Monday, September 19, 2016

Review Post: Monetary Practices of Traditional Rural Communities in Ethiopia: Implications for New Financial Technology Design

By IMTFI Postdoctoral Scholar Ursula Dalinghaus

In this blog post I review an exciting new publication by IMTFI Fellow Mesfin F. Woldmariam, co-written with Gheorghita Ghinea, Solomon Atnafu and Tor-Morten Groenli. The article is based on Woldmariam's IMTFI supported research and appears in the journal, Human-Computer Interaction. The post ends with a brief update on Woldmariam’s latest research endeavors, together with IMTFI fellow Ndunge Kiiti.

In their path-breaking and provocative research article, “Monetary Practices of Traditional Rural Communities in Ethiopia: Implications for New Financial Technology Design,” the authors propose novel design applications for digital money and mobile money information systems with illiterate and low-literacy users at the focal point. Grounded in a fieldwork-based case study on the money practices of several village communities in Ethiopia, and in the context of religious and social practices, the authors make a case for incorporating peoples' existing practices and values into the design of dematerialized money forms. The authors, like many in the financial inclusion space, anticipate a time when all money is digital and no longer needs to be "cashed out" of an e-money system.

What challenges does this present, not only now but also in the near future, for rural populations like the low-literacy communities studied in Ethiopia whose techniques for managing and embedding money in social practices depend upon the material aesthetics of money? Cash money features—such as color for sorting value and visible piles to budget amounts—are important for navigating the daily use of money and in fulfilling religious obligations and social performances. Especially in the context of extending money gifts, the materiality of cash enables individuals to decide when money amounts should be hidden or visible, and even to refuse a money gift based on its source or moral quality (is it "clean" or "dirty?")

Rather than assuming a "one-size-fits-all" approach, the authors argue that these values and practices should be integrated into the design of new mobile money platforms. Failure to take local and population-specific needs and values into account will mean that illiterate users will be further excluded or may even reject the adoption of new technologies. While the authors are careful to connect their design ideas to the specific case at hand, they argue that similar types of needs can be found in many other parts of the world. More grounded research is therefore needed to ask the right questions in developing locally specific and context-appropriate e-money applications that support existing social practices. The larger and crucially important question the authors of this article raise is this:

"who gets to decide what 'value to people' looks like, what 'legitimate uses' of money are?" (p. 511)

The insights and applications presented here will be invaluable for professionals and researchers alike in the financial inclusion space, as well as for anyone interested in the qualitative design implications represented by digital money futures. (The full article can be accessed here)

In a blog post for IMTFI Woldmariam wrote early on about the importance of metadata and information in conceptualizing how material money might be translated into digital form. His case study on cash management techniques in Ethiopian rural marketplaces has also been featured in IMTFI’s Consumer Finance Research Toolkit.

Mesfin Woldmariam talks with smallholder 
farmers from a DigitalGreen Project
More recently, Woldmariam has been collaborating with IMTFI Fellow Ndunge Kiiti on a project supported by the Institute for African Development at Cornell University to assess mobile money awareness and use/usage among smallholder farmers in rural Ethiopia. This project places research and on-the-ground dialogue with smallholder farmers and other stakeholders at the beginning and forefront of potential design and implementation of new technologies. Drawing on their respective field experiences and areas of expertise, Kiiti and Woldmariam's work emphasizes the importance of carefully assessing and documenting smallholders' existing practices and needs to develop appropriate and empowering solutions.     

To read more about Mesfin Woldmariam’s and Ndunge’s IMTFI research, their project pages can be found here and here.


Mesfin F. Woldmariam, Gheorghita Ghinea, Solomon Atnafu and Tor-Morten Groenli
"Monetary Practices of Traditional Rural Communities in Ethiopia: Implications for New Financial Technology Design." Human-Computer Interaction. Volume 31 (2016): 473-517

Monday, September 12, 2016

How is digital payment working for women in rural India?


The Government of India is pushing its Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) reforms by creating digital payment of social welfare transfer or pension payment directly into the accounts of beneficiaries. As the DBT rollout proceeds, the bigger question is how these payment flows work for women.

