Tuesday, May 26, 2015

One Option, Divided Opinion

By IMTFI Researcher Francis Niagia Santuah

The soothsayer's equipment (Photo by author)

The proliferation of mobile phones is enabling more and more people to have access to a variety of lifesaving information and critical services, including sending and receiving money. However, mobile phone utilization is still relatively low in rural communities in Ghana. Factors cited as constraining wider mobile phone utilization include unfavorable legislation, the price of handsets, poor network coverage, cost of recharge cards, low literacy, and the high cost of phone maintenance. Since ancestral consultation shapes everyday decision-making among the Kassena-Nankana in northern Ghana, would it not be wise to consult the ancestors before availing oneself of the services of a mobile phone? After all, individuals employ soothsayers for contacting ancestral spirits to explain the past, interpret the present, and forecast the future on matters concerning the wellbeing of their households. Under the assumption that people are more likely to use mobile phones if they are certain that their ancestors approve of the technology, we set out to sample the views of the living and the dead, and to compare their responses.

We compiled a list of all clan heads in Chiana, a fast-growing town of nearly 15,000 nestled in the hills of the Upper East region where nine out of ten people live below the poverty line. We narrowed this list down to 39 clan heads before purposively sampling 10 clan heads and their corresponding ancestors. Through the medium of divination, or soothsaying, we interviewed 20 key informants--10 ancestors and their 10 corresponding clan heads--to understand how the Kassena-Nankana (both the living and the dead) perceive the mobile phone as a tool for community development. These data could potentially motivate mobile network operators to pursue evidence-based and culturally appropriate approaches for promoting the use of mobile phones.

Clan head of Chiana Kalivio Alingnia in the
Upper-East region of Ghana.
The Kassena-Nankana worldview--like the typical African cosmovision--spans the living, the dead, and the unborn. Ancestral worship is at the center of their cultural practices. Every compound has a shrine for making sacrifices and pouring libations to the spirits of ancestors, thereby establishing links between past generations and the present. Consulting the ancestors is the responsibility of the clan or lineage head, who serves as the moral authority of the clan. If the Kassena-Nankana seek the opinion of ancestral spirits on just about anything, would they not consult the ancestors before buying a mobile phone or accepting one as a gift? And if they do decide to consult them, what might the ancestors say? What if the ancestors and clan heads do not share the same opinion about the use of mobile phones?

Consultation starts with the deposit of a consultation fee--the exact amount of which is at the discretion of the client--and the statement of the mission. Our research assistant said, "We wish to consult your ancestor for his opinion on the use of mobile phones and the related issues of concern in our communities." This was followed by incantations by the soothsayer to seek the ancestor’s permission for consultation. The soothsayer said, "I was on the farm when the visitors came. You said you know [everything], that is why they are requesting your knowledge. I only assume, I cannot prophesize. This is their token for you.” He shook a gourd with items in it that made a jingling sound. Our client then chose two objects (a fowl skull and a piece of metal) from an assortment of over 150 objects from the soothsayer’s collection to represent the two options in the questionnaire. Our research assistant held one end of the soothsayer’s probing staff and asked the questions in his mind. The probing staff involuntarily hit one of the objects, and the research assistant noted the response on the questionnaire.

Three ancestors and one clan head declined the interview requests, and one soothsayer also declined to play the mediating role for consulting the ancestors. The remaining nine clan heads had heard about mobile phones, and eight approved of their use by members of the clan. Two-thirds of the ancestors had also heard of mobile phones, and the same proportion approved of their use. One ancestor who said he had not heard of mobile phones thought that they were good for business transactions, while another ancestor who had also heard of mobile phones disagreed. One ancestor said that he had not heard of mobile phones or mobile money and thought they were not good, but would encourage members of his clan to use them. One ancestor could not make up his mind about whether the mobile phone was a good thing or not.

