Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Cash as a Public Good - the Expert View

Currency News interviewed IMTFI Director and Professor Bill Maurer and Dr. Ursula Dalinghaus about the role of cash as a public good and the IMTFI following the release of Cash Matters white paper, "Virtually Irreplaceable: Cash As Public Infrastructure", authored by Dr. Dalinghaus, affiliated scholar at the IMTFI.

L: Maurer, UCI/IMTFI; R: Dalinghaus, Ripon College/IMTFI

Q: What is the main focus of the institute?

BM: We want to understand how people’s diverse interactions with money are being reshaped by new technologies, from new payment platforms to things like artificial intelligence in providing financial advice or in creating alternatives to traditional credit scores.

But, again this is crucial, we focus on the user side of the equation, on people’s actual interactions with money and these technologies, down to the level of questions like, where do they keep their money, and why? What does their daily transactional life look like? What are the diverse systems and beliefs that inform their money practices?

We developed the concepts of monetary ecology and monetary repertoires to capture this people-centered approach to money and technology.


Q: IMTFI was initially funded by the Gates Foundation, major supporters of the Better than Cash Alliance. The IMTFI is neutral when it comes to payments; however, there is an increasing focus on cash. What caused this development?

BM: We realized pretty quickly that there were a couple of very general things going on, almost everywhere around the world.

First, most of the new mobile money systems in which the Gates Foundation was initially interested as potentially banking the unbanked were in fact serving as payment rails – not as means of saving but as a means of moving money. This made us focus more and more on payment systems as a distinctive area of research.

Second, pretty much universally, we found that new systems were not replacing old ones; they were instead being added into the mix. People would use one payment method for one kind of transaction, and other payment methods for others. But nothing was replacing anything else. I think a lot of people initially thought that things like mobile money would displace cash. Instead, mobile money became a way for people more efficiently to move money and access it in the form of cash.


Q: What is the key takeaway of your white paper on cash as a public good?

UD: That physical cash will continue to have a vital and complementary role to play alongside digital well into the future, not only as a method of payment but also as a democratizing force – an important form of power-sharing between issuer and user that is distinct from digital-based money.


One reason is that people value the ability to choose from multiple payment forms. Another, even more substantial argument for cash, is that the cash infrastructure serves a vital public role since cash can circulate independently of its issuer and it can work offline.


Read full interview in this excerpt of Currency News, Vol 17 - No. 8/August 2019.

Read original post, "Bill Maurer, Director of the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI), talks about the ongoing relevance of cash"

The Director of the IMTFI is Professor Bill Maurer, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow of the Filene Research Institute, Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. He will also be one of the keynote speakers at the ICA’s Global Currency Forum 2020 in Barcelona.

Dr Dalinghaus, Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Ripon College, is also an affiliated scholar at the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI), University of California at Irvine, which has made itself a name as one of the leading institutes when it comes to the role of money in people’s daily lives and practices, and to the best way to go about financial inclusion.


Monday, September 16, 2019

The Missing Piece of the Fintech Puzzle: How Local, Informal Networks Play a Crucial Role in Remittances

by Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Bill Maurer in NextBillion

Kuria cash contribution group in Tarime highlands, Tanzania. 

We are in the middle of the “fintech age,” a time of rapid development and adoption of new financial and payment technologies worldwide. The spread of fintech is not just touching more lives; it is bringing those users, and their relations, directly into the realm of finance.

The impacts of this transformation range from exciting to troubling. To take just one example, digital payment infrastructures spreading in the Global South make visible the digital footprints of billions of people who have not been part of the formal sector. On the one hand, this is making credit available to customers who’ve long lacked access – but on the other, it may bring along exploitative “dataveillance” and over-indebtedness.

Whatever their impacts, fintech initiatives in emerging markets often build on interpersonal patterns of mutuality, fostering and capturing diverse “sharing economies” and bringing the affective into the purview of formal finance. In other words, these initiatives tend to harness existing community networks and informal methods of transacting, aiming to reflect or replicate their dynamics through formal products.

The interaction of local informal institutions and norms with formal digital finance initiatives is particularly pronounced in the Global South. But these interpersonal dynamics are vastly underexplored, and their significance underestimated. We argue that fintech endeavors in the payments and remittances space tend to overlook how their efforts are mediated and adapted by local gatekeepers. These gatekeepers may range from mobile money agents to neighborhood shopkeepers, and they mitigate the diverse risks of money transfer, and direct the new resources into socially acceptable pathways.