Why women? 
Most cash transfer welfare schemes in India are designed for women. For example, pregnant and nursing mothers in rural India are paid from the second trimester until the child attains the age of six months. Girls from rural areas are provided with special financial incentives with an objective to encourage families to retain a girl child, educate her and prevent child marriage.  Moreover, as the government is converting fuel, food, and other price subsidies into digital cash payments, some states in India are making the payment directly to women’s bank accounts. The female head of the household, some experts believe, is most likely to optimize the subsidies—in particular food subsidies—according to the desired intent. One research study tracked how women and men spent subsidy funds deposited in bank accounts. The study found that women used the subsidy for food purchases whereas men diverted the subsidy funds to pay for non-food items. Experts therefore believe the subsidies will have the greatest development impact when the funds are transferred directly into women’s bank accounts.

But using a bank is still inconvenient for women.

Take this case as an example. Under a conditional maternity benefit scheme named Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana (IGMSY), cash is directly transferred to accounts of beneficiaries (pregnant and lactating mothers).  A study found the scheme failed due to cumbersome banking procedures and delayed funds flow.  Women lived in remote areas, almost 22-24 km away from banks.  Banks took almost six months to open accounts for women. Although zero balance accounts are allowed under the scheme, banks and post offices insisted on a minimum deposit.

Worse, women were required to submit identification documents. 

A recent World Bank Report indicates that women in several countries still face additional documentation hurdles when trying to get a national identity card.  Hence, their absence acts as a barrier to accessing entitlements via banks even though the requirement of identity documents is not a direct criterion of any cash transfer scheme per se.

Furthermore, social, regulatory and cultural barriers prevent women from accessing financial services.  

Several studies have indicated women find interaction with male staff intimidating and in many cultures custom dictates that women should not communicate directly with male officials. A recent GSMA study indicated that women prefer twice the number of face-to-face interactions than men before they feel comfortable enough to use financial services technologies independently.  However, with a higher proportion of male banking staff and agents, women clients experience greater hurdles to learning more about the financial products.  

Experts argue that enlisting female agents may be the most effective way to reach women. Female agents are not only effective but also lucrative as they lead to increased sales, access to new markets and a stronger brand image based on more thorough product communication.

However, in India recruiting female agents has been a daunting task. As of 2015, there are more than 600,000 agents in India. The proportion of female agents has only declined over the years (15% in 2012, 13% in 2013 and 9% in 2015).

Is the Self Help Group platform an answer?

One platform that can be leveraged to create female agents is India’s women-based Self Help Group (SHG) network. SHG is known as both a community meeting grounds and a liaison facilitating access to banks, financial literacy training, and the benefits of government programs. Typically, SHG members are already integrated into the community and a relationship of trust already exists with other members.

Recently, NABARD-GIZ conducted two pilot projects to test the potential of establishing SHG members as female bank agents, known as ‘Bank Sakhis’. This study found Sakhis attracted more first time customers, especially women. The proportion of active savings accounts and the average balance maintained in the savings accounts was three times higher for Sakhis compared to conventional banking agents. Sakhis were more motivated to provide liability products to low-income customers at low commission rates while male agents were more motivated to work with richer customers and sell more lucrative credit products. The pilot study therefore recognized that there is a need for initial funding support through subsidized loans or capital support to reduce the financial burden placed on female agents in the initial implementation phase in order to make women agents’ ventures successful.


Despite the availability of initiatives and schemes to provide financial services to women, low levels of literacy and financial awareness continue to remain impediments to financial inclusion goals. A growing literature suggests that women often lack the financial literacy required in tackling the complex financial decisions they face. Financial counseling can improve women’s capability in making better financial decisions. At the same time, some experts point out that some of the responsibility lies on the provider side and suggest that providers and distributors can also benefit from financial literacy training to ensure better outcomes in their interactions with clients.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

New ROSCA Board Game at the Mekong Financial Inclusion Forum

By IMTFI Researcher Andrew Crawford

The concept of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations (ROSCAs) has fascinated economists and anthropologists for several years. The altruistic dynamic of social capital involved in these tight knit groups in the developing world has provided an interesting comparison to the buyer/seller nature of credit markets in the developed world. By allowing users to pool their funds and then take turns to borrow from the pool ROSCAs appears to enable users to co-operatively invest and lend without formal institutions.

While the basic rules of ROSCAs are easy to understand, it is much harder to master the dynamics and complexity of risk and returns provided by the groups along with day-to-day income, asset and expense decisions that form a constant state of financial flux. This becomes even more complicated in bidding ROSCAs, such as those found among garment workers in Cambodia, where group members bid for the collective fund by offering to pay higher and higher rates of interest. In fact, financial decision-making in the ROSCA world in many ways resembles a chaotic game like situation. This gaming quality inspired Monash University and IMTFI to create a ROSCA board game -- one that would familiarize anyone from school students to bank customers to policy makers, on the elaborate financial and social dynamics that ROSCAs entail. as well as provide an education about budgeting and financial planning and management.

