico rounded out the panels and provided a range of interdisciplinary scholarly perspectives.

In what follows, we highlight three key issues discussed in the event. (Presentations can be watched in full on the CIESAS Occidente channel of YouTube.)

1) Discrepancies between visions of financial inclusion 
While bancarization (as a tool for promoting financial inclusion) is acknowledged as useful for the poorest segments of the population, the strategies identified for implementing financial services exhibit different patterns. Carlos Moya and the Alliance for Financial Inclusion are promoting financial inclusion as part of an international agenda that should be approached via national strategies that take into account industry perspectives. Moya insists that financial inclusion must be included in government policies, that regulatory frameworks should be put in place, and that monetary incentives could be offered to encourage proper operation of financial markets. “The challenges Latin American governments face vis-à-vis financial inclusion,” he says, “include promoting capillarity in financial services within rural sectors, adopting the concept of green finances, and eliminating the gender gap in the use of financial services.”

In the same vein, Nancy Esthela Conde, from the Central Bank of Ecuador spoke of her country’s efforts concerning digitalization and its effects. Ecuador has implemented a host of new financial services such as efectivo desde mi cellular (cash from my cell phone) as a means of payment and other monetary transactions. As of May 2017, more than 335,000 accounts had been opened through this digital money platform, and transactions totalled more than $8.4 million. She argued that government should continue promoting financial inclusion in addition to financial education and the protection of consumers’ rights. This includes constant improvement of security systems related to electronic financial services.

Leandro Morais also noted in his presentation the role of governments in the development of financial services. He highlighted how, in the case of organizations and services associated with the solidarity economy, different political views of successive Brazilian governments affect these processes in nonlinear ways.

Problematizing the notion of “a single financial industry and separate national spaces,” Isabel Cruz’s presentation concerning migrant workers in the US who are “sending money home” detailed calls for grassroots social banking. These efforts involve working closely with migrants to account for the specific contexts faced by this vulnerable population segment in multiple countries.

Presentations by Solène Morvant and Mariana Carmona, Maria Elisa Balen and Enrique García highlighted that beyond the usage of formal financial services–be they digital or not–populations in Mexico and Colombia continue to combine a plurality and diversity of monetary and financial practices. These are embedded in socio-cultural logics that do not obviously match the criteria for ‘modern’ financial practices. They find that instead of a narrowing of financial repertories, these new forms of financial inclusion extend them.

Enrique García and Clement Crucifix. Photo by Saúl Justino Prieto Mendoza 
While financial inclusion is presented as a neutral socio-economic policy, then, most participants agreed that it was important to inquire into the underlying social conflicts and not lose sight of how financial relations are social and are thus embedded in power asymmetries.

Alexandre Roig made such relations explicit in his closing talk about state practices in Argentina, where the State plays a key role in improving access to financial markets for the workers belonging to the so-called “sector popular”.
2) The digital vs. cash frontier 
One of the main issues traversing financial inclusion (or inclusions, as some of us would have it) is digitalization. Digitalization implies the deployment of specific infrastructures and a change in the cost of moving money around whose impact can be variable, as Maria Elisa Balen noted in her presentation. No less important, digitalization carries with it the idea of enhanced possibilities of intervention on account of the electronic traces that it produces. No wonder, then, that digitalization figured in presentations on subjects ranging from the practices of microcredit bureaus to geopolitical discussions.

Clément Crucifix reported on his ethnographic study of a credit bureau in a Mexican microfinance organization. He described how field staff spend most of their time looking at information gathered on borrowers displayed on screens instead of interacting with them in person. As a result, such information is subject to manipulation, sometimes in flagrant ways, by agents who are seeking to achieve their targets. At the same time, the credit information recorded in such platforms transforms subjectivities outside of the credit bureau. Thus, credit agents’ practice of seeking out ‘trustworthy’ people in the locales that they visit and asking them to refer them to others–sometimes even taking out loans for those others–engenders not only ‘financial creditworthiness’ as a new kind of capital, but also chains of influence that are used for electoral purposes. Digitalization therefore produces effects that extend well beyond the individual represented on the electronic platform.

Beyond the politics of digital accounting records, there is also the issue of money’s circulation in digital form. Ursula Dalinghaus talked about a new episode in the “war on cash” in the context of demonetization in India and the ongoing push to promote digital financial inclusion by eliminating cash. Drawing on differences in cash usage even in so-called developed markets in Europe, she noted how a preference for cash over digital money is not explained in terms of how ‘advanced’ or ‘developed’ an economy is. She highlighted how various factors influence cash-usage and preferences, such as past experiences of hyperinflation and economic change in Germany or household strategies in the informal economy in India, and whether or not people trust in the state or monetary institutions to guarantee the stability of value for the future. Beyond delineating arguments and available evidence in the digital vs. cash discussion, where a focus on money laundering and terrorist financing in relation to cash has become prominent, she called attention to the framing of the debate. Why is it that the coexistence of cash and digital money is now being framed as problematic and even coined in terms of a war between two sides? This question, just like the one concerning the "true implications” of financial inclusion, remains open. (Read Dalinghaus's white paper: Keeping Cash: Assessing the Arguments about Cash and Crime)

3) Re-politicizing research on financial inclusion and the future of the regional research center
One of the aims of the Latin American regional research center is to create a space for dialogue between academics and practitioners on different forms of money and financial inclusion and the social relationships that these entail. The seminar was successful in laying a foundation for this dialogue with a participative and engaged audience.