Where the ancestor declined to take a side by not hitting either of the objects the soothsayer probed:

Soothsayer: “Would it [the mobile phone] be good for everyone or would it be good for specific people?”
Ancestor: “It is good for specific people. Some people will pass through the phone to get money, but it [the phone] will tell lies for others, full of lies, stealing cases which will not augur well for people.”
Soothsayer: “Should we stop the olden means of communication and stick to the new technology? Stop the past and stick to the new technology? Or we should take to the two means of transmitting information and combine them together? We are using the new medium of communication because it is good and nice, but since you are no longer alive to give directions and guidance, we don’t know how to go about things.”
Ancestor: “It is left unto them to follow which way will be good for them, but they should not abandon our [the ancestral] ways of doing things for they are all good and beneficial.”

Our study also revealed that while both the living and the dead have reservations about the use of mobile phones, the living are more positive about their use than are the dead. The ancestors probably fear that the adoption of mobile technology would diminish their importance among the living as indicated above.

Ancestor of Chiana Saboro in the
Upper-East region of Ghana.
Though they have their strengths and limitations, mobile phones and the ancestors are both important tools for social organization. Just as mobile money is a complement to cash rather than a replacement for it, mobile phones complement ancestral consultation in strategies for problem-solving rather than replacing the ancestors. Mobile phones offer practical solutions to everyday life challenges, but the ancestors offer divine solutions to issues that arise only occasionally and that are not perceptible to everyone.

The general conclusion we draw from our study is that the posture of the ancestors shows that they may not necessarily be fighting a lost battle, but rather that they are in favor of a win-win arrangement. Also, though the Kassena-Nankana are thoroughly religious and revere the ancestors, their culture is not impervious to change, including the embrace of mobile technology. They are not unaware of the changes sweeping across their traditional societies. Technology, however, is a double-edged sword. It is therefore imperative for the Kassena-Nankana to position themselves to take full advantage of the opportunities unveiled by mobile technology, but at the same time to minimize any inherent unpleasant consequences. Our study demonstrates to mobile phone companies that their clientele do not necessarily leave behind their religious and socio-cultural beliefs and practices when they embrace new technologies. Understanding this will enable these companies to develop culturally-sensitive communication messages to improve uptake of their services.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Juggling Currencies in Transborder Contexts: Field Notes from Sabinilla and Calexico (Part 2)

By IMTFI Researchers Magdalena Villarreal, Joshua Greene, and Lya Niño

Part II

Turning the lens to Mexicali, on the contiguous Mexican border with the United States, one finds people also juggling currencies. Here, making currency transactions between pesos and dollars is an everyday matter, as illustrated in this example of a so-called ‘dollar girl’ exchanging currencies for people in their cars as they wait in line to cross the border. 

In scenarios like this, we immediately come across everyday transactions that involve the use of differential normative, cultural, moral, and symbolic frameworks. Sandra, for example, went back to Mexicali - the city where she grew up and her parents live - after losing her house at the Imperial Valley.  However, she commutes to Calexico twice a week to take care of her one-year-old granddaughter.  In the same way, Sandra’s minor son, who studies at El Centro, California, lives with her sister, who cares for him.  Another similar case is that of Karla, who lives in Calexico.  She organizes “garage sales” in El Centro, California, and her mother, who lives in Mexicali, arrives to her house very early to care for the grandchildren. When Karla and her family go on vacation, they leave the key to their mother so that she can drop in and check the house, but overall so that she can feed the dogs.

Another example concerns borrowing social security numbers. Undocumented workers can greatly benefit from a social security number, which is held by legal citizens or residents. Here, different calculations are brought into play. Those working in Mexico can lend out the social security number in exchange for unemployment benefits in times when there is no work and income tax returns. But many prefer not to use such benefits and instead profit from the work history provided by those who are using their number. In the longer term, this will be beneficial in their applications for United States citizenship. They are very careful, however, to cross the border only at times when the people using their numbers are not expected to be working.

Plasma center in Calexico, United States (Photo by the authors)
On the other hand, Mexicans in need of cash might cross the border to sell their blood (as can be seen in the picture below taken in Calexico, United States: note that it is written in Spanish, i.e. for a Spanish-speaking audience). 

It is also common for Mexicans to cross the border to labor in the agricultural fields, hire themselves as domestic helpers, gardeners, cleaners, assist nurses or care for the elderly, etc. as well as organize ROSCAS, buy groceries, and even cash pensions for friends for neighbors who are not able to cross to ‘the other side’, or simply as a favor.