In the successfully developed and pilot-tested ROSCA board game, each player or participant takes the role of a garment factory worker who earns monthly factory wages while making monthly contributions to the ROSCA. Each player then decides whether to borrow, how to spend, and how much to save for future needs while considering their respective assets and ROSCA obligations. Just as the boardgame Monopoly gives us a flavour of property market finance, this game provides a taste of the financial situation of a ROSCA participant in the developing world.

In each round of the game players roll a die and move around the board landing on squares that make them draw cards, such as regular expense cards (eg food), urgent expense cards (eg medical treatment), asset cards to purchase income earning assets (eg livestock) and life event cards (eg a wedding) which move their position on the board. The bidding ROSCA system, common in Cambodia, means that players bid each month to borrow from the pool of funds. Many strategies can be formulated while deciding the interest rate to bid in order to borrow and buy assets whilst planning ahead for both regular and unanticipated expenses. The opportunity to borrow, steal the pot and leave the group is also a strategy option!

Field-testing with Cambodian factory workers in March 2016 helped to fine-tune the game and make it reflect real world situations. Numerous rounds were played during work breaks in factories and surveys were conducted to gather feedback. Initially the game only involved more expensive assets, such as a motorbike or food cart. But it soon became apparent from feedback that income generating assets could be as cheap as $40 spent on egg-laying chickens. Difficulties in measuring the size of the pot were a primary hiccup but were overcome with clever suggestions from workers on how repayments and interest are usually calculated without relying on traditional accounting practices. This involves the participants arranging money in certain pile patterns on the table so it is obvious that the current balance is correct.

Following its development and field-testing for accuracy the ROSCA board game debuted at the IMTFI conference in April 2016. Since then, the game made its first appearance at a financial industry conference, the Mekong Financial Inclusion Forum at Phnom Penh on 11th-14th July, 2016 which was attended by stakeholders across the region from the development finance sector. During the conference the game was played by participants at the forum at a demonstration table setup outside the conference hall.

Players found the game challenging and interesting as they attempted to deconstruct the dynamics of the game to develop a clear strategy. Players also disagreed on the best strategy and a Finnish consultant implied an aversion to borrowing at all and an Indian businessman suggesting that borrowing early to buy assets was useful. An American development fund representative was surprised at the complexity of the ROSCA structures in the region and noted that they should be more widely considered in development aid funding structures. Connections with the subject matter of the conference made the game relevant to a large number of participants. The continued disconnect between informal and formal financial services was a major topic of forum panels and the game provided insight into why ROSCAs continue to be a popular despite the increasing availability of financial services in the developing world. Most notably, the game showed the flexible nature of ROSCAs, their potential for higher return on savings and the community trust they contain that is often lacking in formal financial services.

Feedback on the game design was very positive and the game continues to stimulate interest as a financial education tool. The game will soon commence its rollout among NGO financial education projects in Cambodia that aim to help school students improve their financial knowledge and money management skills. The game has also been used as a teaching tool with university students in Melbourne to provide them with a better understanding of the financial life of a garment factory worker in Cambodia.

The next stage of the game evolution is to find investment and resources to develop it into a playable app format that can be distributed online. This will allow the game to be accessed more easily worldwide and used in the field by financial educators with access to tablets and smartphones. The existence of an app may also enable groundbreaking research. The app will have the potential to record player movements which will collect data to explore such areas as behavioral economics, trust, moral hazard and game theory across multiple cultures, demographics, and financial knowledge levels. The strong interest in the ROSCA game so far demonstrates its potential as a valuable teaching tool plus, once digitized, it would be a research device that could help scale and unlock greater insights about the intricate workings of money, finance and social relations.


This piece is an outcome of the 2015 IMTFI research project "Exploring Rosca Dynamics with a Cambodian Factory Worker Board Game" by Pushkar Maitra, Andrew Crawford, and Professor Paul Lajbcygier.

Andrew Crawford is an Adjunct Research Associate in the Department of Banking and Finance at Monash University, Australia. He began research in microfinance at Monash and moved to Cambodia in 2010 as an AusAid Youth Ambassador based at the Cambodia Microfinance Association (CMA).