The audience included a representative from PROSPERA, the national program for social policy, which oversees conditional transfers for the lower income population and other financial inclusion initiatives. Members from Financiera Nacional de Desarrollo Agropecuario, Rural, Forestal y Pesquero, and DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia in Jalisco, one of the main social policy departments of the state government), were also present. NGO representatives, students, and researchers also participated in the seminar.

Through the IMTFI satellite we hope to continue these endeavors. We are interested in developing cross-disciplinary dialogues where complex theoretical issues can be discussed interactively with diverse participants, from practice-oriented researchers, to policymakers, to scholars, among many others. Such dialogues might take the form of panel discussions and seminars, or joint publications and other forms of dissemination. We are particularly interested in developing and organizing collective research projects involving different countries and diverse sectors of the population.

Magdalena Villareal is an international board member of IMTFI and senior researcher and professor at the Mexican Center for Advanced Research and Postgraduate Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS Occidente). 

Maria Elisa Balen is an international board member of IMTFI and an affiliated researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. 

Soléne Morvant-Roux is an international board member of IMTFI and Assistant Professor at the University of Geneva.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Drama in the payments infrastructure and saturation in financial education: Discussing new avenues of research around financial inclusion in Colombia

In IMTFI's PERSPECTIVES blog series, IMTFI’s International Board members and affiliated researchers take on the definition of financial inclusion. This series aims to foster an open dialogue on issues around money, technology, and financial inclusion for the world’s poor. Individual contributions reflect contributors' own reflections on recent events based on their research and areas of expertise. The topic of financial inclusion will conclude with a capstone white paper by IMTFI titled "Mobile Money: The First Decade."

By Maria Elisa Balen, Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Edgar Benítez, Universidad ICESI 

We are reporting on the forum entitled “'Opening the Economy': Debates about Financial Inclusion - between Profitability and Over-indebtedness” that took place on May 4th at ICESI University in Cali (Colombia), and the workshop on the following day. These two events, bringing together perspectives from public policy, industry, and academia, sought to motivate new generations of researchers to study the promises, problems, and challenges surrounding financial inclusion developments (for the full program, click here). Yet they also became a lively space for discussion between the audience and panel participants. We want to highlight three sets of insights pertaining to the conference’s opening talks and subsequent panels, pertaining to the pluralization of the notion of financial inclusion, what is at stake in current changes in the payments infrastructure, and the important yet saturated field of financial education.

The pluralized notion of financial inclusions

Being financially included can have different interpretations, and the conference’s two opening talks would set the stage for the debate. Carlos Moya gave an overview of the programmatic strategies being followed by different countries across the region that are part of the Financial Inclusion Initiative for Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), which he coordinates. Throughout his presentation he stressed the positive impact of having formal access to credit, saving accounts, and insurance for poor communities; in this view, financial inclusion means inclusion into financial formality. Such a perspective was problematized by the second presenter, IMTFI fellow Magdalena Villareal from CIESAS in México. She pointed out not only how among communities ‘financial inclusions’ already take place through participation in different circuits and types of debt, but also that what is referred to as the formal financial system also entails different sorts of inclusion depending on the varied negotiation power of particular individuals and populations.    

The pluralized notion of financial inclusions, left in the air as an invitation, helps ask not only whether populations are being financially included, but what type of financial inclusion is taking place. The following panels would, in a way, pursue the specification of the financial inclusion taking place when discussing both developments in the country’s financial infrastructure—marked by the move towards digital payments—and the challenges of financial education in contexts where expensive yet highly available loansharks (known as paga-diarios or gota a gota) can constitute not only pervasive practices but possible interpretive frameworks to use as starting point for trainings and campaigns.

Drama in the payments infrastructure 

“You need to learn when to commit suicide.” That was the beginning of the answer given by Hernando Rubio, the charismatic CEO of Movilred, to a student in the audience asking what his so-far successful enterprise could do if/when Facebook starts offering electronic payments. “And then, like the phoenix, be reborn as something new,” he continued. Rubio has been one of the main supporters of Colombia’s recent financial inclusion law and the decree that introduces a new entity –Societies Specialized in Electronic Payments and Deposits—into the regulatory framework of Colombia’s financial system. For Rubio there is no doubt that digital payments are the future not only of cheaper transactions, but also of democratizing credit on the basis of cheaper and more effective ways of knowing customers thanks to the harnessing of electronic data.