Put simply, we often err in assuming a remittance is a person-to-person transfer. Often, it’s a person-to-intermediary-to-person transfer (sometimes with several intermediaries along the way). Intermediaries fulfill a host of functions for the end points of a transfer, serving as guides, translators, helpers and guardians of values beyond the economic. Understanding these roles has implications for service design – in this article, we’ll examine them in more detail.

The Role of Gatekeepers – and the Meaning of Money
International and domestic remittances remain central to the livelihoods of many households globally. Officially recorded global remittance flows have nearly doubled over the past decade, growing from US $380 billion in 2007 to US $689 billion in 2018. They constitute the largest foreign capital inflows to many world regions. Our recent research shows that the remittance infrastructures in the digital age – including mobile and digital currencies, “traditional” remittance companies like Western Union, and other fintech players – are best seen as multi-level, fragmented and overlapping assemblages of diverse pathways. These pathways often include monopolistic companies like Moneygram (which provides cross-border remittances) and Safaricom (which distributes Moneygram remittances via mobile money transfers in-country). These different networks are kludged together and mediated at their connection points by diverse social and institutional gatekeepers. These gatekeepers may include local mobile money agents, informal savings groups and alternative moneylenders, and also retail shops and pawnbrokers that facilitate remittances – all of whom often help traverse the “last mile” to end-users.

Mobile money agent in Gulu, North Uganda. 

These gatekeepers often become part of the “story” behind the funds they help distribute, as these seemingly interpersonal money flows are actually an important repository of meaning and social markers. That is, the money carries social and moral commentary while chronicling people’s daily lives and trajectories, reflecting the memories and intentions of individuals and their social networks. For example, money gifts may mark human relationships and celebrate temporal cycles, such as the hong bao of the Chinese New Year – red envelopes containing money, exchanged among friends and relatives. Not surprisingly, the payment function of China’s ubiquitous messaging app, WeChat, only gained traction when it let people send each other digital hong bao, thus harnessing existing cultural beliefs and practices around money.

To grasp why it’s so important to understand the different cultural meanings behind money flows, consider the Kuria people of northeast Tanzania. In this community, informal agricultural labor sharing groups draw on longstanding norms of reciprocity, and have morphed into cash mediators in modern money transactions. These mediators fulfill the role of safely and morally bringing outside flows of money to those inside the group. Their role is consistent with Kuria cosmology, which highlights a constant mediated interchange with the outside, using the metaphor of the “throat” or “windpipe” (omooyo) for transactional pathways.

Consider how this is similar to and different from hong bao. To the Chinese, these red envelopes signify luck and protection against evil spirits, whereas to the Kuria, omooyo signifies the pathways that connect inside and outside. Designers of digital money systems have an easier time adopting cultural practices like hong bao, which can be easily seen, than social relationships like those represented by omooyo, which are difficult to detect unless you are enmeshed in them. Therefore, when users report on surveys that they use mobile money for something like “school fees,” for example, a product designer needs to look a little deeper to see through whose hands and phones the money actually passes along the way to its destination, and what relationships are activated in the process. This may reveal insights like those found in western Kenya, where “school fees” payments frequently take an important detour through coming-of-age rituals that stitch together city, country and kin.

The Importance of Local Intermediaries
In African societies, the role of marking and channeling any new resources has long been performed by informal mutual support groups and peer networks like the Kuria labor-sharing groups. These groups remain important actors in channeling e-money in modern-day mobile money systems. They help redistribute and circulate money along their established social networks, based on reciprocity and mutual obligation.

But the effects are sometimes contradictory. In some instances, mobile money networks can facilitate resource pooling and sharing among extended kin and peer groups – and this can foster new connections. In other cases, the availability of digital remittances can lessen interpersonal contacts and weaken social and family ties, as it eliminates the need for physical travel, in-person meetings and visits back home. Yet, in still other cases, the weakening of some ties can strengthen others: Removing physical distance and travel can facilitate women’s networks separate from men’s, which can mobilize resources to support the women’s goals—for instance, in subverting male elders’ choice of one marriage partner over another.

For these reasons, providers should focus substantial attention on such intermediaries, including the mobile money agents – or “cash merchants” – who buy and sell e-money. They are crucial to the cash-in, cash-out process of using mobile money – but in many emerging countries, they do much more. Many are local shopkeepers, part-time retailers and hawala remittance distributors. They have their own embedded systems of relational contracting and social expertise. They are not, in other words, mere “human ATMs,” but rather they interject their social relationships into transactions to facilitate their customers’ actual intended goals (holding e-money or cash for them for a time, assisting with bill payment, and providing financial advice or loans). Hence, agents do not just facilitate transfers, but broker and redistribute remittance flows. Mobile money companies may try to break these old habits, but in trying to do so, they also make their service less valuable to the people who want to use it to facilitate all the things an intermediary can accomplish for them.