Monday, August 22, 2016

Is the Rural Hometown a Worthwhile Investment?


This post is the second in a 2-part blog post series. For part one, see here.

The rural hometown is where all human mobility begins. In the case of developing countries, poverty, fewer job opportunities, and limited business activity hound rural development. It is thus not surprising that migration — be it to the cities, to the more gainful towns, or to overseas countries — pulls people to go elsewhere. Place becomes a livelihood and unfortunately rural birthplaces become less attractive, even to their own residents. But since not all can move, kith and kin stay at home, in their rural hometowns. The person moving, for his or her part, forges an economic relationship with their families through domestic and international remittances. 

Compared to non-migrant households, these kinds of households can be financially fortunate. These remittances can even contribute to local economic activity by enticing demand for more goods and services. Moneyed households, especially those with surplus incomes, can start businesses — or even invest in local property, in the products of local financial institutions, and other opportunities available locally. So remittances come to be an economic lifeline for rural areas. Remittances become a type of financing rooted in people and institutions that have links with origin communities of the migrants. Given that remittance incomes flow into rural areas, a crucial question that emerges is related to how rural communities could maximize the benefit of these remittances? For this, it is necessary to identify the local conditions that can stimulate the fruitful use of remittances. It may also be important to assess if moneyed income-earners like overseas migrants are financially capable of investing.

This is the case for the Philippines, a major origin country of overseas migrants who are scattered worldwide. Here, a group of researchers has been implementing a project that goes by the acronym RICART: Remittance Investment Climate Analysis in Rural Hometowns. Ricart sought to find out if overseas migrants and their families find wisdom in parking their money in the place —the rural hometown — they are familiar with. Even the way the rural hometown is governed, as well as the place’s socio-economic and investment-related conditions, was examined. Four municipalities have been studied over the last four years. The latest one is in Guiguinto in Bulacan, an hour’s ride away from Manila and a hub for manufacturers. Guiguinto is a progressive local community, economically.

Guiguinto is first-class in terms of income, and in securing business permits is perhaps the quickest in Bulacan. Registered businesses in Guiguinto are some P9.343 billion big in terms of resources. Local productivity, estimated at P1.235 million per worker, is high in Guiguinto. This is not to mention that Guiguinto has an estimated 3,959 overseas Filipinos sending incomes to loved ones back there, supplementing local incomes. Guiguinto’s economic lure has been a catch basin for 44 branches of financial institutions found in the community along with shopping centers. These institutions are accessible to local residents. 

So do overseas Guiguinteños find their community worthy to invest in? Ricart’s survey there (n=229 respondents who are overseas migrants and migrant and non-migrant households) found that only 30 percent of overseas remitters and 43 percent of overseas migrant families invest in Guiguinto. About 33 percent of remitters and 40 percent of migrant families have businesses in Guiguinto. And 44 percent of remitters and 26 percent of migrant households hold savings accounts.

These results can be surprising to observers. Why are many of these moneyed people not investing? One reason could be attributed to limited levels of financial literacy. The same Ricart survey for Guiguinto found that the three respondent-groups claim they do not need assistance in handling money, and have “good” levels of knowledge and skills on handling money. But when asked about three basic concepts surrounding finance — interest, inflation and loans — less than eighty percent of respondents gave correct answers to the survey’s questions. However, this does not mean respondents’ reasons for not investing in their rural hometown are suspect. Migrant households’ heads were asked in a focus group discussion what governs their decisions to invest in their own rural backyard. Their answers can be visualized like a magnifying glass, so a Magnifying Glass of Rural Investing Assessment was developed (see diagram). From the perspective of the person making the investment decision, in this case the remittance-receiving household, their assessment can be likened to holding a magnifying glass, inspecting personal, familial, environmental and institutional developments before saying yes to rural hometown investing.

The magnifying glass of rural investing assessment
(in Alvin Ang and Jeremaiah Opiniano, 2016)
The person trying to decide looks at his or her experiences as well as personal disposition toward saving and investing. The family also plays a role in the investment decision, with the household’s current financial condition being an important factor. Family members also assess present and future needs while weighing daily needs against short-to-long-term prospects. If we zoom out to the immediate geographical environment of Guiguinto. Visible economic progress is both good news and yet also a matter of concern given that moneyed people may then become prey for scammers. Peaceful and orderly local conditions may encourage the desire to invest in the hometown.