 The other presenters on his panel on payment infrastructures had similar, though more tempered, views. Andrés Velásquez, from the financial cooperative Confiar, insisted on the importance of using different, complementary means to reach and interact with clients, including digital payments as well as chatting over coffee. But it was Ricardo Gómez, regional manager of Colombia’s Banco Agrario, who offered a contrastingly different perspective. Owner of the largest and most dispersed physical infrastructure throughout Colombia’s

territory, Banco Agrario’s high operational costs include the hiring of helicopters to move cash in and out of distant municipalities where the lack of telecommunications or even electrical infrastructure makes digital options unavailable. If digital is the future, then there is still a long way to go in order to avoid such populations being left behind.

Whether the time for more traditional financial entities to ‘commit suicide,’ as Rubio would say, is coming soon or not, a historical example came up concerning Banco Agrario itself that brought into relief the importance of alternative payment infrastructures. In the 1990’s, the large chain of drugstores called Drogas la Rebaja, owned by family members of the heads of Cali’s drug cartel, was included in what came to be known as the “(U.S. President) Clinton List.” Being on that list entailed sanctions, including exclusion from the payment networks of U.S.-based Visa and Mastercard. Drogas la Rebaja would turn into a cooperative run by its employees, yet continue to be part of the Clinton List. It was only through Banco Agrario that the largest drugstore chain in the country, with more than 4,000 employees, was able to have bank accounts to continue operating during the decade-long lag between the priorities of the U.S. war on drugs and those of the Colombian government. What this example brought home is that the configuration of payment infrastructures not only entails varied costs, but also can affect sovereignty.
In sum, if the move towards digital payments seems inevitable and large changes are already taking place in this regard, then the availability of alternative payment infrastructures seems key not only if one seeks to avoid deepening the exclusion of certain populations, but also considering the margin for maneuvering given by different payment infrastructures that are far from neutral or apolitical.

Dispersion and saturation in financial education

The panel on financial education had three different perspectives on the topic, though they shared a basic assumption: people need more financial education in Colombia. Nidia Garcia, head of the department of Financial and Economic Education at Banco de la República (Colombia´s central bank) did a presentation on the main points of the national strategy of economic and financial education (EEF). Based on healthy financial habits, responsible use of money, and financial capabilities, that strategy represents the first attempt at promoting a unified national framework for financial education. Because the EEF was launched just a month ago, it is too early to have an idea of its reception among institutions, banks, IMFs, and the like. This top-down process will be interesting since financial education is not a new topic among institutions in Colombia like Fundación WWB-Colombia and Fundación Paz y Bien, whose representatives constituted the rest of the panel.

Daniela Konietzko, the director of Fundación WWB-Colombia, a leading microfinance institution with a bank of its own, pointed to some difficulties that they have faced during the last years in their programs. Among them are two that represent an important challenge for any institution interested in promoting financial education. First, time-intensive educational programs have been the most effective ones in terms of developing financial capabilities, yet the fact that poor women have multiple social and economic responsibilities in their homes and micro-businesses makes it harder to develop these kinds of programs for them. Second, since financial education has become so popular among institutions, people have begun to feel that a saturation point has been reached.

That saturation was also emphasized by Alicia Meneses, who has helped to create and develop the educational model of Fundación Paz y Bien, a grassroots organization. In her view, “People don´t like going to workshops or taking classes; they are tired.” In order to avoid this situation, she and her workmates have developed community-based interventions as the key components of their financial education programs. Rather than emphasizing individual capacities and skills—as the former approaches did—Alicia believes that acquiring good financial habits is a collective process of learning-by-doing. In a similar fashion to the Grameen Bank model based on social capital and networks, Fundación Paz y Bien showed us that learning the habit of saving requires collective strategies (i.e. saving clubs) with common purposes.

In sum, what is identified as the continued need for financial education faces a crowded scenario, not only in terms of the multiple activities in which potential beneficiaries such as poor women are engaged, but also in terms of the varied and dispersed financial education initiatives they have been already exposed to, which adds up to a feeling of saturation.

In such a context, is changing financial practices a matter of systematizing the diverse financial education initiatives and evaluating their outcomes in order to move towards a more coordinated approach based on lessons learned, as the central bank seeks to do? Is it a matter of designing strategies that are carefully tailored to the life conditions and motivations of particular populations? Or is it, as the Movilred CEO emphasizes, mainly a matter of making credit cheaper and more available using digital technologies, so that customers on their own will see the benefit and choose the better option? Such were the questions left hanging in the air.
This event was part of two longer term endeavors. On the one hand, this was the first in a series of forums that ICESI University is launching under the title Opening the Economy, which seek to foster academic reflection about the economy from viewpoints that are not limited to those of mainstream economists. On the other hand, it is part of the process of configuring the Latin American node of the international network of researchers that are part of IMTFI. In the upcoming months, we plan to launch an online platform in which researchers working on social studies of money and finance in Latin America can learn about each other’s work, interact, and pursue common research agendas.

Maria Elisa Balen is an international board member of IMTFI and an affiliated researcher at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Contact Maria Elisa at; Edgar Benítez at