Bringing Intermediaries into Focus
Diverse human and social intermediaries in local communities are thus important elements in emerging digital infrastructures. Bringing into contact different recording devices, accounting practices, and purposes and intentionalities, these local gatekeepers transform and co-create the payments infrastructures. As they cut into these interpersonal exchange networks, digital payment platforms act as novel interfaces between formal and informal economies.

A focus on the social relations of digital payment infrastructures enables us to see what is obscured by the seeming neutrality or seamlessness of the technology. In an age where digital infrastructures increasingly leverage futuristic technologies like self-learning algorithms and smart contracts, it is particularly important to remember that “old fashioned” social intermediaries often play a central role in their adaptation and use. Designing systems with intermediaries in mind from the beginning, not as passive pass-through points but active brokers, might enable such technologies to get further reach without sidelining the human interconnections people often use money flows to forge and maintain.

Daivi Rodima-Taylor is an anthropologist and Africanist at the Frederick Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, and Visiting Researcher at University of California, Irvine.

Bill Maurer is Professor of Anthropology and Law, University of California, Irvine, and Director of the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI).

Photo credits: Daivi Rodima-Taylor.

View original post on NextBillion: https://nextbillion.net/fintech-local-networks-remittances/

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Virtually Irreplaceable: Cash as Public Infrastructure

New study, "Virtually Irreplaceable: Cash as Public Infrastructure", substantiates the case for how and why cash must be regarded as a public good.

Click to download white paper
The paper by Dr. Ursula Dalinghaus, Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Ripon College and affiliated scholar at the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion  (IMTFI) University of California, takes a close look at the role of cash in society and the specific characteristics making it a public good, citing relevant studies, scholars and field experiments.

“Cash in circulation is growing on a global scale by approximately 3% per year; 80% of all payments worldwide are cash transactions. Cash is an essential part of every stable financial and economic system”, stated ICA Chairman Wolfram Seidemann. “This paper demonstrates that cash is more than just a means of payment. It is a public good, part of modern life and vital for people’s everyday lives.”

Key takeaways
  • Cash is a public good that guarantees ease of use, accessibility, privacy, and many other unique qualities in local, national, and global monetary systems. Cash fulfills both criteria for a public good: it is non-excludable because its function as a means of payment, of transfer of value, works without compensation. And it is non-rivalrous because its use by one person does not preclude its use by another.
  • Cash is public – the only form of money not controlled by a private, profit-driven entity. Once in circulation, it is the only form of payment independent of its issuer. It is deployed not to make a profit on its transfer but to support and sustain value transfers free of charge. There may be costs associated with cash, but cash itself is a means of value transfer that settles at face value with no fees involved.
  • Cash enables personal freedom and self-determination – state-issued physical cash is a distributed public infrastructure that allows citizens and users to create a space outside the state. At the same time, cash acts as a claim upon central banks and, ultimately, states to ensure good governance of monetary and payment systems.
  • The materiality of cash is vital to many social practices. The role cash plays in social relationships often hinges on the physical design of cash, such as denomination, which makes cash particularly useful for budgeting, accounting, gifting, or saving.

Download white paper - US Letter (8.5" x 11")

Download white paper - A4 Size (8.27" x 11.69")

Read interview with author here.

This is the second study by Cash Matters, a movement by the International Currency Association, ICA. The first study, “Keeping Cash – Assessing the Arguments about Cash and Crime” was published in September 2017. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Faketoshi Circus: Even Bitcoin Can’t Escape the Politics of Money

by Michael J Caseychairman of CoinDesk’s advisory board and a senior advisor for blockchain research at MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative


In case you missed it, a new self-proclaimed Satoshi Nakamoto came out of the woodwork last week, this one brandishing a “proof” based on numerology and an obsession with BCCI, the scandal-ridden bank that collapsed in 1991.

The widely debunked “reveal” from Bilal Khalid, aka James Caan – Khalid officially changed his name to that of the American actor – followed a host of equally absurd developments in a Florida court case against the other “Faketoshi,” Craig S. Wright. These included a hand-written note to the judge in which yet another person, one Debo Jurgen Etienne Guido, also laid claim to being bitcoin’s secret progenitor.

Sensible minds in the crypto community remind us that this is all a sideshow, that these competing claims to bitcoin’s creation ultimately mean nothing to its value proposition.

Still, it begs the question: why does it keep happening? Why do the scammers emerge so readily? What is about the crypto community that attracts a parade of false prophets?