Finally, there is the assessment of the available financial institutions. While interviewees are concerned with the litany of requirements necessary to avail of a financial product, the financial institution’s stability is also a primary consideration. Previous as well as ongoing episodes of scams are reasons for such careful assessment. Some financial institutions operating in Guiguinto were also asked about overseas town mates’ financial behavior. There is concern about how incomes are predictably used for more consumption. But some overseas Guiguinteños save and even avail of housing loans. Some migrant town mates are also concerned about the accessibility of the financial institution, signaling the need to receive the overseas remittance quickly.

This Magnifying Glass of Rural Investing Assessment may reveal differing perspectives and attitudes on the part of prospective rural hometown investors like overseas migrants. There may be those who are attuned to risk-taking or those who are risk-averse. Despite the variations, financial literacy initiatives are an important development agenda, more so for the rural community. If a rural economy that is progressing wants to sustain the gains of such growth and benefit more from overseas remittances, capacity building through local financial literacy programs may well be the perfect complement.

For rural localities like Guiguinto, overseas and even domestic remittances signal the need to address a policy gap: how can these remittances be maximized for local development? Localities also have their own contexts to consider when remittances are to be channelled to productive purposes (in the case of Guiguinto, there’s industrialization and a declining role for agriculture, although gardening is a culturally-rooted entrepreneurial venture that still clicks locally). For its part, the local government has instituted many reforms over the past decade to make Guiguinto’s business climate friendly to investors and entrepreneurs.

Lessons from this migration-and-development story of Guiguinto have informed a Philippine local competitiveness agendum. Regardless of who sits in power nationally and locally, harnessing remittances for rural development will require political will and strategic interventions so that resources like remittances naturally go to productive economic activities found locally. Improving the business climate is a necessary precondition to overseas remittances development potential. It may help that financial institutions properly inform their clients locally of the many savings, investment and entrepreneurial options available to them.

In the end, if rural residents are more financially literate and capable, and if local officials offer programs and policy-making that account for the needs of local investors, moneyed rural residents like overseas migrants could be encouraged to make their rural hometown the natural choice for investing.


This piece is an outcome of the research project "Overseas remittances, hometown investing and financial inclusion: A remittance investment climate (ReIC) study in a rural hometown." This project was conducted by the non-profit Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI) and supported by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) of the University of California-Irvine. Read their final report here.

Read Dr. Ang's recent commentary on financial literacy and financial inclusion in the Philippines here.

Dr. Alvin Ang is professor of Economics at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Jeremaiah Opiniano is the IMDI executive director and an assistant professor of Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For comments:

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Women, Social Capital, and Financial Inclusion: Linking Customer Data with Ethnographic Perspectives

By IMTFI Researcher Sibel KusimbaAmerican University, Gabriel KunyuIndependent Researcher, and Dave MarkCTO, M-Changa

December 2015, research team with one of our participants in the IMTFI project
Photo Credit: Chap Kusimba 

Financially including women has become a priority among development and finance experts. Women are less likely to be financially included. However, it has been widely observed that when included they are more likely to produce substantial economic gains for their households. It follows then that any good financial inclusion strategy must include women (GPFI 2015). Women face barriers to inclusion due to combination of various factors such as lack of literacy, access to mobile phones or banks, and time constraints among others. What does finance mean to unbanked women? For some time now, advisers to the industry have been suggesting flexible bank hours, mobile agents, and phone interfaces in multiple languages to address these realities (GPFI 2015; El-Zoghbi 2016; Murray 2016). In this context, IMTFI’s approach to use an ethnographic perspective to understand practices of money and finance around the world can help build models for women’s finance that connect to their existing practices (Dalinghaus 2015).

M-Changa platform:
fundraising for a wedding 
Our research seeks to understand the effect of gender on networks across differences in social class, income, and rural/urban settings. In this post we focus on a customer dataset from the fundraising platform M-Changa in Kenya, which provides interesting clues. M-Changa collects money via mobile money, EFT or Paypal into a unique account and is used by originators to fundraise money for medical needs, funerals, school fees and weddings. The company provides transparency and its activities are directed towards ensuring both trust and transparency which include posting and making public on their website hospital and school bills and funeral certificates. Since its launch in 2012, M-Changa has managed over 6000 fundraisers.