Access to information is critical in the case of employment, in which they need to be well informed about work sources, work conditions, contracts and benefits such as the unemployment compensation. Some farm workers learn how to use several social security numbers and receive “unemployment compensation” while they work in other areas, usually following “runs” or going to work “up North”.

And the search for a double nationality cannot be set aside of this point. In border cities of northern Mexico, it is very common that women give birth to their children in the United States.  Here, the social networks play an important role, because information concerning medical services, lodging, etc. is required.  Patricia, for example, lives with her two children in Mexicali.  Both were born in Riverside, California, where her brother and sister in law helped with all the necessary logistics.  Even though Riverside is located 170 miles from Mexicali, her relatives had made calculations and hospitalization in this city appeared cheaper than in Indio.  A week before giving birth, he and her sister in law went to pick her up and hosted her during this period, until she considered it safe for the baby to travel back.

Living on the border, it is convenient to manage oneself in English as well as Spanish to be able to switch quickly between calculations in dollars and in pesos, but also to be au fait on legislation and normative frameworks on both sides of the border. The latter is a difficult task, since it not only entails reading and understanding the small print in contracts and legislations, but also being able to anticipate problems that can arise, and having the capacity to juggle with the different currencies entailed in their everyday transactions. 

Read Juggling Currencies in Transborder Contexts: Field Notes from Sabinilla and Calexico (Part 1)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Juggling Currencies in Transborder Contexts: Field Notes from Sabinilla and Calexico (Part 1)

By IMTFI Researchers Magdalena Villarreal, Joshua Greene, and Lya Niño

Mexican and bi-national families residing and/or working on both sides of the Mexican-American border experience and manage different monetary and social currencies, not only in peso-dollar exchanges, but also in transactions involving different means of equivalence that entail diverse normative and cultural frameworks. 

This is the object of our study, which we carried out in two different localities: one is the rural community of Sabinilla, in Jalisco, Mexico, which is closely linked to its diaspora in Hawaii; and the other involves commuters between Calexico in the United States and Mexicali in Mexico. The most important eye-opener for us is that people not only manage and juggle different currencies, but that they need to do so in order to make do. Those who are more adept at such juggling are the ones considered more "successful" by virtue of their relative economic stability.  
Sabinilla, Mexico (Photo by the authors)

Part I
Let us first go to Sabinilla, a village located deep in the heart of central-west Mexico. We are considering this village as a border community because of an almost 50 year history of migration to Hawaii. Most of the men and a handful of the women in this village have lived and worked in Hawaii. A combination of increased risk and cost in making the dangerous and illegal journey has meant that many of the village’s sons and daughters have simply not returned. On a daily basis, villagers here negotiate a world dominated by decisions and conditions far beyond their control. Yet they juggle the resources they have in order to make do.

The lucky ones can include land, cattle, and decent crops as part of their resources, 
and most have close relatives in the United States who can send remittances in times of difficulty, but all resort to their own work and that of their families as the key sources of income. Children and the elderly play key roles in such endeavors. 

Another important resource is debt. Debt fuels household economies, making up for shortages and time gaps in income. Families can borrow a chicken, cement or bricks. But in times of great need they will ask brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors or friends for a loan. Most emergencies have to do with health. There is no way they can pay for the costs involved in an accident or a sickness with their small liquid savings. They generally ask for loans from several people at a time (one person will hardly be likely to possess the needed amount in cash). If the money is required immediately, they will resort to their local networks. 

But networks cross national borders. Uncle Chelo, for example, is now 77. He was short on cash for his team of ten men and to pay for the tractor needed to harvest his ten hectares. He simply called his son in Hawaii. By cell phone, Uncle Chelo--three hours from a city and half-an-hour from a store, on a dusty, rocky river-crossing in Mexico--can borrow money from his sons, brothers, cousins and nephews and nieces in Hawaii. Chelo had debt with a local credit union, and he sold a few cows to pay it off, but in the end it was his son who provided the money that allowed him to harvest his crops.