Let’s take the question further: why does crypto generate so much drama generally? Bitter feuds over software forks; relentless conspiracy theories; disputes between maximalists, altcoiners, nocoiners and shitcoiners; competing social media memes; token “armies;” Twitter trolls; fraudsters of all kinds – it’s the crypto circus, and many of us secretly love it, at least in doses.

But why? How did a technology spawned by the most math-driven, nerdy and precision-obsessed fields of computer science give rise to Mexican telenovela-like stream of plot twists?

Other open-source tech communities generate their fair share of drama too, of course. (Type in “Linux community” into a Google search and it auto-completes to “Linux community toxic.”) The leaderless structure of open-source projects means there’s no central authority or pooled profit interest policing behavior or managing the external messaging.

Still, the crypto soap opera takes things to another level of madness. Why?

Learning from ancient history
My attempt at an explanation begins with the fact that, unlike other technologies, this is one is fundamentally about money.

“Money has historically been a political process, a process through which people or states or some kind of entity consolidates authority over others,” says Bill Maurer, Dean of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, an anthropologist who has studied the culture and history of money, adding:

“So, you have this big paradox with something like bitcoin, where its very idea is that there shouldn’t be any one person or authority in control…But because of that, you get this cacophony of voices, each claiming to have some kind of truth and striving to be the one in control.”

For the full story, please visit https://www.coindesk.com/the-faketoshi-circus-why-even-bitcoin-cant-escape-the-politics-of-money

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Rethinking saving: Indian ceremonial gifts as relational and reproductive saving

Article in the Journal of Cultural Economy by Isabelle Guérin, IRD-CESSMA, Paris, France; Govindan Venkatasubramanian & Santosh Kumar, French Institute of Pondicherry, Pondicherry, India

Dalit Marriage Ceremony from a peri-urban village.
Photo credit: Santosh Kumar

Abstract

Economic anthropology has long advocated a broader vision of savings than that proposed by economists. This article extends this redefinitional effort by examining ceremonial gifts in India and arguing that they are a specific form of savings. Rural households, including those at the bottom of the pyramid, do save, in the sense of storing, accumulating and circulating value. But this takes place via particular forms of mediation that allow savers to forge or maintain social and emotional relations, to keep control over value – what matters in people’s lives – and over spaces and their own future. We propose terming these practices relational and reproductive saving, insofar as their main objective is to sustain life across generations. By contrast, trying to encourage saving via bank mediation may dispossess populations of control over their wealth, their socialisation, their territories and their time. In an increasingly financialised world of evermore aggressive policies to push people into financial inclusion, the social, symbolic, cultural and political aspects of diverse forms of financial mediation deserve our full attention.

Notebook for a Tamil puberty ceremony, Manjal Neerattu Vizha.
Photo credit: Isabelle Guérin  


Access Journal of Cultural Economy:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17530350.2019.1583594

Access pre-print version (click top-right corner for download): https://hal-inalco.archives-ouvertes.fr/ird-02112848/

Read up on original IMTFI-funded research project:
https://www.imtfi.uci.edu/research/2015/govindan_guerin_2015.php#

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Human and non-human intermediation in rural agricultural markets

Article in the Journal of Cultural Economy by Elisa Oreglia, King's College, London and Janaki Srinivasan, International Institute of Information Technology 

Drawings courtesy of Krish Raghav (krishcat.com)

Abstract

A central trope of the information society is that of ‘information flows.’ The implicit assumption underlying such a vision involves the removal of gatekeepers and intermediaries who are perceived to impede such flows. Drawing from field research on information circulation, trade, and money in rural markets in Myanmar and India, we show why intermediaries persist alongside information and communication technologies (ICTs) in trade and financial transactions in the ‘Information Age.’ We examine the range of roles, (human and non-human) actors, and material practices that are involved in conducting financial transactions, and we show the importance of historical legacies and politics in explaining why both cash and financial intermediaries persist in the digital age. Focusing on the different value that human and non-human intermediaries bring to financial encounters helps explain what characteristics make each resilient or replaceable in a time of change. By situating intermediaries and mediations in the social relations within which they operate, we bring back the role of power and politics – an element that is often missing in accounts focused on the unmediated and ‘free’ circulation of information using ICTs – in explaining processes of mediation and circulation.