A customer data analysis by FSD Kenya categorized M-Changa fundraising events into five types based on the success of the fundraiser. Among these, one cluster was distinctly successful in fundraising events and was able to raise a large amount of money over a relatively short period of time from the largest number of contributors. In this cluster the originators were 45% female – even though only 20% of all fundraiser originators in the dataset as a whole are female.  What can account for the great success of women in using M-Changa fundraising?

The M-Changa dataset finds a compliment in the findings of ethnographic study that we undertook in 2012 and 2014 focusing on the social networks of primarily farming people in western Kenya. Supported by IMTFI, the study recorded examples of informal finance groups based on friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors, and drew the pathways of money sending connecting family members. We found that money circulated among close relatives, especially siblings, who were often connected to mothers and mother’s relatives. In these networks, women tended to be central nodes in the many pathways of money sending and receiving to other network members.

Furthermore, emotional connections and powerful social norms around reciprocity and obligation often seemed to drive remittances to women in Western Kenya. For instance, consider the case of Emmanuel, an unmarried 22 year-old caretaker at a private primary school. Emmanuel was raised by his maternal grandmother Wilbroda because he was born out of wedlock. His mother eventually married elsewhere and he has eight half siblings. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade due to financial reasons.

Emmanuel (Photo Credit: Gabriel Kunyu)
Emmanuel sends money to Wilbroda every month before she even needs to ask him. In the case of his mother, however, he normally waits for her to call, which she often does at the end of each month. Emmanuel explained that normally, if the amount he sends his mother is less than her minimum expectation (say 200 shillings (US $2)), she will not call back to give thanks but instead go silent, implying she was not satisfied with the amount. He says she will sometimes call with a false excuse of checking on him, but at the end of the call inquire if he has something to send her. In May 2016, Emmanuel’s mother called and requested assistance, barely two weeks after Emmanuel had sent her 300 shillings (US $3). As a way of encouraging Emmanuel, she also called her brother − Emmanuel’s maternal uncle − who in turn called Emmanuel and persuaded him to send her money, explaining that she needed it for buying fertilizer. Because of his uncle’s call, Emmanuel said he broke into his savings and sent her 1000 shillings (US $10). Emmanuel never sends money to his father, who took little interest in him growing up and refused to pay his school fees. His remittances to his mother rely on nudges from his maternal uncle and his own sense of obligation. His grandmother is clearly his financial priority.

The M-Changa dataset, like the Western Kenya study, shows a similar advantage for women in collecting resources, as nodes and hubs of social networks. It is all the more intriguing that M-Changa women are not rural farmers, but primarily college-educated, salaried, and technology-savvy Nairobi women. Further ethnographic work with M-Changa’s clientele will seek to tease out more of the sources of fundraising skill for its affluent, urban female users. Are emotional bonds or gendered social norms around obligation to women the common factor such that these urban women leverage close ties of family? Do they have broad networks reflecting diverse social circles, in which they perhaps cultivate more or closer friendships than men? How far do these urban-centered networks extend to relatives in rural areas? Following questions like these through a thick data understanding (Wang 2013) of users − taking into account well-elaborated customer data and ethnographic studies simultaneously − can reveal otherwise overlooked insights into the ways in which women may be financially included based on their existing financial strengths.

Sources Cited 

Digital Financial Solutions to Advance Women’s Economic Participation. GPFI (Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion), November 2015. 

Dalinghaus, Ursula. 2015. Going to Where the Women are: Insights from the Making Finance Work for Women Summit in Berlin, Germany.

El-Zoghbi, Mayada. 2016. What Excludes Women from Formal Finance in the Arab States?

Murray, Inez. 2016. Catalyzing Women’s Financial Inclusion: The Role of Data.

Wang, Tricia. 2013. Big Data needs Thick Data.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Heads and Tails of Monetary Duality in Cuba

Read more about the rise and imminent fall of Cuba's dual currency experiment in a piece titled "The Heads and Tails of Monetary Duality" by IMTFI Postdoctoral Scholar and Fellow Mrinalini Tankha in the webzine Cuba Counterpoints. Using the striking iconography on the two national currencies - the Cuban Peso and the Cuban Convertible Peso - she shows how at the core of monetary duality in post-Soviet Cuba is the process of reconciling the role of the state and market.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Can I try again? Working with research participants as they map their networks

By IMTFI researchers Sonia Laguna, Rosa Guerrero and Maria Elisa Balen

Our larger research work focuses on the deployment of mobile banking in changing practices of social protection for forcibly displaced families in Colombia. Part of our research entailed drawing family maps of our informants’ family practices of social protection. Methodologically, this involved two steps: First, we mapped members of the network and in the second step we mapped the different goods and services circulating within that network. The goods and services included not only money but also care, food, housing, etc. Here, we draw from our fieldwork experience to highlight some of the interactions between research participants and researchers engaged in the process.