Like Uncle Chelo, most sell assets to pay back loans: cows, pigs, houses, and trucks are used in these cases, depending on the amount of debt. Money does flow from, but also to the United States. However, most often people will resort to migration to cover their debts, especially if the amount they owe is high. Here they need to ask for another loan in order to make the journey.  Such loans are generally provided by their relatives in the United States.

We must point out that debt is also used as advanced savings. People can build a house with loans and then pay little by little. Some have had to work for three years in the United States to pay back debts acquired to build a house or buy equipment. 

Different normative frameworks are brought into play with the use of debt and other resources such as cattle, land and labor. Money is signified differently within different domains. For example, land is not necessarily valued in monetary terms, and when it is, its price might be considered in pesos and/or dollars. And debt, of course, entails a host of social relations that are assessed according to the nature and context of the bond. Here we find different currencies at play. 

Some people are more adept at juggling these different currencies. Bacho, who recently returned from Hawaii, has been able to skillfully operate his networks. He makes agreements and semi-commitments throughout his working day as he encounters people or they call him. He labors as a field worker, grinding corn stalks as part of a crew; as chef in a nearby restaurant, making cheeses for his father-in-law; and as a tradesman, building and restoring custom wood and ironwork. But Bacho is forever calculating the production capacity of his turkeys in eggs per week, or his cows in liters of milk per day and calves per year. He anticipates the value of raising breed dogs and organic chickens, two of his favorite projects, which he started operating but hopes will grow with the increasing demand for them in nearby cities. 

Read Introductory blog: Juggling Currencies in Transborder Contexts (Intro)

Stay tuned for Juggling Currencies in Transborder Contexts: Field Notes from Sabinilla and Calexico (Part 2)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Too Good to be True?: Is the Global Findex survey overstating growth in financial inclusion?

Since it was published a few weeks ago, the World Bank's 2014 Global Findex report has made a splash in media around the world. It found that financial inclusion grew from 51 to 62 percent between 2011 and 2014, a shift that represents a total of 700 million people worldwide. But according to Daniel Rozas and David Roodman, there are reasons to be skeptical about this apparently massive growth.



"While we highly appreciate the survey and the light it shines on the state of financial inclusion across the world, we are concerned about the accuracy of this headline finding. The growth it suggests is almost certainly overstated. To illustrate this concern, we suggest an alternative news headline, also based on the survey findings:  

Number of Unbanked in U.S. and Eurozone Cut in Half
U.S. unbanked population drops from 12 percent to 6 percent in 2011-14; Eurozone cuts number of unbanked from 9 percent to 5 percent, according to report."

Read more at the full post on the NextBillion.net.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

10 Insights on Financial Inclusion from the 2014 Global Findex - World Bank

The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) have released a new database on financial inclusion called the "Global Findex."The database covers 800 indicators and draws from survey data covering almost 150,000 people in 143 economies. BUT! luckily you don't have to trawl through all that data (although you could), CGAP have created a handy summary of their "10 insights on financial inclusion from the 2014 Global Findex." You can also access the full report and interact with the data.

Photo Credit: Brett Davies, 2014 CGAP Photo Contest. 
"1. Account ownership is increasing almost everywhere in the world. 700 million adults (above 15 years old) worldwide became account holders between 2011 and 2014 (accounting for a population growth of 200 million)....
2. The gap between rich and poor in account ownership is shrinking – but still persists. In developing economies, 46% of adults living in the poorest 40% of households have an account – up from 29% in 2011...."

Read the full blogpost on CGAP.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Payment Surfaces: Exploring the Everyday Context of Payments

IMTFI is pleased to cross-post this blogpost with TRANSACTIONS: A Payments Archive.

By Ben Lyon, co-founder of www.kopokopo.com

I started a photo blog called Payment Surfaces in July 2014 to explore the everyday context of payments. When used as a noun, the word surface means “an outside part or layer of something.” When used as a verb, it means “to appear or become obvious after being hidden or not seen.” I hadn’t thought about this distinction until Taylor Nelms, one of the organizers of TRANSACTIONS, pointed it out, but it captures the essence of what I originally set out to do: To capture the protruding edges of an otherwise subterranean and increasingly invisible payments ecosystem that everyone interacts with every day.