Access Journal of Cultural Economy:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17530350.2018.1544918

Access authors' drafts:
Elisa Oreglia: http://ercolino.eu/

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Facebook’s Libra: it’s not the ‘crypto’ that’s the issue, it’s the organisation behind it

by Bill Maurer, UCI dean of social sciences and professor of anthropology and Law, and Daniel Tischer, University of Bristol, on regulatory warning signs to watch for with Facebook's new cryptocurrency, courtesy of The Conversation

The founding partners of the Libra Association. Ascannio / Shutterstock.com

In all the hype that has surrounded its Libra currency, Facebook has been able to distract attention away from an important issue. Libra is being hyped as Facebook’s bitcoin but it’s really a proposal for a global payments system. And that system will be controlled by a small and exclusive club of private firms.

Since it was announced in June, politicians and regulators have attacked Libra, citing concerns about its being a cryptocurrency. Libra is not a cryptocurrency – at least, not as they have been put into practice so far, where a distributed, decentralised community participates in transaction verification via a competitive process.

Libra is essentially a prepaid digital token, backed one-to-one with a basket of reserve currencies. It is “minted” when people put up state-issued currencies to buy it.

What’s important here is not the technological innovation. Facebook is proposing, in Libra, a new form of organisation. We already have payment systems controlled by private companies – Visa, MasterCard, Venmo or PayPal, which provide the infrastructure or “rails” for transferring value – and Libra might turn into another such rail. But its promoters have greater ambitions for it.

Based on our research on the history and technology of payment infrastructures, we see similarities between Libra and Visa. But it’s the differences with the Visa network that raise the biggest warning flags.

Learning from Visa
Libra will be controlled and maintained by the Libra Association, a membership-based group. Libra's developers have voiced a commitment to letting anyone become a member of the association, including users like you and me. The Libra white paper trumpets the importance of decentralisation. But it also admits that, "as of today we do not believe that there is a proven solution that can deliver the scale, stability, and security needed to support billions of people and transactions across the globe" through a truly open, decentralized system.

We believe Libra's founders got the idea from the work of Visa's founder, Dee Hock. Hock was heralded as a visionary in his day, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg today. He realised that the problem facing payments between banks was not technological, but organizational.

When setting up Visa, it was important for Hock that Visa would not be owned by self-interested shareholders. Instead, it was the users, banks and credit unions, who "owned" Visa as a cooperative membership organisation. Ownership here did not entail the right to sell shares, but an irrevocable right of participation – to jointly decide on the rules of the game and Visa's future.

The incentive was to create a malleable but durable payment infrastructure from which all members would benefit in the long term. To work, everyone had to give something up - including their own branding on credit cards, subordinating their marks to Visa. This was a really big deal. But Hock convinced the network's initial members that the payoff would come from the new market in payment services they would create. He was right.

For most of its existence, until it went public in 2016, Visa was an anomalous creature: a for-profit, non-stock corporation based on the principle of self-organization, embodying both chaos and order. Hock even coined a term for it: "chaordic".

Libra envisions a similar collaborative organisation among the founding members of its Libra Association. But it turns Hock's principles upside down. The Libra Association is all about ownership and control by its members as a club.

Big barriers to entry
And the Libra Association is a club with very high barriers to entry. An entity has to invest at least US$10m in Libra or have more than US$1 billion in market value, among other criteria. The initial list of founding members tilts toward groups that have shown strong opposition to government interference and oversight. Tellingly, there are no regulated financial entities - like banks and fund managers - in the mix. The membership represents a self-selecting crème de la crème of global tech and vulture capitalism.

Association membership guarantees a share of future profits proportionate to a member's stake in the system. Unlike Visa, members do not compete with one another for market share. Instead, they will passively collect rent from interest made on investing in the Libra reserve basket. Plus, profits are not shared with users, and no interest is paid on the balance held by individuals.

Being a club member also affords the right to vote - again, a lot like Visa. But, unlike Visa, Libra gives voting right power based on investment level, not participation. This is not democratic; it is a plutocracy, where the wealthiest rule. And, as profits are linked solely to interest on the association's reserve funds, those managing it may well become riskier and more speculative over time.

Libra's white paper outlines an organiszation that could become a decentralized, participatory system like Hock envisioned Visa would become. But Libra, if it is successful, will likely become an undemocratic behemoth. Alarm bells ring about a global currency's de facto governance by a private, exclusive club serving the purposes of its investor-owners, not the public good.

Governments have long been suspicious of private currencies for good reasons, and Libra is no exception. We must not be distracted by its proposed technical complexity, and instead, focus on how this technology is organised, put to work, and how its rewards are distributed. The good news is that Facebook's play for money may at last prompt politicians to regulate tech giants to curb their impact on and influence over society.

Bill Maurer, Professor of Anthropology and Law, University of California, Irvine and Daniel Tischer, Lecturer in Management, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.