We were interested in discovering the map drawing with our research participants in order to discuss different aspects of the maps rather than assuming them beforehand. Networks can be drawn using computer software which allow for homogeneity of representations, ease of navigation for spatial arrangement and rearrangement of nodes, and the possibility to build and manipulate layers of information. However, using computers was an obstacle for our participants, so we chose to work with hand drawn maps. Such a choice entailed a series of challenges and findings that we share here.

During this and other research endeavors, we noticed various methods to which research participants were already accustomed: for instance, being asked questions and their answers being recorded in paper or audio formats, and being asked permission to take pictures or videos of them whilst they go about their everyday lives. With these and other methods however, the stages of design and analysis tend to be carried out elsewhere: back home in researchers’ rooms or offices, discussing with colleagues or poring over their notebooks or computers. As researchers, we take our time in formulating problems, carefully crafting and often piloting approaches before we throw ourselves into fieldwork. We also take considerable time in reflecting upon and analyzing the information being explained. This can also be the case in mapping social networks that are used primarily as a tool for the researcher to interpret and convey her research findings. Our research departs somewhat from this model. Our approach encouraged an active involvement of participants in the elucidation and visualization of their own worldviews, as well as fostering an ongoing, joint reflection about findings. The rationale for an approach that places the interaction of researchers and research participants into central focus can be traced back to various theoretical and ethical considerations. These include participatory action research approaches giving prominence to the collective construction of knowledge and highlighting the transformative aims of scholarship (Salazar, 1992; Fraser, 2004) as well as an understanding of explanation as something that does not displace people’s experience (Smith, 1996). But this post is less about our research methodology’s underpinnings and more about their implications while mapping networks.

For the first step of mapping the members of the network we conceived of a set of conventions: circles for females and triangles for males, double lines for marital unions and lines stemming from such unions conveying offspring. The circle/triangle differentiation was easily incorporated by research participants and perhaps showed how ingrained such distinctions are. It was the other aspects of the exercise that presented difficulties. 

For the first participant, we provided a sheet of paper (size A2) and colors for drawing her map. In this, some hurdles came up with handling spatial distribution: it so happened that either some members of the network ended up being cramped in a corner or just did not fit within the page even as a large part of the page remained blank. In response to this we changed our strategy which proved useful. We provided participants with a large piece of paper for practice so that they could get a feel of how the distribution could look like (see picture below).

Other issues had less to do with practice and more to do with fitting the realities of their networks into the picture: if a widow remarries but keeps her connections with the family of her late husband, does she include both mothers-in-law? How does one distinguish between formal unions and those outside of marriage that have nonetheless produced offspring? What if a neighbor or friend, who is not part of the family, is actually quite important and ought to be included?

We realized that the practice of encouraging participants to have another go and include the adaptations they saw fit was quite productive. One woman, for example, devised a convention to distinguish formal unions from informal ones or those that were no longer operating. She used a crisscrossed double line (similar to this: ₩₩₩ ) to include another woman her husband had lived with during a period in which they were separated and from which he had other sons, and she used it to include the father of one of her grandchildren who never assumed his responsibility. Others came up with diverse solutions: participant ‘A’ organized different types of relationships in different sections of the map (siblings in the bottom left, nieces and nephews in the bottom right, children in the upper left) to allow for her friends to have a space in the upper right, whilst participant ‘B’ drew her connections towards different family units that were themselves organized around the woman in each family (her mother, her late husband’s mother, and her current husband’s mother). 

Our lesson was that, on the one hand, it was important for the participants to have many attempts, as it gave them the chance to ‘polish’ their work between drafts, just as researchers do. Additionally, this allowed for the sequence of attempts to be used as a resource: why does an estranged husband appear in the second, but not first attempt? Why do some members appear in more central positions in one draft compared to another? Such questions ended up being engines for further discussion. Rather than impose a correct way of doing things, giving participants leeway to adapt allowed for a more creative and richer grasp of their own worldviews. Such adaptations allowed for differences among the maps, instead of the homogeneity of results one would get using a computer program for this procedure.