Nearly one year and two hundred images later, I’ve noticed that I’m starting to take pictures of the same or similar things at opposite ends of the world. Themes are beginning to emerge. Here are five themes that piqued my interest:

1) Annotation

People add notes to payment surfaces for various reasons. In the examples below, annotation has been used to show a customer where to swipe their card, to help a customer calculate the total cost of a service, and to make sure customers only use coins of a certain denomination. All three appear to be in response to some design element that’s not obvious.

In other examples, I’ve seen businesses use notes on self-checkout lanes to promote social media engagement and solicit feedback, and to prevent customers from using mag-stripe cards at an ATM.

Design question: How might we enable a business to add and/or edit a note on a payment surface?



Images from Seattle, Washington, Cheboygan, Michigan, and Barcelona, Spain, respectively.

2) Configurability

Business owners want to adapt their payment systems to suit their specific needs, preferences, or processes. In the examples below, configuration has been used to encourage customers to use only $1 bills, to make the number of payment slots match actual inventory, and to discourage customers from paying by card.

If I were to guess the purpose of each, I would say that the first is to decrease maintenance costs by limiting how much change a customer gets, the second is to mitigate user error (i.e., customers putting money in unassigned slots), and the third is to minimize card fees.

Design question: How might we enable a business to “toggle” the features of a payment surface from one state to another?




Images from Seattle, Washington, Seattle, Washington, and Orange County, California, respectively.

3) Localization

Just as language changes from one place to another, so too do the ways payment surfaces are communicated. Whereas Americans are used to large tip jars, for instance, citizens in countries with higher-denomination coins are used to smaller tip plates and tip boxes.

Although the purpose in these examples is clear (i.e., encouraging customers to tip), the double effect may be to discourage non-locals from leaving larger tips (like a €5 note rather than loose change).

Design question: How might we enable a payment surface to adapt to a specific culture or environment?



Images from Barcelona, Spain, Keflavik, Iceland, and Frankfurt, Germany, respectively.

4) Nudging

Businesses want to nudge customers to act in a specific way. In the first example below, a petrol station offers a 7% discount to nudge customers to pay via cash. In the second, a petrol station uses choice words (“Welcome” versus “Accept”) to nudge customers to pay via a Shell Card. And third, a cashier gives priority placement to a tip jar over an HIV/AIDS donation jar. The business’s (or cashier’s) preference is clear in all three examples.

Design question: How might we enable a payment surface to entice/solicit a certain action?



Images taken along Interstate 90, USA.

5) The Visible Hand

Despite our best efforts, we can’t precisely control a user’s hand. In the examples below, you can see where commuters tap their coins while navigating the ticket selection screen below the frame, or hit their card against the “Card Guard” while paying for a DVD. The first example occurs when one of a user’s hands is idle. The second occurs when a user’s hand strays from the intended course.

Design question: How might we design payment surfaces to accommodate idle or straying hands?



Images from Barcelona, Spain and Seattle, Washington, respectively.

These are by no means the only themes that have emerged from my efforts to surface the infrastructures of payment. (For example, I’m also fascinated by the disposability of money in international airport terminals, but that’s for a later post.)

Please feel free to share your own insights or pictures. I’m happy to re-post relevant pictures with accreditation.

You can follow Ben Lyon on Twitter at @bmlyon.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

It's all in the wrist!

The imprinter gestural system, otherwise known as "the swipe" in payment transactions, is on its way out according to our Director, Bill Maurer. Check out the featured article over at Visa's tumblr.


"Anyone remember the knuckle-buster or zip-zap machines as they were called? Those old credit card imprinters made by companies like Farrington Manufacturing (now defunct) and Addressograph (still in business and making military dog tags). If you were a merchant, you used it like this: you placed a sales slip, made with carbon paper, into the device along with your customer’s credit card. The device had an embossed metal plate containing your business’s account and address information. With a right-left swipe of the handle, it would mark all of the information needed to initiate and verify a transaction...."