We are, however, left with the question of whether these deviations stemming from reflections – as well as interactions between the researchers and participants- are to be located within the metric of the problem or as a resource in itself. This is a real question, for which we don’t have a set answer. If participant A in the example above aggregates types of relationships, whilst participant B focuses on family units organized in terms of couples and their offspring, this can affect both the sorts of flows being drawn and the interpretation of them. In the case of B one can see how a sibling with many children tends to receive more money than what he can give to others, and this is not something that would be as evident in A’s map. But insisting on the organization around family units could be an imposition on A, who may be telling another story: one in which personal relations with a nephew, for example, are not mediated by the sibling/parent but rely on the relation or affinities between the two specific individuals.

Going back to the parallel with network-mapping computer software in which centrality is provided by the flows in the network, in our research the centrality of a node in the distribution was based on the person’s perception. Thus, while the drawing of flows could eventually challenge the initial centrality given to a node (´look how many things pass/ don’t pass through this person’), this was not something that could be resolved by means of a straightforward formula. And this was so because we wanted to map different sorts of flows, which do not necessarily have numerical equivalents. Let us move on to discuss, then, the second step of our mapping exercises: the drawing of flows.

We began by ascribing different colors to the different sorts of goods and services flowing through the network: yellow for food, red for housing, green for money, dark blue for care and light blue for advice. To this we added an extra color (orange) to be used if the participant wanted to draw another flow that was not included in the ones we presented. Not all used it, but this extra provision turned out to be interesting. One participant chose to draw ‘union’ which for her denoted joint participation in festivities or everyday recreation and hanging out, while another drew ‘yahé’ — the traditional indigenous medicine through which he communicated and took care of his daughters. This signaled to us other sorts of interactions that pertained to wellbeing and a good life while highlighting that the components of such rituals and interactions were quite diverse.

Arriving at the most relevant categories in research tends to be an exercise of fine tuning between two poles that can be equally unproductive: too much abstraction and too much complexity. Too much abstraction can empty the map of the sort of referents that are meaningful for a person, or enforce the invisibility of particular dimensionswhich has happened often enough, particularly when discussing the activities carried out in the domestic sphere. That too much complexity can also be problematic was a lesson, which became all-too-evident for us in this second part of the exercise. The design issues we faced in the drawing of goods and services circulating through the network were, again, both a matter of operational convenience and flexibility. For while including different sorts of flows could give us a more comprehensive view of the interactions in the network, too many flows could make the resulting map unreadable. Even without the extra color, our maps ended up being quite saturated and difficult to read (see picture above).

Fortunately, we had the opportunity to try again. Instead of drawing all the flows on a single sheet of paper, we used acetate sheets in order to be able to juxtapose layers. Adding and extracting layers gave us considerable room to play with. And it allowed for this to happen on site, with the combination of different layers becoming a resource for discussions with participants. In the end, there were iterative changes not only in the various attempts by research participants but also in the implementation of our methods (see an example of the outcomes in the pictures below). Trying again is an option that we as researchers were thankful for, and so were participants: for who hasn’t in general had moments and situations where they have thought ‘this is what I should have done’ or finished a conversation and after a while thought ‘Ah! This is what I should have replied!’

Sonia's fourth attempt, and her map with the money layer on top
The interpretation of these maps began along with their crafting, and has not finished. We still have some work to do, including analyzing what these maps tell us about present views in the context of other fieldwork material we gathered about past and future perspectives of families’ social protection practices. We want to emphasize that drawing their maps was something these participants enjoyed (and so did we). Some of the pros discussed hereof the different attempts and on-site conversations during the map-drawing becoming a resourcecould also be obtained in other contexts using computer software. But one thing to be said about whatever means chosen is that networks can help visualize not only quantities of flows but entire worldviews. And for the latter, thinking about the best way of harnessing participants’ abilities is key for their engagement.    

Fraser, N., H. Dahl, P. Stolz and R. Willig (2004) ‘Recognition, redistribution and representation in capitalist global society: An interview with Nacy Fraser’, Acta Sociológica, Vol.47, No.4, pp.374-382.
Salazar, M.C. (1992) (editor) La investigación-acción participativa. Inicios y Desarrollos.  Editorial Popular: Madrid, pp.14-20.
Smith, D. (1996) ‘Telling the truth after postmodernism’, Symbolic Interaction, 19, pp.171-202.